“Are we going to be OK?”
Those are the first words out of Jerrod Carmichael’s mouth at the top of his new stand-up special, 8, which premieres on HBO this Saturday night at 10 p.m. The laugh doesn’t come until he adds, “We have a new king.”
“I think we’ll be fine,” the 29-year-old comedian continues. “What’s important for me to say to you guys is Trump’s victory is in no way indicative of a loss for women. It’s not. It’s not a loss for women. It is, however, another victory for men. Congratulations, you guys, we did it again! We still got it!”
Those words were delivered just one month after Hillary Clinton’s loss at the Masonic Hall in New York City. The tentative, yet cathartic laughter you can hear from the crowd in attendance demonstrates just how raw his fans were still feeling at the time.
Because it was “such a thing that everyone was talking about and everyone has such strong opinions about” Carmichael tells me, “it made sense to immediately jump into it.”
The creator and star of The Carmichael Show, a throwback, issues-driven sitcom in the mold of Norman Lear’s All in the Family, which will air its third season later this year, is calling from Los Angeles on very little sleep. He arrived from New York at 3:30 a.m. after taping an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “I’m just trying to find myself today,” he says, a bit groggily.
Never one to shy away from controversial topics, Carmichael insists he knew Trump would win the election nearly a year ago when he shot the Season 2 finale of The Carmichael Show. That’s why he decided to name the episode “President Trump.”
The episode found Carmichael and his girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West) trying to tell his parents that they are engaged, but politics keep getting in the way. His father Joe (David Alan Grier) has just returned from shaking Trump’s hand on the campaign trail, “Make America Great Again” hat and all, and keeps clashing with Maxine, who likes Bernie Sanders, and Jerrod’s mother Cynthia (Loretta Devine), who is the lone Hillary Clinton supporter in the family.
At one point, Jerrod jokes that he forgot Clinton was even running, remarking, “It’s crazy to be that popular and that forgettable at the same time.” Unlike his fiancée, Carmichael is open-minded enough to join his father at Trump’s rally, only to get stabbed by a (possibly racist) Trump voter while he’s there.
“Since last April, I was very certain he was going to win,” Carmichael says now that Trump has been in office for a little more than six weeks. “It made sense for America. First of all, you can’t discredit the value of entertainment. He’s undeniably the most entertaining candidate we’ve seen.
“It was crazy and it was insane, but it was entertaining,” he continues. “Neither side could stop talking about him. Of course he’s going to win.”
But he’s not giving his fictional father a chance to say “I told you so” just yet. Before Carmichael tackles Trump again on his show, he says he needs to “find a perspective” that interests him and feels unique.
“I want to make sure I’m bringing something new,” he says. “The easy thing to do is to say, ‘Trump is bad!’ I may as well do an episode about smoking. ‘You shouldn’t smoke cigarettes and Trump is bad!’ What does that bring to the table?”
In addition, the fact that he tapes episodes of his show months before viewers will see them makes it increasingly hard to keep the show topical given the fast pace of the news cycle. “I don’t know where people will be in a couple of months,” he says. Instead, he’s continuing to address more “evergreen” issues like alcoholism and assisted suicide, two themes fans can expect to see this season.
Carmichael has considered airing the show live, but worries it would seem like he was doing it just for the sake of “novelty.” It would take a national event on the level of the O.J. Simpson trial, he says, to get him excited about airing a live show. Plus, he adds, stand-up comedy satisfies that “need for immediacy.”
“If I have a thought, within sometimes minutes I can be on a stage sharing it,” he explains. “That’s the beauty of stand-up for me.”
Carmichael’s low-key, laid-back style as a comedian can be a bit disarming, and he uses it to powerful effect in the new special. Instead of shooting it in a big arena, as comedians like Kevin Hart or Amy Schumer have done recently, he decided to perform in the middle of a small theater with audience members surrounding him. This approach, along with his fellow young comedian Bo Burnham’s thoughtful direction, gives the special a rare intimacy.
“It allows us to lean toward the vulnerable,” Carmichael says of the setup. “That was kind of the intention for this one: to lean toward vulnerability in a real way. And it gives you no place to hide, no place to escape. You’re right there. The audience is right there and you just have to connect with them. And that’s what my comedy is rooted on.”
As he did in the infamous Bill Cosby episode of The Carmichael Show, he has also made a name for himself by expressing unpopular opinions in the name of radical honesty.
“Jay Z means way more to me than Martin Luther King,” Carmichael admits early in the hour. “I know every Jay Z lyric. I only know like four bars of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.” Later, he says he’s been trying to stick to “ISIS-approved” places in order to not get killed by the terrorist group. After getting invited to a lesbian wedding, he jokes that he found himself staring at the invitation thinking, “ISIS isn’t gonna like this…”
“I like to find the feelings and thoughts that I have that are probably the most—the ones that scare me a little,” Carmichael says. “It’s my way of contributing. Because I don’t want to echo anything. I want to throw something on the table that maybe hasn’t been considered before. It’s true honesty when you say the things that you really, probably shouldn’t. Or things that could paint you in a negative light.”
One report that came out following Carmichael’s taping did just that, including complaints from audience members who were forced to wait outside in the freezing cold before the show started and some from those who thought the jokes about his fear of rape accusations and other controversial issues went too far.
“I am sorry that they waited out in the cold,” Carmichael says to those who left upset. “As far as the material, I made points and if people feel strongly about it, I think that’s great.” To anyone who would accuse him of crossing a line with a joke, he says, “That’s good, you’re feeling something. That makes me happy.”
Carmichael’s casual approach to stand-up continues until the very end of the special. Instead of ending with a solid one-liner about finding out your father has a second family, he takes a pause and says, “What else should we talk about?” Then the screen cuts to black.
“Yeah, it stopped when I was out of things to say,” he says matter-of-factly before returning to work, only slightly more awake than when we started.