For his third HBO comedy special, Jerrod Carmichael gets more intimate than he has ever been with us as an audience, even sitting down instead of standing up, although he does use this hour to stand up for himself and reveal everything about himself that he has been holding back for so long. Unless, of course, you’ve really been paying attention to his past work.
The Gist: Jerrod Carmichael, who makes his hosting debut on Saturday Night Live this weekend, has history with both NBC and HBO.
On the broadcast network, he co-created and starred in his own sitcom, The Carmichael Show, for three seasons, with a cast that included future stars in their own right Lil Rel Howery and Tiffany Haddish as his brother and his brother’s estranged wife, respectively. And for Home Box Office, Carmichael first broke through in 2014 with Jerrod Carmichael: Love at the Store, then 2017’s Jerrod Carmichael: 8. Three years ago, he went back to North Carolina to shoot a two-part video diary, too, called Home Videos and Sermon on the Mount.
He performed Rothaniel this February at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City, and it has a very homey, intimate storytelling vibe to it. It’s directed by Bo Burnham, who previously shot Carmichael in close-ups and more for 8. And the material in Rothaniel goes a long way in providing Carmichael’s side of the story to the family history and dramas which played out in Home Videos and Sermon on the Mount.
What Comedy Specials Will It Remind You Of?: Obviously it points right back to his previous work mentioned above. There’s also a level of wall-breaking with the audience that’s been a mark of the work of his collaborators such as Bo Burnham, or Drew Michael, whose specials Carmichael has produced and directed, or Ramy Youssef. There’s even a hint or more of inspiration and influence in common with the legendary Richard Pryor, in terms of attaining brutal honesty about his personal experiences.
Memorable Jokes: Nobody wants to think about or witness their parents having sex. Carmichael reveals he experienced the next-worst thing? His parents made a sex tape, and he watched it. What’s it like to have a father who keeps a sex tape in a Nike box on the top shelf of a closet between a gun and a jar of nickels? Jerrod will tell you. He’ll also go into great detail into the philandering history of his paternal ancestors.
Of course. Obviously. As the headlines here and elsewhere attest, the most memorable moment comes when Carmichael comes out. It’s a literal show-stopper.
After receiving encouragement from the audience, Carmichael talks about what the moment means not just to him, but also wonders what it means for Black viewers watching it on TV or streaming. “This is for HBO. You know how many n—ers just turned the TV off?” he quips. “saying to their girl right now, we gotta watch something else.”
Last but certainly not least, there’s the mystery surrounding his actual first name.
Our Take: There’s a lot to unpack here.
Even the opening credits scene, following Carmichael along the snowy streets of Manhattan to the sounds of jazzy piano, to him quietly walking onstage and taking his seat on a simple metal folding chair, it all stands in stark contrast when juxtaposed with the opening sequence of Burnham’s 2016 special, Make Happy. There, Burnham trudges across town in full clown face makeup to his gig over grave voiceover. Here, the lights come up, the audience warmly applauds, and Carmichael says: “I’m happy you’re here.”
They set and establish a tone that serves both performer and audience well.
“This only works if we feel like family,” Carmichael says. “I want you guys to feel as comfortable as I hope to be.”
He acknowledges not only the pressure an audience may feel once they realize that a filming makes them part of the performance, but also how he must feel knowing he’s recording this for posterity. So he unpacks his shame regarding his birth name (which his father gave him, combining the names of his grandfathers in a way that’s “more like Toyotathon”), regarding the unfaithfulness and consequences of such by all three of his paternal ancestors, and regarding his own sexual conduct. In a lighter moment, he rationalizes: “if you knew them, you’d know keeping a secret is the only way to honor them.” Carmichael sounds like he’d be friends with the protagonist in Drive My Car.
For all of the seriousness of his revelations, Carmichael does manage to keep things from getting too dark. First, with the cultural references to Destiny’s Child, Terry McMillan, “The Color Purple,” and Tyler Perry movies. Later, as the audience indeed takes the comedian up on his offer to make the room feel like a family gathering, weighing in with observations and questions. They’re not heckles. OK, maybe the one woman who reminds him to answer his own question: “What’s your name?” But the audience mostly acts here as his surrogate therapist. Guiding him and supporting him through this hourlong confessional.
To be fair, if you had watched Home Videos and Sermon on the Mount, none of the stories about his parents or even his own sexuality would surprise you. Those two HBO documentaries revolve around his father’s infidelity, and at one point, Jerrod tells his mother: “I’ve hooked up with dudes before.”
Back in this special, Carmichael acknowledges: “Kinda anticlimactic, I know.” Although he’s not saying it because you’ve seen his previous work. He says it because he figures the audience wants a more dramatic, thrilling conclusion. And that’s not yet possible.
His mother may have forgiven his father, but he still isn’t sure if she’ll ever forgive him.
Our Call: STREAM IT. You’ll want to watch this before or immediately after you see Carmichael host SNL. And then you’ll also want to go back and watch his Home Videos if you haven’t already, or perhaps again to gain even more insight into the Carmichael family.
Sean L. McCarthy works the comedy beat for his own digital newspaper, The Comic’s Comic; before that, for actual newspapers. Based in NYC but will travel anywhere for the scoop: Ice cream or news. He also tweets @thecomicscomic and podcasts half-hour episodes with comedians revealing origin stories: The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First.