From “On the Count of Three” to his tell-all HBO special, Carmichael tells IndieWire he’s been telling his story in public for years.
Jerrod Carmichael was sitting on Bo Burnham’s couch and realized it might be time to get out. “It just hit me,” Carmichael said over the phone last week. “I felt like I had so much to say and the stand-up felt so immediate.”
The result was a routine that eventually evolved into “Rothaniel,” 35-year-old Carmichael’s riveting and outspoken HBO special in which he announces he’s gay to an unsuspecting audience. The show, which Burnham directed, transcends the boundaries of traditional comedy special on several occasions: it is a dark, almost noir one-man show in which Carmichael invites the audience into his psyche, as he struggles with the his mother’s resistance to his sexuality and the broader sense of repression he felt in real time. Even the fun bits are tinged with melancholy and introspective wonder as Carmichael proves such a personal centerpiece that audiences feel compelled to offer advice.
Although “Rothaniel” arrived as a revelation when it dropped on HBO in April, the comic had been considering the potential for revealing his sexuality through his work for quite a while. “I intended to do something around the release, but it was closer to Spalding Gray than traditional stand-up,” he said. “It just triggered that way.”
Carmichael hosted “SNL” the week the special was released and has been praising it ever since, but has dreaded this moment for much longer. The seeds of “Rothaniel” are actually scattered throughout Carmichael’s oeuvre, and the more he talks about it, the clearer it becomes that he has spent his entire career setting the stage for this moment.
While “The Carmichael Show” solidified his blend of comedy and wry social observation, a series of later works deepened his interpersonal quest to put his true self on camera. In 2019’s “Home Videos,” Carmichael interviews his own Wintston-Salem, North Carolina family as a microcosm of the black family experience, and casually mentions to his mother that he’s dated men. . This was followed by a companion piece, “Sermon on the Mount”, where the subject is not discussed at all. The following year, Carmichael’s directorial debut “On the Count of Three,” in which he plays a frustrated young man in a suicide pack with his unhinged boyfriend (Christopher Abbott), premiered at Sundance. It finally came out this month, but Carmichael acknowledged it was a different time in his life.
“It’s strange to have such a distant version of this more recent work,” he said. “Film is the last cry of my youth. I felt like I was at my wit’s end and had to share it. During the pandemic, he began free association therapy and accepted a purer approach to self-expression. “My life started to be more about jumping, and that was my specialty,” he said. “It will now be reflected in everything I work on.”
Carmichael said he dated longtime writing partner Ari Katcher shortly before “Home Videos,” and originally planned to date his mother on camera. “I felt like I was almost there, and then I regressed,” he said. “With ‘Rothaniel’, I was finally able to articulate it and reconcile it with my manhood.” By then, he said, he had come out to most of his friends. But just as Burnham explored his own 30th birthday in last year’s “Inside” special, Carmichael felt the pressure to maintain his authenticity in the work itself.
Still, the first time Carmichael started performing with material for “Rothaniel” during an impromptu set at the Comedy Store, “I was terrible that night,” he said. “I relied on old stuff. Bo said it would take me at least a year to get there. But then, one night, I found him.
Carmichael eventually came out on the road multiple times while making sets in Atlanta and Austin. “Because of the rules of masculinity, I’m presumed straight by the public,” he said. “There’s always a person who says they knew, but – yes, of course. If I show up tonight in front of a crowd that may not know me, I’ll have to come out. He’s learned to accept the answer from the public, who finally made their way into the special. “I’m going to have gasps, which is so funny,” he said. “People don’t mean any harm, it’s unintentional, but it’s “is absurd, isn’t it? I live my life in fear and all of a sudden I’m on stage with a microphone and I’m constantly telling people. The reaction of the audience who thought they knew me, it’s is like telling my family over and over again.(Carmichael said his mother still hasn’t come to terms with his sexuality.)
On both sides of the camera, Carmichael projects a restless creative intelligence, as if every moment is another opportunity to pursue a great idea. In “Rothaniel”, he often pauses, lost in thought, before springing to attention with an extended routine. Off camera, he’s not too different. “Jerrod is the kind of guy who’s not into small talk,” said filmmaker Josh Safdie, who worked on a “48 Hours” script with Carmichael that never came to fruition. “He engages exclusively in big, heartfelt, but cutting, discussions.” Lil Rel Howery, who starred on “The Carmichael Show,” echoed that sentiment. “What makes Jerrod a singular artist is his honesty in all the material he creates,” he said. “If there’s no truth to it or it doesn’t feel real, he won’t create it.”
Carmichael admitted that he would rather let his work speak for itself. “Actually, I’m shy,” he said. “No one believes me. Even as a kid, when I was making movies for the class, I would leave the room while they were watching. I’m not on Twitter. I don’t need to play a role in consumption. J I’ve already done my part. He embarked on a mini-story of his childhood obsession with camcorders, which led to early attempts at music videos and other projects. He began to reminisce about his first attempt to produce a morning TV show as a fifth grader, then he apologized for raving. “Is that getting old? Everything is a story? He asked. “I didn’t never really been a storyteller before. That’s what changed. I felt this urge to tell these stories now – my own stories.
In retrospect, he added, his latest work speaks to a larger whole, even if the full equation had previously eluded him. “Things started to fit together more,” he said. “I’ve always tried to fit everything into the autobiography, from ‘Home Videos’ to interviews with Howard Stern. It’s kind of just one thing.
At the same time, he’s got a lot of imagination: Carmichael has never been chased on a motorcycle by police officers after chasing his therapist on a bizarre one-day quest for revenge, as his character does in “On the Count of Three”. The breathless pace and fatalistic humor of the film suggest the makings of an up-and-coming filmmaker.
When the film premiered at Sundance, more than one reviewer compared the story to “Thelma and Louise,” which caught Carmichael off guard. “I’ve never seen ‘Thelma and Louise’ beyond a few clips,” he said. Instead, he says, he turned to Hal Ashby’s “Being There” and especially “My Dinner With Andre,” a key influence on much of his work. “It’s the world I come from – words, words, words,” he said. “How do you make words interesting for an hour? How to make the perspective interesting for an hour? Coming from this world in the movies, the whole dialogue is so invoked. Something with that much conversation is going to be a point of reference. This film was like ‘My dinner with André’ with a helicopter.
A self-confessed New York moviegoer, Carmichael said he stole a shot of the film from “Phantom Thread,” though he declined to say more. “You have to guess! It’s obvious and not as well designed,” he laughed. “I’m sure I steal a lot of shit.”
Carmichael credits his recent progress to a supportive community that includes the likes of Burnham, Katcher and fellow writing partner Ryan Welch rather than industry connections. “It’s always been crazy to me that people view their managers and agents that way,” he said. ” Do not mistake yourself. I think my manager and my agents are great at what they do. But they work for you. It’s so crazy that people forget that. They work for you! You can collaborate with them, but the only reason you have them is probably because you were an individual at one point. Losing that is just…” He trailed off. “I mean, I understand.”
In “Rothaniel”, Carmichael admits that going out publicly has an effect on his public persona in ways beyond his control. However, he was reluctant to leverage the moment into a larger cause. “I have no interest in speaking for large groups of people,” he said. “I’m gay so I’ll probably tell a gay story, and I’m black and I’ll probably tell a black story. But it will be by accident. I think that’s the role of the artist. I am not a senator. I am not speaking for a region. The whole thing is that I go and try to create something to present to the room.
In that sense, he was reluctant to think about how his work might play for various audiences. “Intrinsically, if I claim to represent black people, I do so for white people,” he said. “Do you understand what I’m saying? These things relate to each other. If you represent yourself, that’s the best way to represent black people. Especially if you’re gay. You see this all the time. Usually, rep stuff is awful They try to mean so much they can’t have a reunion beyond the initial promotional sweep.
He laughed again and continued. “Man, that’s so funny,” he said. “When I hear like diversity and stuff like that is like yo just tell me the movie or show is bad without saying it’s bad. If I hear “first” or “making history”, I think “Oh, this is going to be terrible”. This is going to be the worst shit. I say this because I have nothing to do with any of this and I want nothing to do with any of this. Long Inside Stories: This is the shit where I’m like, ‘What the hell is going on with you?’ “