“Sabrina’s Christmas Wish,” the holiday episode of BoJack Horseman’s show-within-a-show Horsin’ Around, opens with a familiar, nostalgic turn of phrase uttered by its star, BoJack Horseman: “Horsin’ Around is filmed before a live studio audience.” The “live studio audience” makes its presence known almost immediately, laughing with robotic, near-monotone enthusiasm at every winking joke; simultaneous “ooh”-ing and “aww”-ing at romantic or sad moments; applauding when the show’s breakout character makes his grand entrance. There’s even an overly enthusiastic audience member who shouts random comments from the audience. (“That’s my favorite line!”) The jokes are cheesy, the “actors” ham-fistedly telegraphic in their line delivery, and BoJack Horseman milks this for all its got—brilliantly satirizing the very real, ’90s-flavored corniness of the multicamera, studio audience sitcom setup.
When NBC’s The Carmichael Show, currently in the midst of its second season, premiered, Reddit and YouTube commenters were put off by its aesthetic, and even while praising it, hardly any critic has been able to write about the show without pointing out its laugh track and/or referring to it as “old-school” or a “throwback.” Of course, the multicamera format is still thriving in certain cases. But for every ratings success story à la Big Bang Theory, there are several new multicam sitcoms that have petered out (Mulaney, Mr. Robinson, Truth Be Told)—lacking either the reliable, simple laughs to appeal to mass American tastes or the nuance and originality to appeal to critics. And yet The Carmichael Show has drawn solid ratings and become NBC’s most high-profile and talked about sitcom in the 2015–2016 season. And it’s done so by both playing into its live-audience format and relying less on the broad humor that is so often associated with it.
At its core, The Carmichael Show is a sitcom, but over the course of its two (short) seasons, it’s mined more comedy and conflict out of conversation than it has from actual situations. The series primarily revolves around having its six main characters—led by co-creator and star Jerrod Carmichael—debate topical social issues: whether it’s worth it to actively protest police brutality, the merits of a healthy diet, the costs of cheating on a significant other. Occasionally, the story will take place in a different environment, with one-off characters popping in to contribute to or fuel these heated discussions, as with Jordan, Jerrod’s Big Brother mentee, who confides that she is transgender in the episode “Gender.” But for the most part, the staging is simple, confined to the homes of Jerrod and his girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens) and Jerrod’s parents, Cynthia and Joe (Loretta Devine and David Alan Grier, respectively). The show also dispenses almost entirely of concurrent B-plots, allowing them all to interact with each other in straightforward, linear ways.
This simple storytelling structure actually plays up the theatricality of The Carmichael Show, allowing it to truly feel like we’re sitting in on a play and thus in one way justifying the use of a live audience. The best example of this is in the show’s highly praised episode centered on the legacy of Bill Cosby. But it can be seen all over other episodes as well: In “Perfect Storm,” where Maxine and Cynthia land on either side of the abortion issue after Maxine and Jerrod attempt to procure the Plan B contraception pill, a scene that spirals into a conversation not just about pro-life or pro-choice, but gender roles in marriage and whether Maxine and Jerrod want to have kids. Or when Joe comes to terms with the death of his father, with Jerrod taking him to task for memorializing a man who was controlling and abusive.
The fact that the show keeps the “action” largely restricted to a volley of opinions makes it seem unusually natural to have a live audience audibly reacting to these thoughts. It can feel like watching a presidential debate or the ladies of The View, except, crafted in a way that is smarter and more propulsive and self-aware. And Carmichael actively plays with that live audience. In a New York Timesprofile of the comedian from February, Jonah Weiner describes viewing a cut of the second season’s first episode and the audience’s “audible disapproval” of a cancer joke that hadn’t been erased from the laugh track. Carmichael told him, “Usually you don’t keep that take, you use an [alternative]. But at the taping, I just kept saying that same line, so there is no alt. The crowd kind of winces. You hear them react to it unhappily. I’m like, keep that reaction.”
While the skeleton of the show is old-school in both its aesthetic and its handling of “Very Special Episode” topics (in the grand tradition of Norman Lear and plenty of ’90s sitcoms), it peddles the sort of humor we typically associate with today’s single-camera sitcoms—that is, more nuanced and less “broad.” While making its many, thoughtful points, it doesn’t grandstand or call attention to itself through dialogue meant to wink knowingly at the audience. See Lakeisha’s informed, but still very funny, explanation for why she didn’t tell Jerrod’s brother Bobby she was on birth control while they were still married and, ostensibly, trying to conceive: “When you look at the big picture, we were not in a situation to be having a baby. You didn’t have a job, I didn’t have a job—that’s good enough reason right there.” It’s a serious, life-altering revelation, but it also flies by—no audience “woo!”s to interrupt the flow here.
Many of today’s multicamera sitcoms face an uphill battle in trying to convince audiences—and critics—that they can be both funny and thought-provoking at the same time. But The Carmichael Show is the rare sitcom that uses the multicamera format not just as a grab for familiar, nostalgic mass appeal—but as a way to create a new form altogether.