Emmy-Nominated Comedy Producer John Irwin Reveals the Art to Taping a Live Performance

·8-min read

John Irwin has produced dozens of stand-up comedy specials for stars including Norm Macdonald, John Mulaney, Hannah Gadsby and Adam Sandler.

Irwin Entertainment, which he founded in 2004, is currently up for an Emmy for Netflix’s “Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special” and was previously nominated for Netflix’s “Hannah Gadsby: Douglas.”

Irwin got his start popping popcorn for “Saturday Night Live” honcho Lorne Michaels in 1990, the year that Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, David Spade and Chris Rock joined the show. Those connections helped form the foundation of his own comedy career as an in-demand producer. So, he has a lot of experience getting the best out of talent in live productions.

“I’ve really learned over the years, there is an art to it,” Irwin told TheWrap for this week’s Office With a View. “You’re creating a real environment. You want that perfect vibe for both the audience and the comic, because comics feed off the audience, so much that when you have a bad audience, man, it hurts. Because the comic feels the energy and then he or she plays off it.”

Irwin Entertainment has branched out from comedy to producing such diverse fare as Shakira’s “Dancing With Myself” and “A Little Late With Lilly Singh” for NBC and “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew” and “Sober House” on VH1. In February, Irwin Entertainment hired Eli Frankel (formerly of CBS and Magical Elves) as president of production and development and the company is also getting into documentaries and crime docuseries.

Irwin spoke to TheWrap about how important it is to make sure the client is always happy. “I’m always very hands-on with every project and my mantra here is, ‘Nothing goes out the door that we are not super proud of.’ I like to think that all of our stuff is really premium, kind of soup to nuts. From content to the way it’s shot and edited. We take it all seriously. It’s not about just churning out widgets. We really try to put something special in every show,” he said.

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You’ve done 12 comedy specials this year alone.
It’s actually 18. I was just counting. I think the proliferation is definitely related to the fact that now everyone’s getting back out there [after the COVID shutdown].

When did you begin producing? 
I worked with Lorne Michaels in different fashions for about 15 years prior to starting my own company. During that time with Lorne, I started over at Broadway Video, doing all of these live event comedy shows. I worked on “Def Comedy Jam” and then Paul Simon’s Central Park concert, and worked with Adam McKay producing his first film that he directed with Conan O’Brien. All of this was this amazing training ground to work with all of these amazing people.

What details go into producing a comedy special?
It’s so many things, like the temperature in the room, the music that’s playing when the audience is loading and how much time the warmup spends out on stage prior to bringing out the comic. There’s a lot that goes into it. To get in the right spot, and also, a lot of it is really understanding what the comic wants, what their vibe is. They’re about to go out there and do an hour of material that they’ve been working on… Some of these people have been working on this stuff for years. So, as you can imagine, even though they’ve been on tour and they’ve done it a million times, they’re always a little bit nervous. A lot of it is about making them feel as comfortable and safe as possible. So when they walk out there, they’re ready to crush it.

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You’ve worked with so many people who became famous comics at “SNL.” Was that your cachet in comedy?
The comedy community is a very small world, and I certainly brush shoulders with almost everybody to a certain extent. And also, there’s word of mouth. The more shows you do well, the more shows come to you. I always tell the gang, ‘We’re only as good as our last show.’ Nothing falls through the cracks. Nothing gets phoned-in. The reason I have been so lucky to work with so much A talent is because there’s a level of trust, and they know that they’re gonna get a premium product.

You’re up for an Emmy for producing Norm Macdonald’s posthumous special “Nothing Special.” What did you add to what he had already taped?
I’ve done his previous two specials. I wasn’t aware that he was ill. We were actually looking at venues [to tape the special]. I think he knew that he possibly wasn’t going to make it and so he recorded his special into the camera on his iMac. He made it really easy, because he recorded, directed and shot it all himself. We did sit down with Netflix and Lori Jo Hoekstra, who was an executive producer on the show, and talked about what we could do to honor this work of art. That’s where the idea for bringing together some of his friends and shooting a piece came from. All we really did on [the special itself] was to color mix it. He did it without a flub. It’s incredible.

Are there any innovations you brought to producing stand-up specials or live events?
One thing we started doing very early on is there will always be a head-to-toe shot. And that shot is on camera sticks, and it’s static. We put that shot on a dolly track. It’s now about 12 feet long, and that dolly is just moving back and forth, ever so slightly. So now you’re seeing the backs of heads, you’re seeing the comic up there. Most people at home, I would venture, don’t even notice the camera’s moving. But it’s bringing energy to the performance, so it’s almost a subliminal thing. it also elevates it, [and gives us] a cinematic vibe.

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We’ve started putting cameras on sliders on the side and using a reverse jib, all of these sorts of nuances. The other tricky thing about stand-up is, it’s all about this person standing on stage, so you have to be really careful, especially with the camera movement and the directing. You don’t want to do anything that takes away from the person telling the joke. As a viewer at home, I should just be on a tight shot of the comic to really be connected to the joke. So if you start cutting all over the place or move too much with the camera, that starts to distract from what’s coming out of that person’s mouth. There’s a very subtle line to walk.

What are some of the new trends you’re seeing in comedy specials?
There’s always an evolution. For example, 10 years ago, you’d watch a stand-up special and there would be audience cutaways. You don’t see that anymore. The audience is now always in relation to the comic. We want to make these things look like they’re happening in front of our faces. Most people have stopped cutting away. That was a nuance that always felt a little bit cheated and now with the way we’re shooting, so many of the shots have so much of the audience in them. You still feel the audience.

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What’s the key to your success? 
The key to our success here is we’re not turning out widgets. Nothing goes out the door that we’re not super proud of. I try to keep everything at a premium level. I’m always striving to make each one of these feel as cinematic as possible, as if they were going to be a theatrical release.

A big part of my job is getting in sync with the talent and making sure that we are realizing exactly what they want and making them feel like they have nothing to worry about except for the content. They’re gonna show up on the day and be able to walk out there and not be thinking about any of the other BS. It’s creating, from the lighting to set to the camera placement. I think we do it at a very high level. And that comes from experience. I’ve probably done over 100 shows in my day. I can almost anticipate just about anything at this point. If something comes up. I usually have a really quick answer and a quick solve or whatever. The whole idea is not only for the talent to end up with an amazing show, but for the experience to have been great as well.

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