Jerrod Carmichael Is Reinventing The Family Sitcom As We Know It

'The Carmichael Show' is the only family sitcom tackling Trump and the n-word.

Jerrod Carmichael

Image via NBC

Jerrod Carmichael

Jerrod Carmichael has been praised for his wit, his social consciousness and his relatability. But honestly, the trait that makes the 30-year-old comedian’s brand of humor so successful? He has no time for bullshit.

And on a late Friday afternoon this spring while lounging on one of the chairs on the set of his NBC series, The Carmichael Show, he has some thoughts on Tesla owners—i.e. the group of Next Generation Limousine Liberals of which he has recently become a member.

“I know the appropriate interview response to that is yeah, I love Teslas; I love how they’re saving the environment. But that’s bullshit,” he says, thus completely validating the first paragraphs of this profile. “Why would I lie to you? That was maybe the sixth thought that went through my head when buying that car and that’s being generous. I’m like ‘oh man it has autopilot and a lot of cool features.’ And most people that buy the car, if they’re being honest with you [will say the same] … we had environmentally friendly options before, but it wasn’t until [company chairman and co-founder] Elon Musk made it stylish or exciting to do that people fell in line and started doing it.”

Nothing about that candidness should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Carmichael’s work. You see this in his stand-up routines, which have gone after slavery and police brutality but also boiler-plate subjects of dating, babies, yawn, yawn, yawn but with such a quick-turn savagery that we, the captivated audience, would never expect from such a sweet, docile-voiced young man (a favorite from Jerrod Carmichael: 8, his HBO special from earlier this year: "You know what the difference is between a miracle and mistake?" "Two trimesters”). 

And, most importantly, you see it his semi-autobiographical NBC series. Carmichael Show has broken down the hard truths on racial injustice, misogyny, stereotypes, politics and pretty much every other issue worth Tweeting or calling your congressperson over. But this time, he and the co-creators of a seemingly innocuous sitcom about an African-American family in North Carolina have infiltrated airwaves to share their liberal perspective with the masses thanks to the aid of one of the oldest, and possibly the most placating, television formats in the United States: The multi-camera comedy.

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Carmichael, now looking the epitome of chill AF in a worn Thelonious Monk T-shirt and jeans with huge holes in the knees, admits that this arguably uncool format that has worked so well for hits like The Big Bang Theory, Friends, or I Love Lucy might make his series hard to approach. He thinks “young people kind of run away from the multi-cam,” because a lot of shows that do use it “typically aren’t very smart or speaking a language that even remotely appeals to young people.” But he loves the style, saying “it’s a stage play and we can’t use any tricks. We’re not playing music over someone saying [something emotional]. I can’t cut to anything. It’s just us: this person, their face, their words, played out in front of an audience. It’s direct and it’s immediate.”

It isn’t just the actors who are put in the spotlight. The show’s habit of debating issues like Black Lives Matter, the awkward dichotomy that is Bill Cosby’s legacy or whether an African-American would really vote for Trump (Carmichael’s unapologetically politically incorrect dad, who is played by David Alan Grier, but still …)—also make the audience pause. At a recent table read of a third season episode, which returns May 31, I—a white woman in her 30s—never felt more guilty for laughing. Why? Because the episode is about the “N” word. Specifically: Who is allowed to say it and when. And yes, the racial slur will be said in full and will air unedited.

The show’s sleight of hand is that it packages this heavy content around more traditional sitcom fare. The Trump episode also includes talk of Carmichael’s character marrying longtime girlfriend, Maxine (Amber Stevens West). The upcoming episode’s plot is ostensibly about an attempt to do something nice for matriarch Cynthia (Loretta Devine).

“The thing about the subjects that we choose is it makes you cautious,” Carmichael says. “You don’t want to say something just to offend someone. You have to have some perspective behind it, otherwise you’re just saying buzzwords. I’m not trying to make anyone mad. If someone’s anger is a byproduct of an honest discussion, then so be it.” 

He also has trouble with the word “offend,” which is a word you’d think he’d be used to at this point in his career. “When someone says they’re offended, are you saying it’s a bad thing that someone said something that you disagree with?,” he says. “That’s what discourse is. I have trouble with people’s trouble with being offended.” 

Carmichael knows that his series and its premise of showing a normal (especially by TV comedy standards) African American family to white audiences is naturally going to draw comparisons to Cosby. (Even though, c’mon: See also ABC’s Emmy-nominatedblack-ish, Marlon Wayans’ upcoming NBC sitcom, Marlon or long-departed shows like Bernie Mac). 

He says he has met Cosby, pre-sex scandal or “back when it was cool,” and jokes that “I wore more sweaters back then.” But his show’s lineage can also be traced to the works of Norman Lear, the fedora-favoring sitcom god known for button-pushers like Maude and The Jeffersons and who is currently executive producing a provocative revival of his One Day at a Time on Netflix. The admiration is mutual.

“I think the world of him,” Lear says in a phone interview. “He’s a wonderful young man and a wonderful performer and I think his show is just terrific. There’s an awful lot of caring and paying attention going on. This is about a group of people who live in the moment … I think the [Trump episode] is wonderfully funny. I think the situation is too serious, but that’s what makes it funny.”

Lear isn’t bothered by the racial slur—after all, Carroll O'Connor’s cantankerous Archie Bunker also famously said it uncensored in Lear’s groundbreaking, All in the Family.

“This whole business about the ‘n’ word, it wouldn’t be the fearsome thing it is—don’t dare to go there—if they acknowledge that it’s a nasty word, but it’s a word. There are people who use it and don’t mean anything behind it. It’s better that we talk about it.”

Carmichael doesn’t mind that race is such a factor in his work. Plus, he says, “I have to embrace the time and be honest to the time and not have this antiquated way of thinking.”

“There’s a world of people and you can really feel a shift in culture where I think it’s the first time in history where black people are allowed to just be human; just be human beings especially in America,” he says, although “that’s not to say that there’s not problems because I don’t want to just sound unaware of the very real issues in the community.”

What he wants is what every artist should want.

“As long as people pause and turn to their [family] and ask a question, then I hope we can contribute to it,” he says, sounding completely sincere with absolutely no hint of bullshit.

An earlier version of this story suggested than the third season premiere of NBC's The Carmichael Show would handle a discussion of the "n" word. That episode airs later in the season.

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