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The Carmichael Show refuses to play it safe: Behind the scenes of the Bill Cosby episode
by Dan Snierson •
March 13 2016
The “very special episode” got a very special update late last month, as black-ish impressed with a resonant installment in which Anthony Anderson’s Dre and Tracee Ellis Ross’ Bow sat their kids down for a frank talk about police brutality and race relations. The ABC series has shown that it can frame a meaningful conversation around a complicated topic, and it’s not the only network family comedy finding truth and humor in charged, thorny spaces. In fact, before black-ish turned its eye to the Black Lives Matter movement and gun control this season, NBC’s The Carmichael Show took on both issues with bold, thoughtful aplomb. And judging from a recent visit to Carmichael’s L.A. set, it’s fair to say that beliefs will continue to be challenged and holds will not be barred in season 2.
As the cameras roll on this late-January night, the first laugh is the toughest. There’s a slight gasp. People glance around with wide eyes, as if seeking permission to chuckle. Then they give in to the punchline. As the laughter surges with each edgy joke (“Joe has some good points about the judicial system, but Maxine has made some good points about how rape is bad”), Carmichael is once again pushing the right (hot) buttons.
Of course, these buttons may be extra sensitive, given that they pertain to Bill Cosby, the once-revered comedian accused of sexually assaulting more than 50 women. (Cosby has denied any wrongdoing.) The cast of the second-year multi-camera sitcom — inspired by the life and laid-back yet sharp stand-up of 28-year-old Jerrod Carmichael—is filming an episode whose jokes have gone through countless drafts and almost as many lawyers. Airing Mar. 13 at 9 p.m., “Fallen Heroes” begins with our easy-going, presumptuous protagonist Jerrod (Carmichael) surprising his therapist-in-training girlfriend, Maxine (Amber Stevens West), with tickets to a Cosby gig, much to her disgust. (“The ironic part is that you would have to knock me unconscious to make me go see Bill Cosby,” she quips.) Soon enough, Jerrod’s family — including dogmatic dad Joe (David Alan Grier), God-fearing mom Cynthia (Loretta Devine), coddled brother Bobby (Lil Rel Howery), and Bobby’s brash ex Nekeisha (Tiffany Haddish) — are neck-deep in spirited debate about trying to separate the art from the artist and the perils of celebrity worship. “The best thing your heroes can do for you,” declares Joe, “is die before they have a chance to disappoint you.”
The jokes are deployed with equal parts fearlessness and care (and weave into the conversation plenty of other controversial artists, such as Michael Jackson to Woody Allen). During one take, Carmichael has trouble with the line, “You can be anti-domestic violence and be pro-tortured musician, the same way I can be anti-sexual assault and pro-great comedian,” accidentally substituting “domestic abuse” for “domestic violence.” “If you make a legal accusation,” he says while the cameras reload, “you’ve got to use the right terms.”
Carmichael & Co. are navigating tough terrain here, but in just a short time they’ve proved they have the tools for such exploration. An under-the-radar success in a six-episode run last summer, The Carmichael Show pleased critics with its deft, untidy, evenhanded, and, yes, humorous examination of issues like religion, race, and gender identity. Its star — who grew up as a fan of The Cosby Show and Norman Lear’s ‘70s sitcoms — sees the series as being less about issue-oriented sensationalism and more about reflecting honest conversations, which is why he has no desire to traffic in Whuh-oh, I’ve got two dates on the same night! plots. “I’m always interested in gray areas where it’s not so easy and clear,” he says of his show (whose co-creators include Forgetting Sarah Marshall director Nicholas Stoller). “I’m listening for the perspective that I don’t hear said in a public space. When we talk to our parents and friends, it’s a lot of unlikable perspective, and very real things are said. But in the sitcom mold, a lot of times people ignore that or write around it. My instinct is to go directly to it. It’s like, ‘No, you go toward the tension, and then you build the reaction around that.’ ”
“If we feel a little bit uncomfortable and nervous, we know we’re doing the right story,” says Carmichael showrunner Danielle Sanchez-Witzel. “There are things in life that don’t end well, and we like to tackle those subjects and show how this family deals with it, because that’s what’s relatable and that’s where comedy comes from: the mess of life.” (The producers have even tapped UCLA sociology and American Studies professor Darnell Hunt as a technical consultant to read scripts and make sure that all points of views are fairly represented.)
So what was the initial reaction from NBC — the network that was home to several Cosby series, including The Cosby Show — when pitched an episode involving the Cosby scandal? “To put it in its truest and simplest form: ‘No,’ ” deadpans Carmichael. He decided to write it anyway (“It’s a bigger story,” he notes. “This is the right-now version of it. There’s never a year or a month that we couldn’t have done this story”) and NBC was persuaded to reverse course. “I expected the trepidation on it,” he says, “but I didn’t think that we wouldn’t do the episode because I knew it was an important episode of television.” (“Jerrod’s comedy and the storylines for his show are meant to be funny but also provocative and sometimes even challenging,” said NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke told EW when Carmichael first revealed the subject matter of this episode. “We embrace this, and we’re proud to be in business with him.”) Co-executive producer Mike Scully, who penned “Fallen Heroes” with Carmichael, was slightly less optimistic than his writing partner that about this script coming to fruition. “I honestly didn’t think there was a chance in hell this would get on television,” he says. “They could’ve very easily played it safe, and I would’ve understood 100 percent why. But we took the opportunity we were given responsibly, and hopefully that’s reflected when you watch it. And it shows people that you don’t have to run to cable to get an interesting opinion.”
Carmichael should have plenty of those this season, as future episodes unpack such subjects as Islamophobia and gentrification. (“We’re really driven by emotions and feelings, by what we are not agreeing on, and not by what’s in the news,” says Sanchez-Witzel.) But right now, Carmichael himself is eager to hear one particular opinion of “Fallen Heroes”: America’s. “I want to sit with random families and watch it with them,” he tells Scully during a break in shooting the episode while giving him a grateful hug. Decompressing in his Spartan dressing room after the taping, Carmichael is asked what he’ll do when he gets home tonight. “Write some more,” he responds. “It’s all about the next episode, right? Who cares about the last one? They already turned the lights off. They’re like, ‘What are we going to turn the lights back on for?’ ” Then he offers a megawatt smile before disappearing into the night to plot that next first laugh.