John Irwin has produced dozens of comedy specials for stars such as 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 started making popcorn for “Saturday Night Live” honcho Lorne Michaels in 1990, the year Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, David Spade and Chris Rock joined the show. These relationships helped lay the foundation for his own acting career as an in-demand producer. So he has a lot of experience in getting the most out of talent in live productions.
“I’ve really learned over the years, it’s an art,” Irwin told TheWrap for this week’s Office With a View. “You create a real environment. You want that perfect vibe for both the audience and the comic, because comics feed off the audience, so much so that when you have a bad audience, man, it hurts. Because the comedian feels the energy and then he or she plays it.
Irwin Entertainment has gone from comedy to producing fare as varied 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 branching out into documentaries and crime docuseries.
Irwin told TheWrap how important it is to make sure the customer is always satisfied. “I’m always very involved in every project and my mantra here is, ‘Nothing comes out that we’re not very proud of.’ I like to think that all of our stuff is really top notch, kind of a nut soup. From the content to the way it’s shot and edited. We take it all seriously. It’s not just about creating 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 tied to the fact that now everyone is coming back there [after the COVID shutdown].
When did you start producing?
I worked with Lorne Michaels in different modes for about 15 years before starting my own business. During that time with Lorne, I started on Broadway Video again, doing all these live comedy shows. I worked on “Def Comedy Jam”, then on the Paul Simon concert in Central Park, and I worked with Adam McKay to produce his first film which he directed with Conan O’Brien. It was all this amazing training ground to work with all these amazing people.
What details go into producing a comedy special?
There are so many things, like the temperature in the room, the music that plays when the audience charges, and how long the warm-up is on stage before the comic comes out. There is a lot to do. To arrive at the right place, and also, it is largely a question of understanding what the comic wants, what is his atmosphere. They’re about to go over 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 done it a million times, they’re still a little nervous. A lot of it is about making them feel as comfortable and safe as possible. So when they walk there, they are ready to crush it.
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You worked with so many people who became famous comics at “SNL.” Was that your hallmark in comedy?
The comedy community is a very small world, and I certainly rub shoulders with almost everyone to some degree. And then there is word of mouth. The more good shows you put on, 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 is phoned. The reason I’ve been so lucky to work with so many A-talents is because there’s a level of trust, and they know they’re going to get a top-notch product.
You’re up for an Emmy for producing Norm Macdonald’s posthumous “Nothing Special.” What did you add to what he had already recorded?
I did his two previous specials. I didn’t know he was sick. We were actually looking for places [to tape the special]. I think he knew he might not make it and so he recorded his special in his iMac’s camera. He made it really easy, because he recorded, directed and shot everything himself. We sat down with Netflix and Lori Jo Hoekstra, who was executive producer on the show, and discussed what we could do to honor this work of art. This is where the idea of bringing together some of his friends and shooting a play came from. All we’ve really done [the special itself] was to color the mix. He did it without fail. It’s incredible.
Are there any innovations you have made to the production of stand-up specials or live events?
One thing that we started doing early on is that there will always be a head-to-toe shot. And this shot is on camera sticks, and it’s static. We put this plan on a cart track. It is now about 12 feet long, and this cart only moves back and forth, ever so slightly. So now you see the back of the heads, you see the comic up there. Most people at home, I would say, don’t even notice the camera moving. But it brings energy to the performance, so it’s almost a subliminal thing. it also elevates it, [and gives us] cinematic atmosphere.
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We started putting cameras on sliders on the side and using an inverted arrow, all those sorts of nuances. The other tricky thing about stand-up is that it’s about that person standing on stage, so you have to be very careful, especially with camera movement and staging. You don’t want to do anything that takes away from the person telling the joke. As a viewer at home, I would just have to be on a tight comic book shot to really connect with the joke. So if you start cutting everywhere or moving too much with the camera, it starts to distract from what’s coming out of that person’s mouth. There is a very subtle line to follow.
What are some of the new trends you’re seeing in comedy specials?
There is always an evolution. For example, 10 years ago you were watching a stand-up special and there were ratings cuts. You don’t see that anymore. The public is now always in relation with the comic. We want these things to appear to be happening right before our eyes. Most people have stopped cutting. It was a nuance that always felt a bit cheated and now with the way we shoot, so many shots have so many viewers in them. You always feel the public.
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What is the key to your success?
The key to our success here is that we don’t produce widgets. Nothing comes out of which we are not very proud. I try to keep everything at a premium level. I always strive to make each one of them feel as cinematic as possible, like it’s going to be a theatrical release.
A big part of my job is to get in sync with the talent and make sure we’re doing exactly what they want and making them feel like they have nothing to worry about but the content. They will show up the same day and be able to go out without thinking about the other BS. It’s creating, from the lighting to the decor to the placement of the camera. I think we do it at a very high level. And that comes from experience. I probably did over 100 shows in my day. I can almost anticipate just about anything at this point. If anything comes up. I usually have a very quick response and a quick fix or whatever. The idea is not only that the talent ends up with an incredible show, but that the experience was also great.
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