Jerrod Carmichael Talks The Carmichael Show, Observational Comedy, Creating Conversations, And Cosby
Jerrod Carmichael is an incredibly thoughtful comedian.
In a time when so many comics go out of their way to be funny or shocking, I found that Carmichael just wants to have a conversation with you, and maybe even debate you. Whether on the stage, on the small screen, or sitting right across from you in a studio on the 20th Century Fox lot, he’s deeper than most comics, but he still happens to be absolutely hilarious. Even in the serious, thought-provoking moments.
Whether he’s talking about the age-old conversation of whether an entertainer’s talent trumps their moral character (more on that later), Trayvon Martin, riffing about the best performances of Billie Jean available on YouTube, or trying to understand “this DM stuff all the kids are talking about,” as the 28-year-old puts it, everything he says and does has intention behind it. That includes the dialogue in his critically-acclaimed NBC sitcom, The Carmichael Show, now in its second season, which airs on Sunday nights (9 p.m. ET). A semi-autobiographical program that is, perhaps, the wokest show on television. It creates discussions about everything most shows wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. That includes race, class, sexuality, sexism, and whatever other topics people bring up that creates a conversation, sparked by a question there isn’t a definitive answer for. It’s like a beloved Norman Lear program (i.e., All in the Family, The Jeffersons) meets the golden age of Black families represented on TV. Carmichael, like many writers, says some of his deepest thoughts, which turn into observational comedy topics for the program, come about in that quiet space–which he can only find himself in during bath time.
“It’s all shower thoughts. That’s the longest part of my day and the only time I’m genuinely alone. The silence? It’s genuine,” Carmichael says. “I have a dry erase board in my shower. I put it there so I can walk over to it and jot down an idea, a fact, do a verse from a Donny Hathaway song and go back [laughs]. But the thoughts that won’t leave my mind is where the shows come from and where my standup comes from.”
And when he’s not holed up in his shower in his home in L.A. getting inspired by quiet thoughts, show topics also come about from conversations with everyone, including his co-stars, David Alan Grier, Loretta Devine, Amber Stevens West and comedians Lil Rel Howery and Tiffany Haddish. That’s why each episode plays out as a conversation between a family with a broad range of opinions, liberal, conservative and right in between. And while it’s very reminiscent of the lively discussions many of us as Black women and men have had with our family members, everyone can relate–and laugh. But if you think the show being relatable to all people means Carmichael is writing in the hopes of not alienating a certain group of folks, that’s not the case. As one reporter put it during our roundtable with Carmichael, he’s “unapologetically Black.” And Carmichael doesn’t mind that label.
“I write honestly. I write characters that I’ve met. I write words that I use. I write very honestly and if it’s unapologetically Black, it’s because I’m unapologetically Black,” Carmichael says. “It’s the truth, though. I write a truth. And there are lines in the script and phrases that probably seem like they belong on Murphy Brown. And then lines that sound like they’re from Friday, but my language reflects that. How I actually speak. There was a line they actually thought was a typo where I say, ‘Oh, come now!’ to Maxine [West], and they were like, ‘What phrasing is that?’ But I say sh-t like that all the time. It’s important to keep it honest and that the dialogue reflects everyday life–at least my everyday life.”
And Carmichael’s everyday life now is much different than his young everyday life. He was born and raised in the South. Winston-Salem, North Carolina to be specific. And like many young Black folks, he was complex.
“I grew up in the hood, if you will, and I watched Frasier. And that’s not a dual existence, it’s the same human being [laughs].”
He grew up during a time where if you said you were a Frasier fan, tried to skateboard or do anything that some would consider “outside the box,” as in, not really Black, you would get the side-eye. “Pharrell was the exception,” Carmichael says while thinking back to the producer’s skateboarding days and trucker caps while we were all wearing oversized jerseys (oh, and jersey dresses). But the great thing about the current landscape, no matter how complex, according to Carmichael, is that we’re living in a time where more and more young Black people are finally getting to be freely as outside of the box as they like, whether it’s in fashion, sexuality, our everyday interests, or our Black pride.
“It’s the first time where Black people are able to be human beings. And what I mean by that is that whatever you’re into, whatever you do, you can just do it,” Carmichael says. “I think that hopefully this show and hopefully what I represent is a whole generation of Black people who just exist and are just human beings. We still have a responsibility obviously, not to diminish the responsibility, but it’s to play into us just really being ourselves.”
He continues, “Pharrell was such an exception, and then I moved to Los Angeles and became friends with like Tyler, the Creator, and the Odd Future guys, and here, skateboarding is the norm. And now I’m the exception because I don’t skateboard. But who we are is whoever we want to be, and I think we’re finally able to embrace that.”
And with that in mind, there’s no better time for a show that is all about considering all kinds of opinions and stances, again, even the outside of the box ones, and laughing at them. And then honestly thinking about them. And that’s what The Carmichael Show is all about.
“Anything that highlights an internal struggle, anything that highlights a challenge, I lean and go directly toward unanswerable questions or things that are really difficult to answer,” Carmichael says. “It’s exciting. It keeps you awake. It keeps you awake as a listener, and it keeps you awake as a writer.”
And those internal struggles include why we feel so comfortable thrusting gender roles on one another even in 2016; the way we all make assumptions about people, like a Muslim couple who just happens to move in next door (which is the topic of tonight’s episode); and why we pick and choose when it comes to celebrities and whether or not we can move past their transgressions because they’re so damn talented. That was the root question behind the widely-discussed Cosby episode, titled, “Fallen Heroes.”
Carmichael, who says he knows Cosby (and even stolen a quarter from the comedian’s home as a keepsake of one of their first correspondences, which is another story for another day), says he wanted to make an episode that any and everyone could watch and converse about.
“I wanted Bill Cosby to be able to watch the episode,” Carmichael says, “and I wanted one of the accusers to be able to watch the episode.”
And it definitely left people talking and having moments of introspection. Including the cast.
“My biggest idol is Jimi Hendrix, ever since I was a little boy,” said Grier, who plays the patriarch of the Carmichael family, Joe. “I remember talking to a guy in Chicago who said, ‘Well you know Jimi used to pimp his girlfriend.’ I’d never heard this. And there was a part of me that compartmentalized that. ‘You mean JJ Hendrix? Maybe they had an open relationship with money?’ So to be honest, it’s a case-by-case basis. There are people who are vehement racists and said racist things, and I’ve got to let them go. But there are other people who, I listen to them play, but I don’t listen to them talk. I don’t have a hard-fast rule. But if your behavior and beliefs as an artist and artist I love and follow becomes so abhorrent, I’m not down with you anymore.”
(To be clear, Grier’s stance on Cosby is this: “If one person tells you, ‘David strangled a baby,’ doubt it. But if it’s 50-plus? And they’re coming out the woodwork every day? You start to ask things. So that’s what I think.”)
“This show, it teaches people so much,” says Devine, who plays the matriarch of the Carmichael family, Cynthia. “It makes you ask yourself questions. People forgive all kind of bad behavior because someone has talent. It does make you think, ‘What does that say about me as a person?’”
And then there’s Howery, who plays Bobby, the eldest child in the Carmichael family. The comedian said the accusations against Cosby were “a conversation comics were having at diners late at night” for years before sh-t hit the fan.
“What made Richard Pryor a genius is that he was able to show imperfection,” Howery said. “You cannot display yourself as being the perfect person. You do that, and you’re in for big trouble. When you’re okay with the perfect image, and you know you’re not living right? That’s crazy. But Cosby was a genius when you think about how dope he was for television. He produced, he wrote, he had so much power over that show and other shows, which is why we pose the question during the show of morals vs. talent. We pick and choose.”
However you feel about Bill Cosby, about the morals vs. talent discussion, or any other hot-button issue, it’s a conversation we’ve all had, and that Carmichael is glad his program helps to bring about. He wants to go there. To the places and conversations we’ve rarely had with anyone other than family or good friends, and now we’re having them together as the viewing public.
“I believe my job as a comedian, when I think of a comedian, is to lean into what Mark Twain did,” Carmichael says. “We are part philosophers. We’re humorous. It’s satire. It’s observations on modern society and modern culture. So it’s my job to challenge and bring up those things. And even those things that seem so shocking are done with the biggest intention behind it. My intention with standup, with the show, with films, with anything I do, almost as overzealous of a job as it sounds, is to contribute to expanding consciousness. It’s genuine what I think I’m here for. And everything is to take a boundary, and if I could just move it an inch, then I think I’ve done my job.”
Check out The Carmichael Show on NBC at 9 p..m. ET on Sunday nights.