Neal Marshall wasn't thrilled.
About 15 minutes before showtime he walked to the lip of the stage, put his hands on his hips, held his body in a dejected slouch and stared out into the Vic Theatre. He had done this many times, in many theaters: As executive producer of dozens of stand-up comedy TV specials, he liked being first onstage, to read the temperature of the room, to gauge the energy level. This was a Saturday night in late January, and the audience was still settling into its seats, peeling off winter layers. But already Marshall was not smiling.
Or scowling, exactly.
But if you'd been there and glanced up a few moments before the show began and noticed an older man with graying hair pacing the stage, it was hard not to recognize a look of disappointment on his face. Here he was shooting a Comedy Central special with one of the smartest young comedians in America, Hannibal Buress; it was the first of two sold-out shows that night (an hourlong version airs Saturday); and Buress, a Chicago native, was playing to a hometown crowd — all good.
Yet something was off.
"I have been doing this for 350 years, so I could feel it in my feet," he said later. "No buzz."
He would know.
To understand the machinations of a genre as seemingly artless, straightforward and ubiquitous as the stand-up comedy TV special — to understand why the format has remained so durable, and relatively unchanging, for five decades — you need to start with a guy like Neal Marshall. He is among the handful of producers, directors and crew who make up what one TV executive called "the longtime stand-up TV special ecosystem." His first TV stand-up special was with Redd Foxx in the late 1960s; later, he worked on stand-up specials featuring Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Buddy Hackett; more recently, he's played executive producer to a new generation, from Al Madrigal and Carlos Mencia to Kumail Nanjiani and Katt Williams.
He's been at this for so long, he's watched HBO virtually create the stand-up TV formula in the 1970s — a stand-up, a stage, a colorful backdrop, a few fixed cameras, an elaborate boom shot, a live audience — then seen the format develop into a staple for Comedy Central, where stand-up now makes up roughly 15 percent of its schedule. He's watched the genre evolve glacially and seen production budgets go from peanuts to, well, pricier peanuts — mid-six figures or more. But he understands, ultimately, the genre is a slave to a comedian's material: "That old thing about putting lipstick on a pig? I've seen it happen. Five minutes in, you're looking at guys in the control room, knowing it's ugly."
On that night in January, though, his concern was the audience.
He left the stage, trudged to a makeshift control room in the basement, sat beside director Marcus Raboy and said: "Hannibal's going to work for this one."
Two days earlier, Buress sat in the lobby of his Loop hotel, going over his game plan. I explained that I wanted to understand how a stand-up TV special works — that nothing as effortless-looking as a stand-up special can be as easy to make as it appears.
Buress, 31, with his casually cool, deceptively laconic air, nodded: "So here's where a stand-up special begins. Touring, that's how you prepare. It's been two years since my last Comedy Central special, so you write new material, then you tour with it. There, you hone until it's ready. Once I feel like I have a tight new hour of material, (there's) a special. Early on, with my first special, I was coming across bit by bit, joke by joke. Now I know how to pace, add detail, close off a story in a big way. Once I feel like it's different enough, that I'm different enough, it's like a time capsule of where I was at that moment."
Indeed, in the past decade, the Comedy Central stand-up special — the network has produced more than 30 since 2011 — has become for both aspiring and established comedians what the HBO special once was: a kind of talent show, a living resume. Said comedian Todd Barry, who's done three stand-up specials for Comedy Central: "It really has become something of a goal, even a milestone, for a comic. These (specials) tend to give a lot of exposure because Comedy Central tapes one then runs them a lot."
When a special works, he said, the effect should be deceptively simple. You're just watching a person speaking off the top of his head. He cited "Elephant in the Room," the late comic Patrice O'Neal's 2011 Comedy Central special, as the ideal: "Patrice wasn't winging it, but you know it's good when you can't tell what's being said in the moment and what's written." Buress himself told me: "By the time you get to the stage of the TV special, to an extent, it's just about remembering that you are onstage, to stay in the moment, and to let your body and voice convey that you are in the moment. Because by this point, I have told some of these jokes hundreds of times. You can easily slip into autopilot at basically the worst time."
Here's where Comedy Central comes in.
Generally, the network wants comics to dictate the look and feel of their own show, said Jonas Larsen, Comedy Central's senior vice president of talent and specials. It wants a relaxed entertainer, because "these specials are our pipeline for developing new talent. It's the entry point for the comic, and the viewer. It's how Amy Schumer started with us, how Nick Kroll started, Anthony Jeselnik, Daniel Tosh …" All shot stand-up specials before landing a series; Buress, who has a development deal with the network, is in that pipeline.
But form must follow function. The stage must act as a showroom.
So, the afternoon before filming, the chilly, aging Vic was slowly transforming into a jewel box. A crew member leaned out over the facade of a row of box seats, painting it the same blue as the new stage backdrop. A lighting man incrementally adjusted spotlights above the stage until every seat in the balcony was lit. A camera on a long crane rested in the wings like a grazing brontosaurus. Frank Pappalardo, an audio engineer from Downers Grove who has worked on many comedy specials (and spent a decade on the WTTW series "Soundstage"), placed microphones throughout the room, in the balconies, on the railings. Though the show is one man talking, there were 16 tracks available. Bruce Ryan, a longtime comedy-special production designer, sat behind a folding table watching pieces of gold edifice get fitted into a proscenium arch. Anne Harris, a Comedy Channel exec, stood on the floor and grinned. "Love that curtain," she said.
"Midnight blue," Marshall replied, proud.