Jerrod Carmichael: Why I Made That Controversial Bill Cosby Episode

Comedian Jerrod Carmichael breaks down Sunday night’s big episode of NBC’s The Carmichael Show, which asked whether it’s still OK to laugh at Bill Cosby.

In 2014, comedian Jerrod Carmichael was invited to Bill Cosby’s house. At the time, it wasn’t a horrifying invitation. In fact, it was an honor.

Carmichael had not yet released his career-changing stand-up special, Love at the Store, which was directed by none other than Spike Lee. His breakout role in the Zac Efron-Seth Rogen comedy Neighbors had yet to be seen. The debut of his NBC sitcom The Carmichael Show, a comedy so well-reviewed that critics would eventually posit it could “save the sitcom,” was still more than a year away.

More, the flood of allegations of sexual abuse against Cosby had not yet dominated news headlines. For then-25-year-old Carmichael, the meeting was a dream come true.

It was a chance for a young comedian to meet his hero, the man who not only inspired his career but broke down the boundaries that made it possible for him to have one. They talked shop. Cosby gave him career advice.

It was, in a way, a king-making moment. A moment that, in two short years, takes on much more complicated meaning.

“It’s a place of categorizing that you have to take your mind to in order to not erase any good memory, but also being aware of the responsibility you have to be a moral person,” Carmichael tells me, reflecting on the moment and how he’s come to view it now. “I look at meeting him, and he was very kind to me, so I won’t be disrespectful of that. But there are real, serious accusations and you have to be respectful of those as well. The mind is torn, but I think both can coexist, even within our own heart.”

Carmichael’s grappling with such a moment is one catalyst for last Sunday’s watercooler episode of The Carmichael Show. The other: the real-life conversation we’re all having in private, but might have been too afraid to take public.

Fallen Heroes” tackled the big Cosby question: Is it OK to still laugh at Bill Cosby? More, is it OK to still view him as a hero for all that he accomplished and inspired—separate from the allegations of sexual abuse that have been levied against him and what that suggests about his moral character?

“You gotta separate the personal life from the work,” Carmichael’s fictional alter ego says in the episode. “Talent trumps morals.”

As the fictional Carmichael family debates whether it’s appropriate to attend a Bill Cosby stand-up show in light of the controversy that surrounds him—is it OK to still support this man?—a mirror is being held up to our own conversations about the issue.

Cosby’s greatness, the horrifying nature of the accusations against him, our responsibility, our hypocrisy, denial, and ethics are all debated with nuance and sharp humor, in line with the uncommonly progressive mission of The Carmichael Show: bring the debates we’re having in real-life to the TV screen.

It’s a mission in the grand tradition of Norman Lear that’s been abandoned in the age of Bazingas, but one that Carmichael hopes episodes like “Fallen Heroes” and the attention they bring can help revive.

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With his so-called bold notion that comedy could still, as it once did regularly, effectively tackle and discuss serious cultural issues, Carmichael has developed a reputation as a comedian who’s unafraid to “go there.” To that, Carmichael tells me, “Listen, I’ve been there. I’m wondering where everybody else is. Come join me. It’s fun over here. What are they waiting for? The ‘going there’ thing—everyone should go there. Why aren’t you there?”

So in the aftermath of Sunday’s episode, we called Carmichael, who was lying on the floor of his dressing room ravaged from a lousy night’s sleep. We talked about the reaction to “going there”—ugh—with Cosby, his own personal feelings about Cosby’s legacy, and what’s in store for the rest of the season of his show, which, in its second year, is still valiantly fighting to save the sitcom.

When you decide to do a Cosby episode, are you anticipating the big reaction it would get? What is it like to charge into the new season with something that was going to get people talking like this did?

With this show, we wanted to talk about it because people were talking about. It’s a natural thing to discuss. It’s topical. Everyone already has on an opinion. The episode I think highlighted the different sides of the argument.

Is there pressure when you’re doing an episode that talks about Cosby? To do it right?

The thing that any script needs is truth. To be honest. A balanced argument. We wanted to be respectful of the topic. It wasn’t our place to judge the situation. We were talking about our feelings. That’s what we did in the episode.

There was a huge conversation surrounding the episode before it aired. Why do you think that happened? Why do you think there was so much surprise that you decided to talk about this?

I think it showed a lack of fear. I think there was excitement around that lack of fear. We celebrate any television or film that demonstrates a real boldness. I think that’s why, whatever the hype was or anything, people were like, “Oh he’s actually doing it.”

Perhaps there was a surprise, too, that a network that would allow you to do the episode. Heck, The Cosby Show aired on NBC.

We try not to live in that world. We kind of refuse to live in that space. I never thought we wouldn’t be able to do the episode. I just knew we would!

People seem to be really responding to how personal the episode seemed. Your own grappling with Cosby’s legacy shined through. Was that your intention?

It was important. It all goes back to truth. I think what really connected is that I expressed a really true opinion in that episode. And it’s not an unrelatable one! I think a lot of people relate and feel that way and don’t want to say it. And we said it. “There’s another layer to this. There’s a human element there that you can’t overlook.” I don’t want to be disrespectful to the victims or anyone who has made any accusations. I didn’t want to be disrespectful to them, and I always wanted to make an episode that they could watch and feel was fair and even that Cosby could watch and feel like it was fair.

When your show came out last year, many articles talked about the meeting you had with Cosby early in your career and what it meant to you. How do you view that memory now, after all that’s happened?

It’s kind of like what we say in the episode. It’s a place of categorizing that you have to take your mind to in order to not erase any good memory but also be aware of the responsibility you have to be a moral person. It’s that act that I think any adult has to deal with: how to categorize while still being respectful. I look at meeting him, and he was very kind to me, so I won’t be disrespectful of that. But there are real, serious accusations and you have to be respectful of that as well. The mind is torn, but I think both can coexist, even within our own heart.

Some reviews of the episode take a lot of stock in one of the last lines—“Damn shame what he did to all those women, though”—as some sort of statement or leading dialogue about the “right way” to feel about the issue.

Listen, that line I improvised on set. It wasn’t scripted. It just felt like a needed line to add balance. It was a gut instinct. I went back and forth on whether to include it, but I said it and it felt like a line that was needed for balance.

Should people read into one stance or another in the episode?

Whatever their interpretation is, it’s right. I really do think that. It’s like an Amy Winehouse song. What does the lyric mean to you?

So you weren’t setting out to make a point?

No, it was just an emotion. It was more of a line of emotion.

When we talked last season, a lot of the conversation was about this idea that you were setting out to “save the sitcom.” We laughed about how lofty that is, but now that you’re on to Season 2 what do you think of that whole idea?

As bold and very confident as I am, I still want to use my overzealous statement cautiously. But I think we are making an impact and that means a lot to me. We are moving in the right direction and that’s very exciting. And that direction is saving NBC, am I right, Kevin? (Laughs.)

You mentioned that the show is having an impact. What is that impact?

Conversation. People are talking. It’s not necessarily talking about the show. The show has done what I had hoped in that it’s sparking conversation with people in their own lives—with their families, their friends. That is everything to me. Any accolade or kind review, it really is the fact that it’s sparking conversations and people are talking to those around them about things they should discuss. To contribute into any type of conversation was always the intention. It’s the thing that I’ve always loved about television. As much as I remember watching shows, I remember talking to my friends about them. So the fact that what I’ve seen on social media or emails or calls that I’m getting have all centered around “my family has talked about this and this how we feel about it,” that’s all that matters.

We’ve seen a little bit of this on other shows, too. Black-ish did a recent episode centered on police brutality. Do you think that the fear of tackling real issues in comedy is dissipating again?

Yeah. I’ve talked to other creators. Last year when we did the protest episode, I think really jumping in and having the balanced conversation, that we had really struck a nerve with other creators. That’s beautiful. That’s all for the benefit of television.

Do you think people had gotten at all exhausted by the trend away from the Norman Lear tradition and an increased reluctance to discuss real issues?

You know what it is? Like anything, people are afraid of losing money. It’s easier to not have an opinion than it is to have one. That’s in writing. That’s in creating. I’m just hoping that more people continue to avoid the easy way out.

A New York Times piece came out about your show last week with the headline “Jerrod Carmichael Goes There…” What do you think about that phrase and that characterization of what you’re doing? That by talking about these things on TV you are “going there”?

Listen, I’ve been there. I’m wondering where everybody else is. Come join me. It’s fun over here. What are they waiting for? The “going there” thing—everyone should go there. Why aren’t you there?

It’s remarkable that an entire episode can take place in one room, when the trend in TV is to cut to different locations every few seconds. The show still has the same energy and pace that these other shows have, but it takes place all in one room.

You have to trust that the audience are adults. We’ve been on the phone for 22 minutes, both in one room, and the conversation is still interesting. I trust the mental capacity of the wonderful, smart people that watch television. I don’t think America is dumb. I don’t think people are dumb. I think audiences are very smart and I treat them as such. I refuse to do otherwise. Sitting in one room, if we’re saying something interesting I’m not going to cut to another scene because I’m afraid we’re going to lose you. It plays out like a real conversation in the room. I know my audience isn’t dumb. I know my audience is smart. I love them for that. I trust it.

What other topics are you going to take on this season?

I’m working on an episode right now that deals with depression. There’s an episode on gentrification. An episode on Islamophobia.

When I talk to people about your show and tell them about an episode, to them it sounds like it will be one of those Very Special Episodes of TV that is corny and moralizing. But these aren’t schmaltzy or after-school special-y. Why do people always assume that?

Because they usually only see that. When we did the protest episode, one of my favorite things about that episode was that the realization that the Jerrod character has is so subtle. It ends on a moment of connection with Maxine. But it’s not so much of a ribbon, not so much of a bow. Once again, we’re treating you like an adult. I’m not trying to purposefully tug at your heart strings. I’m just trying to be honest about how I feel. And if it doesn’t have a ribbon on it then it doesn’t. A lot of the moments in life when you find perspective don’t come with ribbons. They don’t come with sweet music at the end. Sometimes it’s a gray area, and that’s real. People connect with that.

What does it feel like to be working on this show, where you don’t seem to have sanitize your content or censor your voice or shy away from issues? I think a lot of TV creators are probably quite envious of that, that you get to be true to yourself.

If it weren’t like that then we wouldn’t be doing this show and you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation. I feel like we’ve earned the trust of NBC and they trust where we’re going things and I think that’s beautiful. Otherwise I would not have done this show. In a heartbeat I’d have walked away from it. Just don’t let it be an option.