The idea of regularly tuning into a late-night public access show could cause some to raise their eyebrows, but rest assured MNN’s weekly comedy/variety show The Special Without Brett Davis, which replaced The Chris Gethard Show upon its move to the Fusion network, is nothing boring. Unless it’s trying to be.
The show’s host Brett Davis (or rather, the many wig-wearing characters he inhabits) is a comedian who invests as much time into structured shows and detailed characters as he does ridiculous spectacle and oddities. This combination can lead to unusual outcomes: one of the most viewed clips of his show is one where a cast member is wearing a diaper as a spontaneous joke, made popular not because of its absurd humor but due to the adult diaper fetishists who have watched it. When performing as a wrestler character duo with The Special regular Darren Mabee, Davis has both accidentally created a real brawl at a bar and been invited to perform on actual wrestling shows.
It’s not all odd surprises; lately, The Special‘s unique brand of drawn-out strangeness has welcomed decorated guests like Gilbert Gottfried, Michael Shannon, Tony-nominated actor Alex Brightman, and “amorphous” improvisational noise rock / free jazz band PC Worship.
Ahead of his live Planned Parenthood benefit show The Special Event this Thursday, we caught up with Davis about how his show has changed, what goes into making it, having to perform the night after the election, and more.
When there’s so much short-form video content swirling around the internet, what is appealing to you about an hourlong format?
I think I’ve never fit into a short-form thing. I’ve always thought of my comedy as like, a slow burn? Every now and then they have these industry things where it’s like, you get three minutes to do ten characters and show us what you got! That doesn’t work for me. I don’t think my characters are necessarily a great [way to] check out my acting abilities. They’re more these studies, and sometimes the jokes don’t reveal themselves until five minutes into the bit. It’s never an issue of filling the hour, it’s always we have more stuff than we can [fit].
You’ve done 70 or so episodes now. How have you seen the show change since its inception?
I think it’s gotten looser. We had a very simple formula that we stuck to for the first 10-20 [episodes], there’d be a character that would come out, they’d talk for ten minutes, the we’d establish a story, we’d thrown in other people, then we’d have a band, we’d have a video, we’d have Act 2 of the story, the band plays again, we’d have Act 3. Now every week is a different format and just a different way we tackle it. That’s been fun. How is a morning chat show structured as opposed to a dating show? Just playing around with those tropes.
Like for your Halloween show, the structure was that you were telling three stories.
I don’t think we’ve ever done that before. And it was such a rush. Not as in, “Wow, that was such a rush!” In the way that this is so fucking hard, why did we do this? It’s a lot of experimenting.
Normally the audience sits onstage, right?
That show, everybody was dressed up because it was Halloween so we were just sticking clown noses on people. Usually we like to have the audience on set. Sometimes we’ll hide a character in there and midway through they’ll stand up. Also we bring up the audience members and say, you’re part of the show now. There was one [where] we were doing a courtroom thing and we pulled someone up and were like, oh, you’re the stenographer now, and kept asking her to repeat things. She was… Not into it. [It’s] very interactive, I guess.
How much of The Special is scripted versus improv?
It depends on the episode. Most weeks, we usually have the beats of the story plotted out. If we think of a really funny line we make sure that’s in the rundown. Most of the time I’m asking people that I totally trust to do that role in the show, and as long as they know the direction they have to head in, it tends to works out.
And you work with a lot of the same people on the show, right?
Yeah. It’s a different cast every week, but I try to bring the same people back, so it’s like, oh, that’s the same person who was a clown two weeks ago, who was also a dead person two weeks before that.
Right, because it’s so easy to fall into the trap of making things with your friends, for your friends.
And the [Halloween episode] was a little bit of that. It was kind of meta and self-referential. But I think working with people I’m not super close with leads to interesting results too, you gotta be on your game a little more.
In your “Smith at the DNC” episode, your character Smith (a conspiracy talk show host) said, “Enthusiasm is the pipe bomb of the DNC.” Looking at that now is pretty sad…
That’s on me. I mean, obviously I wasn’t speaking as myself but that was weird because that episode was planned to be very different and then I lost my camera crew. Now I was like, this guy with a cell phone on a selfie stick walking up to people. I wasn’t too satisfied on how that came out because I didn’t have anything to plan and I was just running around an arena. But we did the follow-up to that on Wednesday in the post-election hangover. That was interesting.
Wow, yeah, that was just one day afterward.
I woke up and was like, there’s no way I’m doing a show. [But] I came up with this idea, we call it “Truth Or Myth With Smith,” and there’s a “Truth or Myth” [prompt]. 9/11, for example, and everyone is like, Myth. So [November 9th’s show was] Truth or Myth: Is This Real? So you’re kind of speaking as yourself. But I made the one rule that instead of saying Hillary Clinton you have to say Gary Johnson, because the character is a Libertarian guy, and instead of saying woman you say Libertarian. I thought it would be a not-funny episode, but it got very silly because everyone had a different truth or myth answer: this is a simulation preparing us for the worst, this is the rapture, this is a nightmare… It turned out to be a really cathartic night. It was the only hour I’d been happy in those first few days.
Thursday’s live show is a benefit for Planned Parenthood. Was it always that?
That was after [the election]. I mean, it was going to be a benefit show for The Special, but that kind of felt gross. I was like, what would make me feel a little less gross? And I want to do a good thing. I think everybody kind of feels a little helpless, but there are little things you can do here and there.
Is this going to be a live version of the show, or a showcase of people who work on the show a lot?
A showcase of the performers that we have [and] some special guests. It’ll be characters from the show popping in, maybe a little primer if someone hasn’t seen the show. The show has these big arcs you can follow through these 70 episodes, so we’ll maybe establish those, but mostly it’ll be a stand-up show with characters. I would stand by the The Special Event show as [featuring] all of my favorite people. I feel very confident that it will be a great show just by who’s booked on it.
We’ve got Colin Burgess, he does a lot of bits where he’ll start off onstage and FaceTime and walk out of the building. There was a Christmas show we did where he said he was going to go Christmas caroling. He had somebody follow him out with a camera and you see him leave the building and go into this restaurant to carol for [them]. I’d see people get up and leave, and I’m like, it sucks that they’re leaving the show, and you’d see them pop up onscreen. Then it would be this running bit where more and more people wound up there. He’s really great.
Lorelei [Ramirez] is the craziest, funniest person. She harnesses such dark themes but still manages to be really silly. She’ll be something huge someday. There’s Joe Pera, he’s a genius. Jo Firestone, my favorite person in the world, goes without saying. The funniest.
Ike Ufomadu, he’s incredible. He was on that Truth Or Myth episode, and he just pulls these things out of nowhere. So deliberate, slow, there’s no punchlines or anything.
Steve Whalen, Mr. Jokes, is our announcer. I saw him a few years ago and he just seemed like a man out of time. You’re like, is this a bit? No, not a bit at all, this is just who he is. As I got to know him, he’s such a jokesman. Seinfeld says he sits every day for an hour and writes. Sure, whatever. Steve Whalen really does that. When we do our show, a lot of the time we’re asking a lot of the audience. First, the show takes place in the apocalypse; everyone in the show gets murdered, including the audience. But here’s this friendly uncle character who can tell you some jokes. I think he does a good job of that.
Brett Davis’s The Special Event is happening at 7 pm on Thursday, November 17 at Villain, 50 N 3rd St, Williamsburg. Tickets are $8, all proceeds go to Planned Parenthood. The Special Without Brett Davis airs every Wednesday at 11 pm on MNN.org.