THE SHOW ABOUT EVERYTHING
Jerrod Carmichael Will Save the Sitcom
Sitcoms, by and large, are stupid. But they don’t have to be. Jerrod Carmichael, with his NBC comedy tackling topics from religion to Black Lives Matter, could change everything.
Jerrod Carmichael, the co-creator and star of the new NBC sitcom The Carmichael Show, is really proud of his show. So proud, in fact, that he risks biting the hand—claw? foot?—of the peacock that feeds him.
“I hate that trailer,” he tells me, seconds after the Carmichael Show trailer plays when I introduce him for a live Q&A in New York. “That’s a bad trailer. It’s not good. The show’s good. The trailer is not good at all.”
And what’s not good about it?
“It’s just a bunch of black people yelling,” he goes on. “Why would you watch that? It doesn’t represent what I’m trying to do here.” It’s unexpected—and unprompted—candor from an entertainer just beginning to make a name for himself in Hollywood, an industry much more hospitable to smoke up its ass than it is to starting fires between creative and marketing teams.
Carmichael, 27, is a Los Angeles-based comedian best known for his breakout role in last year’s hit comedy Neighbors, directed by Nicholas Stoller, who co-created The Carmichael Show. His quiet, conversational style of stand-up landed him a HBO special in 2014, Love at the Store, which was directed by, of all people, Spike Lee. “I got a phone call from a Brooklyn number,” Carmichael remembers. “It was Spike and we talked gentrification and specials for a little while.”
The Carmichael Show is in line with its titular creator’s signature stand-up, which balks at the idea that humor shouldn’t confront and continue the conversations people have every day, or that mainstream audiences don’t want to be provoked with their comedy.
One particularly subversive, contentious, and ultimately funny joke in Love at the Store, for example, presents a situation in which someone sees a shooting star being raped. “Would you use your one wish to stop that rape immediately or would you see the big picture and wish for the usual million dollars?” While rape isn’t exactly covered in The Carmichael Show, the Black Lives Matter movement, Caitlyn Jenner, gun rights, and organized religion are—not exactly the usual talking points of a multicam sitcom airing on a broadcast network. Bazinga!
A few weeks after Carmichael disowned his show’s trailer, we caught up to discuss any fallout there might’ve been. “Listen, there is a gap between—whether I get in trouble for this or not—there is a gap between broadcast marketing and what the content is,” he says.
“You can’t just take these broad swings,” he continues. “Not only that, we also have to respect the intelligence of the audience. My biggest issue with the earlier marketing is that it doesn’t. It’s not marketed to an intelligent audience and I know there’s an intelligent audience out there.”
Maybe it’s foolish optimism from the freshest face in comedy or maybe it’s the power of young gumption, but Carmichael is hellbent on bringing intelligence and humanity back to the increasingly superficial sitcom. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “We’re trying to make the Goodyear tire.”
It’s a fitting cause for the comedian—who thanks to Love at the Store and Neighbors is, for lack of a better word, “hot”—to take on. His rise has always been at tension with pesky things like “standards.” Early in his career, he used to reverse the young actor’s annual commute and head from Los Angeles to New York in order to avoid pilot season. “I didn’t want to be a sassy black neighbor,” he says. “That was my biggest fear.”
It would all come off as insufferable and maybe even a little pretentious if Carmichael’s endearing chuckle didn’t replace punctuation when he’s speaking and if The Carmichael Show didn’t deliver, at least mostly, on all of his lofty promises. So here we have a 27-year-old comedy wunderkind with ambitions to bridge the gap between the meaningful comedy of Norman Lear with the oversaturated, overstimulated, often unimpressed and unchallenged sitcom audiences of today.
Here’s how he plans to do it.
Let’s belabor the point about the trailer. There are some people who know you from your stand-up, and those people know that your stand-up talks about real issues. Your show does, too, but you wouldn’t know that if you just looked at the promos.
Yeah, you wouldn’t. Richard Pryor had a show on NBC, and he did this ad where he was talking about playing fair with the network. He’s naked and the camera pans down and he’s without genitals. He’s essentially just saying they clipped his balls off. They took all that away. There are certain compromises you have to make with networks but, similarly to my stand-up, I don’t filter my content. I don’t believe in the idea that “This exists in Sitcomland!”
I read in another interview that you want to save the sitcom.
[Chuckles] Listen, it just sounds so big it makes me laugh.
But what are you trying to do with this format? How are you tinkering with it?
We’re trying to make the best tire possible. We’re not trying to invent the wheel. We’re trying to make the Goodyear tire. That’s the goal, and I want people to hold me to that. I’m not saying the show is perfect. We have growing to do. I tried really hard to stay true to what this format can be and what the sitcom can be, which we’ve seen demonstrated from Norman Lear shows to Murphy Brown. It can reflect very natural, very honest conversation and it can be a great stage for it. I’m just trying to get close to that. And shows have gotten so far away. This isn’t just me pointing my finger and saying, “Oh, these shows…” We know what they are. We know what they’ve been and they’ve been watered down and we’ve been afraid of treating an audience like they’re smart. I don’t want to be afraid of that.
You brought up “honest conversations.” The Carmichael Show brings up Black Lives Matter and talks religion and sexuality. Why were these topics ones that meant enough for you to bring up on the show?
Because we talk about it in real life. You know what I mean? All I know is one of these events happen: a kid gets shot, or just over the summer we saw these weeks where health care was a big issue and gay marriage was a big issue. I know in life I was having these conversations, in elevators or with my friends. We’d discuss what’s going on. It really was just—I hate to use the word ‘honest,’ but it was really honest. These are conversations that we’re having. So why not have those on television?
Is it surprising to you that having those conversations on a network sitcom is, in this day and age, a revolutionary concept?
It doesn’t have to be. I don’t like the idea of being a human being, existing, talking to my friends, and having these real human conversations, and then getting to work on a sitcom and turning that part of my brain off. I look at the subject as just the continuance of the conversation we’re already having. We’re already having those conversations. To me that also goes back to the intelligence of the audience.
Even while audiences recognize these as conversations they’ve had, they’re not used to seeing them or even expecting to see them in multicam sitcoms.
Yeah. And it’s happened before. We’ve gotten so far away from it. It can be. [The show] may be a little jarring to some. Most will hopefully welcome it as maybe refreshing, or at least honest. You know what I mean? It is what we talk about, which is all the more reason to do it.
Or when they are talked about it’s in the Very Special Episode, with the corny music and schmaltziness. Between Norman Lear and now, the temptation has been to make anything important or meaningful into a Very Special Episode.
It’s an attempt to sell product. People are terrified of anything being unlikable. Networks are terrified of it. God forbid someone say a real thing that we don’t like or disagree with. That’s just unfair to the viewer, because then it’s all these people saying all these likable things that no one gives a fuck about. These are things that no one cares about. I think numbers and critical response reflects that. It reflects how little we care about these “very likable” things. We know it’s not real life, that it’s so far removed.
There’s been a lot of talk recently, with the anniversary of The Cosby Show and the popularity of black-ish about black family sitcoms. There’s the debate about whether they should care about appealing to mainstream audiences or whether they should be targeted and ghettoized. How do you deal with that conversation and the label of “black sitcom”?
I think people respond to truth. Straight Outta Compton made $60 million over the weekend, right? That’s not just a black audience. Empire grew every single week. That’s not just a black audience. Black culture is American culture, you know what I mean? They’re becoming more and more one in the same. That’s a very good and welcome change. That said, we’re an American family. And I talk about things as such.
I think that’s an important point. Black families are American families.
We don’t just talk about black issues because black people don’t just talk about black issues. And black issues are, a lot of the time, American issues. So we are an American family that talks about things that American families talk about. I think the whitest family in Utah will understand and relate to everything we talk about. It’s all about human beings, and I really believe that. This is one of the first times in history where we’re able to do that, where everybody is able to just be human beings. Black people are finally able to just be Americans, be human beings. Gay people are able to finally—you know what I mean? You don’t want to be divided and being in this spot or the other, you want to come out and share with everybody. I think our generation is really pushing for that. Finally, everyone is just human. Because there are plenty of other things we need to deal with together as human beings. It reflects culture, it reflects society, and I really want the show to be part of that push.
What made you want to tackle this? Saving the sitcom. Combating networks. It’s a big thing to tackle.
Because it is a big thing to tackle. That seemed like the biggest challenge and the most fun to me. Seeing the sitcom is almost like seeing an unused theme park, where all it needs is cleaning up a bit. The rides still work, but all you see is an abandoned theme park. So it just seemed like a fun project. It seemed like a fun thing to do. (Laughs.)
I love that analogy. Sitcomland is an abandoned theme park. Desolate right now, but the structure’s still there for fun if someone bothers to fix it up.
You know what I mean? There’s nothing sadder than an abandoned theme park. But it can be smart. It can be funny. It can be a thing that young people and the smart viewing audience watch and feel proud of watching. There’s a lot of television content that we watch and then we talk trash about. We want content that you can take pride in watching. Where you feel smarter for watching. That’s the challenge and that’s what we’re aiming for and we have time to grow. If not, I have six episodes that I’m very happy with and we’ll see how people respond.