By Benjamin Lindsay | Posted March 23, 2016, 11 a.m.
“I like art that’s perceived to require thought,” says comedian and actor Jerrod Carmichael over lunch in lower Manhattan. That much is clear even in his small talk. While walking to Felice 15 Gold Street after a photo shoot, he riffs on everything from Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo” to John Oliver. (While he cites West as a musical revolutionary, he thinks the “Last Week Tonight” host can do better than #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain.) Now splitting a cheese plate and bruschetta, he hones in on someone else’s thought-provoking art: his own.
“I’m curious about how things affect the world more than just personal exploration,” Carmichael says, turning a grape over in his hand. “When I hear of situations, my mind goes to—in the healthiest sense of the word—the ‘broader’ sense of [how] this is affecting everybody around us.”
Such thought processes are apparent in his socially conscious standup and sitcom. His Spike Lee–directed HBO special premiered in 2014, and more recently, his eponymous NBC series, “The Carmichael Show,” premiered its second season on March 13 after a brief six episodes last August.
“My lawyers are the only reason I say ‘Season 2,’ ” he jokes of the new 13-episode arc. “It’s a deeper version of the same thing.”
For fans of the series, that’s good news. At the tail end of summer 2015, “The Carmichael Show” beat the odds and nabbed an audience over the course of three weeks and six episodes. Its deft blend of familial slapstick and of-the-moment politics ensured Carmichael was a voice worth listening to. He got viewers thinking. In standout episodes like “Protest” and “Gender,” Carmichael brought hot-button issues like the Black Lives Matter movement and heightened visibility of the transgender community to the least likely of stages: the multicam sitcom, live audience and all.
“I actually originally envisioned it as single-cam and they changed it,” Carmichael now admits. “Then I realized that multi was more of a challenge. The narrative of the realm of multicameras is that it’s dying, it’s dead, there’s no true art in it. And what’s more fun than that challenge? [There is] also a connection with the stage performance of it—being a standup comic and knowing that at its best, multicam [gets] that reaction. It elicits this response.”
Luckily, it wasn’t just the studio audience that responded. “The Carmichael Show” Season 1 pulled in NBC’s best ratings for its late summer time slot in over a decade and was promptly scooped up for another round. The series also got a stamp of critical approval. Season 2 has already rolled out buzzed-about half-hours on class and infidelity, gentrification, and most notably, Bill Cosby’s tarnished legacy. After the premiere of the Cosby episode, titled “Fallen Heroes,” Salon went so far as to crown Carmichael “the most important comedian in America.”
“People are much smarter [and] the audience wants more than I think a lot of people behind the camera give them credit for,” says co-creator and Carmichael’s “Neighbors” director Nicholas Stoller of the series’ appeal. “People want to hear the conversations they’re having in their living rooms.”
That’s just where the bulk of “The Carmichael Show” takes place: Carmichael’s childhood living room. Largely inspired by the dynamics of his own family growing up in North Carolina, Carmichael plays Jerrod and is joined by all of the genre’s necessary players: a schlubby, down-and-out brother (Lil Rel Howery); a loud, opinionated father (David Alan Grier); a jovial and equally opinionated mother (Loretta Devine); and Carmichael’s black sheep—and, as the series points out, half-black—girlfriend, Maxine (Amber Stevens West).
Politics of the religious right and bleeding heart left come under one roof while certain events offscreen (a Black Lives Matter protest, for instance) stoke a conversation that is both nuanced and hilarious. More surprisingly, there’s no agenda at play. Audiences can trust that, for better or worse, they will hear all opinions on a matter between the cast’s varied personalities. And while it doesn’t shy away from bits of sobriety, “Carmichael” just as quickly lightens the mood with a laugh-out-loud (if not entirely politically correct) quip. “The laugh that happens after the serious moment [is] just huge because the audience is so relieved,” Stoller says. Look no further than Grier’s take on one character struggling to come out as transgender: “Don’t worry, the woman trapped inside of him will tell the man what to do.” Cue the studio laughter.
“The main thing, I think, that was really important to me and also to Jerrod as we made the show, is that no one’s right and no one’s wrong,” Stoller continues. “I think [that] makes much more interesting conversation and television.”
Carmichael says that much of the series’ content is his perspective as he’s debated with himself and others on these topics. “It’s a completed argument for me,” he summates. “A lot of [Jerrod] is my perspective. Some other characters are my perspective, even the polar opposites. It’s an argument that I’ve had with myself [that’s] harder to do in standup, but with the show, I can fulfill the argument immediately.”
Today, Carmichael credits his analytical humor to his days living in the very home he’s now depicting on prime time. While he’s always rejected the notion of being “just a comedian,” saying it seemed “kind of arrogant” to assume he can make people laugh, that’s exactly what he’s been doing since his days in middle school making comedic topical shorts instead of writing essays. “I have teachers that, years later, tell me they still show some of the videos. My version of ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ is amazing,” he insists. But even before dreams of becoming a comic, Carmichael recalls wanting a series on NBC.
“This is going to sound like I made it up, but my brother likes to remind me of it: When I was 13 years old, I said, ‘I want a show on Thursday night on NBC,’ ” he says with a sheepish grin. “I wanted a sitcom. That was all I ever really wanted.”
So in 2008, he left to chase the dream and moved to Los Angeles. As any working actor will know, a career’s early years are often the most trying, but Carmichael remembers them with clarity and fondness. He didn’t take for granted that L.A. is a mecca of creativity and Hollywood history. He’d often spend afternoons at the Paley Center watching old TV shows and evenings at open mics.
“Me and a lot of the closest friends I have now even still just wanted to impress each other. We wanted to try new things constantly. We weren’t afraid to fail,” he says.
“Don’t think about it. You just do the work, do the art. At some point in the process, you should do it purely for the love of it,” he advises. “A lot of people jump in and sort of make it a business first, and while I knew [my work] could obviously prove profitable, it was really important for me to view it as art. I try to hold onto that as much as I can, even while navigating the business aspect.”
Surviving the industry’s business aspects, however, can be just as daunting, and having an understanding of Hollywood’s effect on art and vice versa is key to striking gold. Carmichael says success also requires a thick skin and an ability to compromise and collaborate without selling out.
“You have to be stronger than everyone’s collective caution and everyone’s collective fear,” he says. “A show is still a business. There’s a lot of money at stake… [but] audiences recognize when a machine created something and when something is personal and true and close. When it comes to creation, playing ‘the game’ doesn’t apply. When you make something, it needs to be as pure as it can be.”
Time and again, Carmichael proves a voice worth listening to. Are you listening yet?
Keep Standing Up
Even at the height of his success at NBC, Carmichael continues to do standup whenever he can. When he was in New York City earlier this month, he made it a point to do a quick set at the historic Comedy Cellar. “Sometimes when I’m writing the script [for ‘The Carmichael Show’], I’ll go onstage and talk about what we’re talking about in the episode to really explore how I feel about it,” he says. Contrary to popular belief, though, Carmichael says standup isn’t all about the laughs. “I’m looking for feeling, I’m looking for connection, I’m looking for a reaction…. When I think comedian, I think [of] the satire of Mark Twain as much as the jokes of Chris Rock. Obviously, laughs are an important thing and you want to be funny and you want to give [audiences] that experience, but you also want them to feel some type of connection to what you’re saying. I treat my audience like adults.
The article was published in Backstage.