Wide Angle

Making Sense of Jerrod Carmichael’s Revelatory, Contradictory Comedy

Jerrod Carmichael sits at the mic in a red shirt looking pensive.
Jerrod Carmichael in Rothaniel. HBO

It’s true but insufficient to say that Jerrod Carmichael’s latest HBO special, Rothaniel, isn’t conventional stand-up comedy. The special’s stripped-down experimentalist approach features Carmichael in a chair, frequently smiling at the ground as he speaks, and sustaining surprisingly serious exchanges with the audience in which (unlike traditional crowdwork, or heckling) they ask him questions. It’s closer in spirit to the kind of cathartic storytelling that artists like Hannah Gadsby and Mike Birbiglia have popularized. But that’s not what makes it unique. And despite the fact that Carmichael comes out as gay in the special, it doesn’t feel right to classify Rothaniel as a coming-out story. The routine, if you can call it that, doesn’t follow those particular beats.

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A big reason for that is that Carmichael already deconstructed precisely those conventions and beats in his earlier work. He joked in one of his earlier specials, back when he was still doing ambivalent bits about wanting a girlfriend, that gay people should really use their coming-out stories to their advantage—that is, save the announcement for a moment when they really needed public support or a change in the narrative. It’s a jaundiced view that’s of a piece with several other edgy bits in his earlier work. Those are bits that, now, Rothaniel specifically and systematically refutes. These include amusingly constructed arguments in his 2017 special, 8, that cheating isn’t a big deal and in fact the sort of thing you can “earn” the right to do by making more than your partner. He also has a riff on being constitutionally incapable of caring about things (including politics, Trump’s election, the extinction of tigers, and more). The latter comes across as a slightly trollish but very funny defense of borderline sociopathic ennui.

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In Rothaniel, all those impish salvos from earlier specials get exposed as elaborate exercises in masking. Carmichael reveals that, far from finding cheating acceptable, he has long been obsessed with his father’s history of cheating on his mother (and his grandfather’s similar history). As for not caring about things, it emerges that he cared so much about this that he forced his father to finally tell his mother the truth—and has spent years, literally, wrestling with the fact that she quickly forgave him. The specials stack, that is to say, with the straight comic having earlier stomped on almost precisely what the gay comic cherishes. To travel back through Carmichael’s oeuvre is to watch his obsessions be simultaneously disguised and displayed. Always artfully, if not always sincerely (it’s comedy, after all). Take the bit about “using” the fact of one’s gayness for personal advancement. The version of Carmichael who is ready to finally come out in 2022 remains suspicious of the triumphalism with which coming-out stories are typically received these days. He’s perfectly aware that coming out to fans in New York is not “brave” in the specific sense he lampooned in 2017. He was always going to get support from the crowd in that room. What makes Rothaniel thrilling is that he’s playing to several different audiences at the same time: not just to the crowd he sometimes goes minutes without looking at, but also to the Black friends he knows perfectly well aren’t on board with him being gay and, more importantly still, to his family. The special’s most arresting moment comes when he suddenly looks into the camera and addresses the person whose rejection—described as a kind of courteous, shut-down semi-acceptance—he truly fears and is trying to break through: his mother. The relationship he’s narrated for much of the special as warm and loving and connected turns out to be hanging on by a thread.

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What goes beautifully unsaid, like a punchline so obvious you don’t need to hear it to laugh, is that two of the main stories in Rothaniel add up in parallel to a tragedy. Carmichael’s closeness to his mother, his fierce advocacy for her by demanding that his father come clean to her about his other children, is threatened by his honesty about himself. It turns out that the religious faith that makes it possible for her to forgive his father instantly, despite all he put her through, also enables her to shut down on a beloved son whose homosexuality her church has taught her to regard as wrong.

It’s a powerful juxtaposition. Still, at just under an hour, there are structural limits to what the special can achieve. Rothaniel is short, fascinating, mildly claustrophobic, and pleasurably loose. There’s a jazzy feel to it that matches the special’s opening sequence. You get the sense that you’re watching Carmichael thinking in real time, and if some of his choices are remarkably confident (like wearing an homage to Richard Pryor’s red shirt), others rely on a winsome vulnerability that works by informing the crowd he needs them back on his side. The game here isn’t to alienate them and win them over—as it was in 8—but to bring them closer.

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What I’m getting at is this: Rothaniel is, in the end, a deeply personal document that’s less interested in the stand-up it purports to be than in the family story he’s long been struggling to tell. It’s the most nakedly memoiristic of Carmichael’s specials in that it focuses on him—on Carmichael—even if it depends on the family story for much of its punch. Here, too, working backward through Carmichael’s archive is unexpectedly enriching. In 2019, the comic put out two complementary documentaries about his family: Home Videos and Sermon on the Mount. I watched them after watching Rothaniel. They’re notable for how little they bother to orient the viewer. Stand-up is a comparatively bossy genre: It requires constant narration and directs the viewer’s attention aggressively. These two projects do the opposite: He’s not at the center, he doesn’t introduce the different members of his family, and it’s sometimes not clear who exactly certain people—like a particularly loathsome pastor—even are. There are no captions, no chyrons. Just scenes of his family talking about some silly stuff and some of the biggest rifts of their lives.

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Home Videos focuses on the women in his family. That is to say, it features his mother, the figure whose importance in his life and affect and faith Carmichael tries to describe in Rothaniel. It’s always strange to see person you’ve only heard packaged by someone else speak for herself, and Carmichael really goes for it here: He questions his mother on camera about her marriage, her decision to stay and forgive, and her hopes. He asks if she’s ever wanted other men. Or women. He even mentions, as if to test the waters, that he himself has slept with men. She does not react and in her non-reaction we see—in the flesh—just a hint of the curtain coming down that Carmichael will later lament in Rothaniel.

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Sermon on the Mount mostly features his family’s men: his brother Joe and a confrontation with his father in which Carmichael nervously tries to achieve something like a true exchange. It fails spectacularly. Failure turns out to be rich new point of access to the comic. Carmichael’s laughter is an effective tool in his performances onstage, and he wields it charismatically and well. But his laughter as he tries to navigate his father’s evasiveness, redefinitions, and dodges turns it back into a coping mechanism and Carmichael back into the vulnerable son we have never quite known him as. It clarifies, that is to say, exactly how much it must have cost him to confront his father.

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These aren’t exactly easy texts to follow in isolation. Home Videos would not have landed the same way if I hadn’t seen Rothaniel because it doesn’t explain so much of what it’s doing—and who with. Sermon on the Mount is so brilliantly structured that a viewer who knows nothing about Carmichael at all could probably piece together what’s happening without too much difficulty. But what Rothaniel does is turn those three productions into a kind of trilogy about a family. They’re mutually reinforcing in a deep way that—like so much of what I’ve described already—benefits even from apparent contradictions. Hearing Carmichael’s deep anger toward his father Joe in Rothaniel allows you to appreciate just how hard he’s working in Sermon on the Mount to try to figure his father out as he gently challenges him to tell the truth. The portrait is complex: The documentary makes clear that Joe a) did a terrible thing b) is benefiting enormously from members of the community (like their pastor) defending him and c) is absolutely unwilling to be held accountable in any meaningful way. But it also makes clear, in conversation after conversation, how much Joe means to a wider community of men who didn’t have what Joe’s sister describes as “positive men” in their lives. It takes Rothaniel, in other words, to appreciate how scrupulously fair Carmichael is actually being in Sermon on the Mount to a man he doesn’t want to be particularly fair to. And it makes Carmichael’s nervousness as he confronts his dad and fails and fails again to get anything honest out of him all the more moving.

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Carmichael’s obvious interest in honesty makes the trollish bits in his older specials (about what he thinks about cheating, etc.) all the more interesting. They’re unlikely to reflect what he really thinks, and in Rothaniel he draws some parallels between the familial dishonesty that drives him crazy and his own private history of concealment, finally confessing that he’s been hiding a secret too: He’s gay, and he’s been hiding it. One way to understand this is as a confession that he shares more and less with his dad than even he realized.

Carmichael has been writing about his family forever. His sitcom, The Carmichael Show, which I have not yet seen, was about a fictional family based on his own, in which he also played a version of himself. I’ve confined this discussion to his more recent stand-up and documentary experiments but the fact is, Carmichael has been rehearsing, and rewriting, and trying to understand his own evolving place in his family for decades. His isn’t just a memoiristic project, it’s specifically a family memoir he’s attempting—an effort to grapple with ancestry and echoes and intimacy, and how people are connected through love and lies. Working my way backward through his work, I was struck at how it acquired more depth and dimension the farther back in time I went. This is one way to get to know someone’s work: You see how they used to approach a subject and how their angle of approach has evolved and matured. I can only imagine that having followed him from the beginning, in chronological order, would be just as rewarding or more. Like most great artists, Carmichael—still working those old obsessions—is getting better with time.

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