Jerrod Carmichael Finds the Outer Limits of Confessional Comedy

In 2015, the comic Jerrod Carmichael co-created and starred in an NBC sitcom called “The Carmichael Show.” Shot in front of a live audience, the show had a retro feel, gesturing back to the nineties. But it was also part of an exploratory and influential wave of “auteur television” that was flourishing at the time, with the semi-autobiographical work of comics and actors like Louis C.K., Lena Dunham, and Issa Rae. Set in Carmichael’s home state of North Carolina, the show was based on his own family, including his devout Christian mother and his rigid father. In its first season, Carmichael’s character decides that he would rather lie to his parents about the fact that he’s living with his girlfriend than bear their disapproval. “My mom’s going to give a million reasons from the Bible why that’s wrong,” he argues to his girlfriend, as she pleads with him to tell the truth.

These days, Carmichael is less interested in keeping secrets. In fact, he is building an entire phase of his career around obsessively dragging skeletons into the light. In 2022, he released a quiet, artful standup special called “Rothaniel,” in which he came out as gay and talked about the revelation that his father had kept a second family secret for decades. For the past two months, HBO has been airing “Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show,” an invigorating and discomfiting new series about the personal fallout of that special. Visually, tonally, and substantively, the series makes a thrilling leap from the staid comedic and narrative conventions of “The Carmichael Show,” and is evidence that there is still fresh terrain left to be explored in our social-media-addled era of oversharing and innovative ideas to be wrung from our largely unimaginative landscape of meta-culture.

Despite its title, “Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show” lives somewhere in the electrifying intersection of documentary and reality television. In between confessional standup sets, Carmichael explores the various characters and subjects that are plaguing him: an unrequited love, sexual compulsions, old friends he is inelegantly trying to fit into his new Hollywood life, and semi-estranged parents who are still grappling with his sexual identity. To Carmichael, nothing is sacred but the truth. He invites the camera to record precoital make-out sessions with anonymous Grindr hookups, therapy sessions discussing his irrepressible sex habits and infidelities, and a series of awkward conversations with his parents about his love life and about their own past choices. When showing his father a photo of his boyfriend, Mike, Carmichael chooses one that seems designed to maximize discomfort. “That’s him out the shower the other day,” he says, holding up a shirtless photo on an iPhone. His father lets out an uneasy grunt, and the scene lingers on the stunned silence.

Is Carmichael submitting his loved ones to untold humiliations for the sake of the cameras? Absolutely. But he admits that he might need the cameras as emotional life rafts more than they need him as a subject. As he confronts his father over his extramarital affairs, the atmosphere between the two grows unbearably tense. His father says, “I got feelings, too. The way that you don’t want to be hurt, I don’t want to be hurt. . . . This is not to be discussed on cameras.” Carmichael responds, “If the cameras help me, then they fuckin’ help me. . . . Your way is silence. Your way is death.” He adds, “Yes, I’m afraid to have these conversations without them.” The mood of the series would verge into sadism if Carmichael weren’t so willing to appear in an unflattering light. There is, somehow, very little posturing in such an otherwise slick and cunning project. The comic is often depicted in various forms of bratty unrest, pacing around his luxury apartment, trying on designer clothes and bailing on his most important social obligations in dramatic fashion. “I’m selfish all the time,” he says at one point. At the beginning of an episode, he tells a standup audience, “I have this problem.” He continues, “I only like to do exactly what I want to do.”

Carmichael and his co-creator, the director Ari Katcher, sneak plenty of heavy topics—sexual identity, religion, friendship, family, celebrity, trauma—into the bingeable series. But at the heart of these musings, some of which are more successful than others, is a potent question: Is the point of comedy to make people laugh or excavate your demons? One of the most affecting episodes of the series focusses on Jamar Neighbors, a close friend of Carmichael’s who is also a standup comic. The two represent opposite sides of an evolving comedy landscape that increasingly favors personal history and revelation over conventional joke writing; whereas Carmichael sticks to the confessional, Neighbors still prefers traditional setups and punch lines. Carmichael brings his friend on the road with him and urges him, sometimes condescendingly, to lean into his past, to “just be a victim.” “Man, I don’t want to do fucking therapy comedy!” Neighbors protests. “Jeff Bezos is going to space, Why are you still thinking about your motherfucking foster mama?” he continues. “Jeff Bezos is going to space because it’s some shit he can’t talk to his mama about,” Carmichael responds. This lightning-in-a-bottle conversation illuminates the purpose of this project, and validates Carmichael’s emphasis on the personal: the exchange is much more vivid because it’s not just clever dialogue written into a script; a real friendship is at stake.

Many have lamented that pop culture is in a death spiral, devoid of original stories to tell and in a state of hopeless, navel-gazing stagnation. Reboots, never-ending sequels, and I.P.-churning “ripped from the headlines” films and series are perhaps the most demoralizing evidence that culture is eating its own tail. “Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show,” although ethically dubious, creates a hall of mirrors that is impossible to turn away from. Its success lies in an uncanny hybrid of access journalism and fourth-wall breaking. Carmichael has financial and professional power over most of the loved ones that he features in the series, and he is able to coerce them into filming varieties of difficult conversations and confrontations. (For one, there is the coup of getting Carmichael’s friend, the famously press-wary rapper Tyler, the Creator, to talk about his feelings on camera.) The crew and cameras develop new layers of meta-narrative: Mike, a fiction writer and the moral bedrock of the show, allows the camera into their couples’ therapy sessions. At one point, the therapist asks Jerrod how he is feeling about monogamy. He stumbles over his words, and the camera zooms in. “And then the cameraman just leapt to get in his face,” Mike says later. “And I knew then, that they know something that I don’t.”

In the season finale, which culminates in his mother visiting him in New York, Carmichael sits in a theatre alongside a masked friend who’s been counselling him on the project throughout the series. (This person is believed to be Bo Burnham.) The figure cleverly serves as a proxy for an audience. “What the fuck is this show? That is so upsetting,” the friend tells Carmichael as they watch footage of a heated conversation in which his mother argues that homosexuality is a choice. The episode then jumps to footage Carmichael shot as a teen-ager on Mother’s Day. It’s poignant evidence of the past bond between Carmichael and his mother and of the comic’s lifelong need to narrativize his life.

Early in the series, Carmichael explains, “I’m trying to ‘Truman Show’ myself.” But the work that “Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show” resembles most intensely, whether intentionally or not, is that of the enfant-terrible experimental filmmaker Caveh Zahedi, who has lived in relentless pursuit of on-camera truthtelling for four decades. Like Carmichael, Zahedi is a compulsive person, and he once made a film about his sex addiction. More recently, he created an experimental and sometimes virtuosic Web series called “The Show About the Show,” which includes an episode about the aftereffects of the taping of the previous episode. The series, though obscure, was a brilliant feat, successfully capturing the realities of being an artist. It also exploded Zahedi’s personal life and led him to divorce his wife, who became increasingly vexed by his insistence on putting their family’s life onscreen.

Carmichael, to his credit, seems to be loyal to forces greater than his own art and his own idea of truth. For one, he seems to have an unbreakable fealty to his audience. The people who watch him perform standup receive the best version of Carmichael: thoughtful, relaxed, warm, open, and engaging. Often, he will send a stressful text before getting onstage and then hash out his anxieties with the audience while he waits for a response. He earnestly welcomes insight and feedback on his life from his crowds, and he often regales them with secrets he has not yet confessed to his loved ones. Watching these scenes, you can almost feel his family members yearning to be treated like these strangers. ♦

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