Poster: Mr. Television
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One of Hollywood’s
fastest-rising young comics is
pushing audiences to find
humor in the darkest of places.
By JONAH WEINER (NYT Magazine)
MARCH 2, 2016
Barely four minutes into Jerrod Carmichael’s 2014 debut comedy special, ‘‘Love at the Store,’’ he makes a joke about the death of Trayvon Martin. ‘‘Money changes you,’’ Carmichael tells the audience, recounting how he recently entered his upscale apartment building wearing a hooded sweatshirt and made it through the lobby unquestioned by his doorman. ‘‘I was concerned,’’ he says. ‘‘I pay a lot of money — like, a lot of money — so that niggas in hoodies like me can’t waltz by you.’’ Addressing the doorman, he adds, ‘‘Next time, stand your ground.’’ The laughter that greets this phrase is scattered and uneasy, but Carmichael only digs in. ‘‘Really?’’ he says. ‘‘ ’Cause, like, that Trayvon [expletive] is really affecting your day to day … you wake up, have your cup of coffee, and you do this’’ — he blows a kiss — ‘‘to a picture of Trayvon. And then you start your day. Is that what you do?’’ Carmichael grins genially. ‘‘ ’Cause you don’t.’’
Carmichael has one of stand-up’s most unorthodox approaches to exploring race and class, and in building to his Martin joke, he assumes an unexpected voice: that of the race traitor. While working on ‘‘Love at the Store,’’ Carmichael argued about this bit with Spike Lee, who signed on to direct the special at his request. ‘‘I just didn’t think it was funny,’’ Lee wrote in an email, ‘‘and it was too soon to be making a joke about’’ Martin’s ‘‘coldblooded murder.’’ Carmichael — insisting that his aim was not to mock a dead teenager but to explore what it means to truly care about his death — kept it in. ‘‘I want to be a voice that challenges,’’ Carmichael told me recently.
He takes this mandate to extremes that can verge on perverse. Consider the bit, soon after the Martin joke, about how Carmichael can’t wait to grow rich enough to say ‘‘Republican things’’ out loud such as: ‘‘I don’t think people on welfare should be allowed to eat breakfast . . . which is kind of true when you think about it. Like, you’re building up your strength for what?’’ The satire and ironic distance here is sliced razor-thin; it gets thinner still when Carmichael, declaring that some people are ‘‘more important’’ than others, describes ‘‘looking at my little cousin, and you can just tell he’s gonna work at Wendy’s. Like, you could see it in his eyes: He has Wendy eyes.’’ By the time Carmichael arrives at his own account of police brutality — he was once slammed to the ground by L.A.P.D. officers, their guns drawn, because ‘‘I fit a description’’ — he is on the way to a point about how America’s racist legacy is worth accepting because, were it not for slavery, ‘‘I would be in Africa right now. Africa. Are you hearing what I’m saying to you? Like, they have AIDS there.’’ Jammed end to end with such jokes, Carmichael’s special is unrelentingly bleak — even toxic in its nihilism. And yet Carmichael remains supremely affable, speaking in a slow, honeyed voice and smiling throughout. ‘‘Your groans,’’ he tells the crowd, ‘‘will only make me go deeper.’’
At 28, Carmichael is one of Hollywood’s fastest-rising young comics, and his preoccupation in ‘‘Love at the Store’’ is black-American success: systematically thwarted, highly politicized and something he enjoys all the same. In 2011, impressed by his stand-up, the makers of ‘‘New Girl’’ asked Carmichael to test for Winston, a main character, but he turned them down, uninterested in tying himself to someone else’s sitcom. That self-assurance paid off. NBC eventually picked up his own sitcom, ‘‘The Carmichael Show,’’ and the same week that he shot ‘‘Love at the Store,’’ the hit feature comedy ‘‘Neighbors’’ — which starred Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne — arrived in multiplexes, with Carmichael in a scene-stealing role. (Initially envisioned as a white Jewish kid, the part was rewritten for him.) This month, ‘‘The Carmichael Show’’ returns for its second season; a ‘‘Neighbors’’ sequel, again featuring Carmichael, arrives in May.
The comedian Neal Brennan, a creator of ‘‘Chappelle’s Show,’’ was an early mentor. Praising the way that Carmichael’s disarming, bright-eyed delivery belies the grimness of his message, he told me that ‘‘at its best, Jerrod’s stand-up shows America/humanity at its worst — capitalist, cutthroat, cynical, narcissistic.’’ Even so, the speed of Carmichael’s ascent took him by surprise. ‘‘In 2010 or so, we got something to eat, and I explained everything that was gonna happen in his career,’’ Brennan said. ‘‘And I was right, except I mapped out way more hardship than he encountered.’’ A more recent admirer of Carmichael’s is 93-year-old Norman Lear, the man behind classic sitcoms like ‘‘All in the Family’’ and ‘‘The Jeffersons’’ and, according to Carmichael, a major influence on ‘‘The Carmichael Show.’’ Lear told me that Carmichael’s comedy ‘‘helps America look at itself in the mirror,’’ adding, ‘‘He sees the foolishness of the human condition — he understands that there is humor to be found in the darkest of places.’’
In late January, Carmichael was at his sitcom’s production offices, trying to find the humor in a particularly dark place. The week before, he taped Episode 202, in which the Carmichael family — a working-class North Carolina household modeled on his own — struggles with the tarnished legacy of Bill Cosby, the master comedian and suspect in multiple rapes. Standing in an editing room, Carmichael, who is 6-foot-1, wore a hoodie, fitted jeans and Timberland work boots. He faced a monitor as his editor, Kirk Benson, dialed up the Cosby episode’s closing minute.
‘‘I did a line off the top of my head at the very end that might ruin the entire episode,’’ Carmichael said as he watched David Alan Grier, who plays Carmichael’s father, Joe, do a virtuoso, sweet-natured impression of Cosby holding court. This cracked up the other fictional Carmichaels and elicited big laughs from the studio audience. Amid this jubilation, Jerrod smilingly interjected, ‘‘Damn shame what he did to those women, though.’’ Although the line was unscripted, Grier gamely caught Carmichael’s splash of cold water, dropping the smile from his face.
‘‘The Carmichael Show’’ is, among other things, an attempt to prove that a multicamera sitcom, in the venerable but dusty tradition of ‘‘All in the Family,’’ can command a place in the pop-cultural vanguard while attracting broad audiences. The success of series like ‘‘Empire’’ and ‘‘black-ish’’ has hammered home the fact that black-led shows need not be considered niche entertainment. Carmichael theorizes that these shows helped strengthen NBC’s resolve in supporting ‘‘The Carmichael Show,’’ which features an entirely black cast. The show’s chief selling point — besides the prodigious talents of Grier and Loretta Devine, a veteran actor who plays Jerrod’s mother — is its social relevance. Carmichael and his staff build scripts around hot-button issues, producing episodes like ‘‘Gender,’’ which involves a transgender teenager and features a cold-open riff about the drawbacks of removing Confederate flags from government buildings. ‘‘The only thing worse than racism is surprise racism,’’ Jerrod says in the show, making the case for letting the flag fly.
An excerpt from "The Carmichael Show." Video from "The Carmichael Show"
Carmichael says that, whereas ‘‘rebuttals’’ to his stand-up jokes can only be implied, on the show he and his writers are able to stage counterarguments via the other characters. The premise of Episode 202, titled ‘‘Fallen Heroes,’’ is that Jerrod scores tickets to see Cosby perform; his girlfriend, Maxine, is appalled; debates ensue. (The show’s creators solicited outside opinions on the episode, including from Judd Apatow — one of Cosby’s most prominent Hollywood critics — and Darnell Hunt, a professor of sociology and director of African-American studies at U.C.L.A., whom Carmichael brought on last year as a series consultant to help him navigate controversial issues.) Carmichael offered few details about the Cosby story line, but if one of his old stand-up bits is any indication, the results will not be milquetoast: Arguing that ‘‘talent is more important than morals,’’ Carmichael cites the abhorred 2014 ‘‘RoboCop’’ remake, deeming it so atrocious ‘‘that halfway through it, I forgave Woody Allen.’’
In the editing room, considering his ‘‘damn shame’’ line, Carmichael said, ‘‘It might be more interesting to fade out on the warm feeling, because the line I say is, sadly, implied the whole episode, anyway.’’ He pursed his lips and walked into the hall. ‘‘I try to avoid having ‘a message,’ ’’ he went on. ‘‘The risk here is that the whole episode is a gray area, and that line’s black — I wanted to watch my delivery, to see if it allowed for gray.’’
In Carmichael’s comedy, the line between unflinching provocation and outright trolling can grow fuzzy. He says he’s fueled by a ‘‘Socratic’’ curiosity: ‘‘What about this? What if what you think is right is wrong?’’ This manifests most shockingly when, breaking the unwritten comedy rule against ‘‘punching down,’’ Carmichael makes some of society’s most disempowered people the objects of seeming cruelty. In the joke about his Wendy’s-destined little cousin — delivered in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s death and mere months before the killings of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice — the target is a black boy. Elsewhere it’s black women, as when Carmichael mocks Beyoncé’s single ‘‘Run the World (Girls)’’ as ‘‘too ambitious for most of the bitches’’ in her fan base, suggesting she sing instead about ‘‘being a shift manager at Arby’s, or a dental hygienist.’’ You can watch this joke on YouTube courtesy of an anti-feminist account called F3MH8R, which underscores the queasy way that some of his lines could be transplanted into bigots’ mouths almost verbatim. Carmichael takes this, however, as a point of counterintuitive pride: ‘‘It’s become increasingly easy, in art, to only listen to people you already agree with,’’ he told me. ‘‘That’s boring.’’
If a black comic’s audience includes many white fans, as Carmichael’s does, the dynamics surrounding such jokes can be particularly fraught. Some liberal-minded whites doubtless enjoy hearing black comics make jokes at white people’s expense because they like to imagine, in a self-congratulatory way, that their laughter constitutes an act of penance and expiation: by chuckling, they may feel they are insulating themselves against charges of racism and demonstrating their own enlightenment. But Carmichael’s jokes, routinely directed not at the perpetrators and beneficiaries of racism but at its victims, don’t permit any such easy feelings — if I, well-intentioned liberal, laugh at a joke about a black boy’s scarce self-worth, what does that say about the sway that negative black stereotypes have over me?
Then there is the white fan who laughs with no such unease. Dave Chappelle has invoked this figure in explaining why he stepped away from his hit sketch series: in part, he worried that some white viewers appreciated his anarchic treatment of black stereotypes for misguided reasons — that, in effect, his comedy risked compounding rather than dismantling those stereotypes. Neal Brennan touched on this issue while interviewing Carmichael during a 2015 podcast, identifying something ‘‘almost anti-black’’ in ‘‘Love at the Store.’’ ‘‘It’s not anti-black,’’ Carmichael replied. ‘‘It’s anti-allowing-yourself-to-be-a-victim.’’
When I raised this topic with Carmichael, he reiterated that his jokes were intended as motivational tough love. He said he heartily rejects the ‘‘pull up your pants’’ mantras and ‘‘bootstrap’’ narratives of black respectability politics but aims nonetheless to encourage ‘‘personal responsibility’’: ‘‘It’s not saying I’m on the system’s side; it’s me saying I’m determined to beat it, and join me, why don’t you?’’ As for the reactions and possible misinterpretations of white fans, these were not foremost among Carmichael’s concerns. ‘‘I’m not talking to you; it’s not about you,’’ he told me. ‘‘I’m not talking about that cousin with Wendy eyes for anyone but that cousin with Wendy eyes.’’
Elaborating, Carmichael pointed to his joke about turning Republican and denying poor people breakfast. I’d taken it as a layered critique of right-wing callousness. He acknowledged this but added that the joke also represented ‘‘an extreme argument for freedom. Being black, you hear sentences like, ‘Black people don’t blank.’ How inhibiting is that? Like, how come I haven’t gone snowboarding? Because embedded in me is a belief that black people don’t snowboard. So it’s a challenge of saying, I’m not supposed to be a Republican, but I can do anything. I’m breaking the ultimate rule, politically — I’m so free in that joke it’s almost disgusting.’’
Growing up, the kids in Carmichael’s neighborhood weren’t expected — or set up — to amount to much, he said. ‘‘There was a path laid out for me by circumstance, decided at birth, that I sent back.’’ He characterized the Morningside Manor section of Winston-Salem, where he’s from, as ‘‘all black, lot of very nice, hardworking, honest people, some people that weren’t,’’ adding, ‘‘It was the type of neighborhood where my mother’s only goal was that I get a high-school diploma.’’ Cynthia Carmichael worked as a secretary; Joe Carmichael is a truck driver. Joe told me that Jerrod displayed an early taste for show business: ‘‘I built a clubhouse in the backyard, and when he was 8 or 9, he and his friends decorated it into a haunted house and charged admission.’’ Jerrod’s older brother, Joe Jr., recalls Jerrod’s constantly toting around the video camera he’d begged for one Christmas: ‘‘If I was playing ball, he’d be on the side, taping us, interviewing the players.’’
In adolescence, ‘‘I was kinda awkward, kinda quiet,’’ Carmichael said. ‘‘My sneakers were wack. I’d get picked on.’’ Toward the end of middle school, however, ‘‘I remember discovering humor and a boldness that came with it.’’ Other parts of growing up in Morningside were far harder: ‘‘A friend of mine, Marcus, was murdered. A friend of mine, Hasan, was murdered. These things would just happen. Very regular moments could hurt you a lot: I remember getting a ride home with a buddy of mine. We’re talking about algebra II, and suddenly he says, I need to stop really fast, takes the air vent off the dashboard and pulls out some crack to sell. And that was not unique.’’
Carmichael had an autodidactic drive, spurred by his parents, who engaged their boys in debates replicated on his show — about entertainment, religion, politics. ‘‘Being from the ’hood, I had no access to certain things — it’s a cliché, but I didn’t know who Paul Thomas Anderson was,’’ he said. ‘‘I didn’t know who the Coen Brothers were.’’ He recalled staying up ‘‘till 3 a.m. reading about the Defenestrations of Prague on Wikipedia, or spending eight hours at the Barnes & Noble, posted up in an aisle with a cup of coffee.’’ This was also a reaction to institutional failure. ‘‘I remember when I was in eighth grade, the assistant superintendent came to my school. I’d visited a white middle school recently and noticed a difference. More computers. Nicer. I remember raising my hand and asking, Why don’t we have those things? His response was: ‘You see those new tables in the cafeteria? We’re looking out for you.’ Right then, I said, I’m not relying on this system to get where I need to be.’’
Carmichael sold sneakers at a Finish Line, nursing abstract dreams of a stand-up career that friends stoked. ‘‘I didn’t want to start in North Carolina,’’ he said. ‘‘I went to a club in Greensboro once, and knew I wasn’t gonna start there. I’m competitive; I wanna go up after Louis C.K.’’ His thinking, he continued, was: ‘‘Where are the best people doing this? Take me to them.’’ One day at work, ‘‘a guy came into the store, said he was an actor in L.A. I said, ‘Man, L.A., I really wanna move there.’ And he said: ‘Then just move. Go to Craigslist, Westside Rentals, find a place.’ I said, ‘O.K.’ ’’
Carmichael headed west in 2008, crashing in shared studio apartments and hitting open-mike nights not just at proper clubs but also in living rooms and bars. ‘‘I annoyed so many people who were trying to watch hockey games.’’ The comedian Hannibal Buress, who befriended Carmichael, recalls being impressed by ‘‘the tough angles’’ he took into risqué material, and his willingness to lose a crowd in the service of an idea — ‘‘he doesn’t care about bombing.’’ Of the apparent audacity of his move to Los Angeles, Carmichael told me: ‘‘I don’t like safety nets. Like, a lot of comedians, they bring friends to their first show. And their second and third. You have a net there, crutches, guaranteed pity laughs. I don’t want that.’’
On the day I first met him, in January, Carmichael was due to rehearse scenes from the next episode of his show, 203, on the soundstage near Beverly Hills where ‘‘The Carmichael Show’’ is made. Episode 203 takes place largely at a funeral parlor: Jerrod’s paternal grandfather, William, dies, sending Grier’s Joe into an ambivalent funk, because William was an abusive alcoholic; Joe wonders if he doesn’t owe him a sanitized eulogy anyway. The episode would be taped twice the next day and assembled from both performances: if a joke didn’t go over at 4 p.m., alternative lines, or ‘‘alts,’’ could be tried at 7. The production crew had constructed a spacious set for the funeral-service scene. Adjoining it was a cramped, impressively ugly antechamber — floral-print settee, chintzy sconces, sad carpet. An open brown coffin with a dummy corpse jutted toward the cameras. ‘‘Most of this episode plays really claustrophobically, in this room, with the coffin,’’ Carmichael said. ‘‘There was originally supposed to be just one moment in here, but I expanded it to, like, 25 pages. It’s not that long now, but I like pushing to see how far you can go within a limitation.’’
Carmichael aims to at once embrace and ‘‘break the format’’ of multicamera sitcoms, and visual monotony is just one of his strategies. In Episode 201, Jerrod makes a harsh joke about cancer, and in the cut I saw, the crowd responded with an audible disapproval that hadn’t been scrubbed from the laugh track. ‘‘Usually you don’t keep that take, you use an alt,’’ Carmichael said. ‘‘But at the taping, I just kept saying that same line, so there is no alt. The crowd kind of winces. You hear them react to it unhappily. I’m like, keep that reaction.’’
Thanks to Season 1’s ratings, which were strong enough to bolster executives’ faith in him, Carmichael has some creative leeway. In Episode 203, Joe recalls William’s abuse in graphic detail, delivering tough lines about beatings and chokeholds. Carmichael said, ‘‘The studio read this script and they were like’’ — he inhaled sharply, miming pain — ‘‘and I told them, It’s gonna get sad for a bit. We can stay heavy. It’s O.K.’’
Carmichael’s willingness to stay heavy — to create prolonged moments of discomfort — may be the most formally radical thing about him. In his sitcom and his stand-up, he can seem as satisfied provoking groans, or awkward silence, as he is provoking laughter. At work here is a fundamental reconsideration of a joke teller’s function: With Carmichael, the goal is not only to orchestrate a series of raucous eruptions — signaling, as they do, a simpatico mind meld with the audience — but to generate rifts of displeasure, confusion and anger too. Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, the showrunner on ‘‘The Carmichael Show,’’ said that such emotions can be productive: ‘‘Jerrod likes to make people uncomfortable not for the sake of making them uncomfortable, but to shake them out of their regular way of seeing the world.’’
I saw this in action a couple of nights later, when Carmichael invited me along for an unannounced appearance at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood — the site not just of his HBO special but also of his first-ever L.A. open mike, in 2008. Carmichael had scribbled some notes earlier that night, but mostly he winged his set. ‘‘I don’t know what to talk about,’’ he said onstage, ‘‘but in a good way. I’m open.’’ Wearing a bomber over a gray hoodie, he paced, took long pauses and fussed with different things — his lip, a bottle cap, the mike stand. This was not a result of nerves, he told me later, but a deliberate technique to think through jokes and inculcate the crowd in his unhurried cadences. At one point he took off his jacket: ‘‘I wasn’t hot,’’ he explained. ‘‘It’s to let you know: ‘Relax. Listen. Let’s explore.’ ’’
The Iowa caucuses loomed, and Carmichael had politics in mind. He got medium-size laughs with a medium-grade Bernie Sanders joke — ‘‘He’ll be the first president in history to broker a nuclear deal with a mustard stain on his shirt’’ — then grew more familiarly challenging as he defended Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border: ‘‘You don’t just have an open wall at your apartment, like, ‘I like my neighbors to be able to come in if they feel oppressed.’ ’’
Where this riff led, however, was wholly unexpected: ‘‘I’m thinking about not voting,’’ Carmichael said. ‘‘I don’t trust America anyway. Can I say: I don’t think we went to the moon?’’ For the next few minutes, he contended that the manned Apollo missions had been faked. ‘‘All of you are crazy for believing it, but we don’t have time to get into the real facts because it’s not funny.’’ People tittered, but with notes of hesitation and befuddlement, as they tried to suss out Carmichael’s relationship to this bizarre tangent. ‘‘I think it’s kinda cool we made it up,’’ he went on. ‘‘That’s so American. Lying about a moon landing? That’s so us.’’
Later that night, he told me that the moon-landing material reflected a deep-seated mistrust of authority that animates nearly every joke he tells and that has been with him since his youth in Morningside. ‘‘You think we went to the moon?’’ he said. ‘‘Well, the same people said the drinking water is safe’’ in Flint, Mich. His point was that conspiracy theories about nefarious government action — which circulate not only among crackpots but also among marginalized people with legitimate social grievances — were sometimes revealed to be the stuff of actual government behavior. ‘‘I don’t want people to be comfortable in the black-and-white that we’re handed,’’ he continued. ‘‘When you grow up and a lot of things people tell you aren’t true, you learn to challenge and question everything. If you’re in Flint and the government said the water is safe to drink, and you find out it wasn’t, and they knew. . . .’’
Carmichael trailed off for a moment, shaking his head, then declared, ‘‘It’s up to you to figure out the truth for yourself.’’