Interview: Drew Michael

Drew Michael is one of my favorite standups in the city, his incisive, thoughtful point of view could lapse into shameless provocation if he wasn't also incredibly funny. I Might Be Wrong, his new podcast, is an extension of his onstage explorations of taboos, morality, and his own personal idiosyncrasies. I talked to Drew about the show, as well as the acclaimed Comedians You Should Know showcase he co-produces, and his plans for the future (he's planning on moving sooner than later). I Might Be Wrong is available now on iTunes, you can read more about the show and check out his endless tour dates on his website.

The Steamroller: The thing that immediately struck me about the podcast is how minimal it is. There's no theme song, no distinct segments, there wasn't even an official title until after the first couple episodes were recorded, just you exploring a few themes or concepts each episode, pursuing each idea to it's logical conclusion. Am I wrong in assuming the show's format is a deliberate, aesthetic choice as a sort of extension of your voice as a performer?

Drew Michael: Exactly. In fact, I might even say that it's the other way around: the thorough, long-winded exhaustion of a topic is probably my natural mode of exploration or expression, whereas the stage act is stripped to its essentials so it's deliverable in a live atmosphere. Live audiences tend to respond poorly to lapses, pauses, gaffs, or any other reminder of the flaws inherent in the human condition.
Most of my material comes from long discussions I've had with friends (or myself) and I have to select the best, most articulate nuggets of those discussions and organize them and write them for the stage. The podcast sort of allows me to vocalize that initial discussion more freely. It also allows me to do something weird or silly that might not fit in my act.

As far as the minimalism is concerned, that's a result of me just wanting to get the thoughts out as quickly as possible. Record and publish. I may add a theme song or something or other, but I would hope that's not why people are listening. I always want my work to be about the content and ideas above all else.

TS: Do you plan on straying at all from the show's current format? Can you picture having guests on the show for a sort of one-on-one or roundtable conversation?

DM: I've always seen myself doing a one-person podcast as I have thus far. I'm not interested in talking to comedians about comedy. There is enough of that. I don't even want to talk about comedy, really, unless I can extrapolate on a point and relate it to something more universal. Even though I'm talking to myself, I'm really drawing from conversations I've had with others and things I've experienced, recently or in the past, so hopefully it's not too solipsistic. I'm really interested in exploring life this way and hopefully it creates an honest and compelling narrative for the people who listen.

If I interviewed people or had guests on, they would serve a very specific purpose. That is, they would help illustrate or supplement a thought process I had previously explored. For example, I want to interview a pedophile. I want to sit down with a person who admits (perhaps anonymously) that they are sexually attracted to children and just ask him what it's like. Does he understand the societal response to his desires? Is it difficult to manage? Is it scary? That sort of thing. Just humanize something that we all instinctually regard as abhorrent or evil.

I do a lot of that on stage as well, as I have a bit that basically puts the audience in the shoes of a pedophile and basically asks them, "What would you do?" That stuff is always interesting to me. I like raising questions that people might not normally ask and just see the response to it, especially my own.

Some people think I'm trying to shock or offend; I'm not. It's just that those types of questions or that line of thinking can, by definition, break certain boundaries so people can become uncomfortable. It's like you are granting yourself access to closed-off parts of their emotional fortress.

TS: Are you much of a podcast listener? If so, which shows are you a fan of?

DM: I don't really listen to podcasts. I have heard a few episodes of WTF and Bill Burr's Monday Morning Podcast, as well as a few local podcasts (Marty DeRosa's Wrestling With Depression is really good), but I am by no means a regular listener of any of them. I've heard maybe twelve podcast episodes total in my life. I kind of like that I don't have much of a reference for them as it allows me to just do my own thing from scratch, rather than build it from components of other things that I've heard.

It makes me wish I watched less stand up and other TV when I was younger. I should have read more. But reading doesn't numb your crippling inner monologue all that effectively; reading just gives it a better vocabulary and a wider array of ideas so you can criticize yourself more scathingly and articulately.

TS: Comedians You Should Know recently celebrated its fifth anniversary, what have you learned from producing such a well-loved, popular showcase for this long?

DM: What have I learned? Jesus. That's five years of experience in a paragraph. You ask too much.

I've learned a countless number of things about the logistics and specifics that go into running a show: booking, promotion, marketing, nuts and bolts of show day, etc. But, more broadly, and possibly importantly, I've learned how to work with others. I've learned how to let certain things go to the benefit of the group at large. I used to be such a prick about things. (I still am a prick I think, but hopefully a much more tolerable one.) If everything wasn't exactly the way I wanted it, I'd make life hell for everyone around me. I'm really vocal and I tend to not give a shit about anything but being heard. I learned that, a lot of the time, that just doesn't work. I either get my way and everyone resents me, or I don't and I resent them for "doing it wrong."

Over the past few years, I've learned that when you get to that point of contention, sometimes you just say, "Okay," and let it go with the tide of the group and embrace it. Work as hard on that idea as if it were your own. You might disagree with it, and that's fine, but it creates a much better atmosphere for everyone which, in the end, makes the project/group/show better. Also, you might learn that you were wrong in the first place. That's something I've opened myself up to, albeit slowly, which then played a part in naming the podcast.

TS: You've performed at clubs and festivals all over the country. What are some of your favorite places to perform outside of Chicago?

DM: There are so many good venues. The two best clubs I've played on the road are Acme Comedy Co. in Minneapolis, MN and Comedy Club on State in Madison, WI. Those two just knock it out of the park in every way. They make it look so simple that you ask yourself, "Why the fuck can't every other club figure it out?"

Midwest cities all seem to now have at least one rock venue that showcases comedy. (The Firebird in St. Louis, MO; the Grog Shop in Cleveland, OH, etc.) Those are always fun to play. The other place I'll mention is the Lakeshore Theater because technically it's not in Chicago; it's in heaven.

TS: Are there are cities or rooms that have surprised you in the past?

DM: Sometimes places can surprise you, definitely. We did a show in Hobart, IN a few years ago. (By "we," I mean Comedians You Should Know.) Hobart is a conservative small town in northwest Indiana. The show was in this 400-person theater. Classic recipe for disaster. We showed up and the place was packed and they were one of the best audiences I can remember playing for. They loved us. We hung out afterward and it was clear the audience didn't necessarily share our points of view, but they sure as fuck enjoyed them.

It goes the other way, too. Sometimes crowds in the "hippest" areas can be the most closed-minded. Some people feel like if the material doesn't coincide 100% with their worldview then they're not supposed to enjoy it. They'll "take a stance" by clamming up. Often it's the supposed "free-thinkers." It's somewhat counter-intuitive.

TS: Do you have any other goals in mind this year? Any plans to record an album or work on other projects?

DM: This is always one of those questions that I hate answering. Not because it's a bad question, but because I generally don't think about distant goals concretely until they are in front of me, so I pretentiously putter around a vague semblance of a response. My biggest goal is super broad: to get better. That isn't limited to comedy, but to all aspects of life. I want to be a better person, a smarter person, a better writer, a better performer, a more helpful friend, a more open individual, a more in-touch human, and all the rest. I know that doesn't make for great interview material but that's really how I look at it. I know I definitely do not want to die anytime soon. (See, I told you: annoyingly pretentious.)

Tangibly, of course there are things I want to do. I generally don't go after something unless it "feels right." For example, this podcast idea had been kicking around in my head for a few years, but I never pulled the trigger until recently because I finally felt that it was time. I want to record an album, and will do so when the time is right. I have the concept for it as well as most of the material. I have a script for a movie that actually incorporates a full-length stand-up set into the narrative itself that I would love to make, but that might be resource-unfeasible at the moment. We'll see.

I'm going to keep doing stand-up, obviously. I try to do 400 sets a year. I try to get into new clubs, create new opportunities. Write new material always. I'm on the road a lot now. I'm working a club or doing a festival basically every week. I'm going out to New York and L.A. in the Spring to explore options out there. I'm starting to feel that I'm asymptotically approaching the ceiling here in Chicago, which is inevitable. I'm honestly in love with Chicago, and I've been extremely fortunate and grateful for my time here, but I'll probably move to a coast this year.