Jerrod Carmichael is championing a new generation of sitcom with a dose of social commentary -- and no shortage of laughs.
By the time the 30-year-old standup-turned-actor, writer, and producer of NBC's "The Carmichael Show" was born in 1987, the heyday of the kind of issue-minded, debate-inciting half-hour network comedy that had reigned -- best evidenced by producer Norman Lear's epic roster of classic series including "All in the Family," "Maude," "One Day at a Time," "The Jeffersons," and "Good Times" -- was over, and warmer family- and workplace-driven sitcoms would largely prevail for the next few decades.
But in 2015 -- well before the current moment on non-stop, often heated political and social discourse ensured -- Carmichael brought sharp, often biting commentary back to the sitcom (as had "blackish" a year earlier) with the debut of his series, which during its first two midseason runs generated much critical praise for its injection of topical elements into its humorous plotlines, using its character's different perspective to explore everything from Black Lives Matter and LGBT rights, to Bill Cosby and Donald Trump.
Now "Carmichael," the show, and Carmichael, the star, are back for a third season after nearly a year off the air, and the comedy fodder is as relevant as ever, including issues of sexual consent, patriotism, gun violence, and same sex marriage. And as Carmichael tells Moviefone, he hopes that by leavening the explorations with laughter, perhaps the real-life conversations that result will open minds to other viewpoints.
Moviefone: How did the success of Season 2 and the kinds of stories that you were telling and getting such a positive response creatively energize you for Season 3?
Jerrod Carmichael: It forced you, not forced, but encouraged us to kind of go deeper on things and let us know what our audience could handle. It showed us that there is an appetite in the world for very truthful conversations. And you kind of test the waters a little bit throughout the season, but we got more comfortable and more confident in the writing because of that. People's response was really beautiful, and it inspired us, I think, to come stronger.
The finale of Season 2, the Trump episode, was very well done, in a really fair and measured way. Given how politically minded everybody has been in the last few months, do you want to keep going in that kind of direction, figuring out how to play both sides of an issue?
That's the fun, for me, as a person, as a standup comedian, it's all about the challenge, challenging whatever your core beliefs are, because it's the only way to really test the mettle of them. So with that Trump episode for instance, it really was the true feelings of "I need to actually try and inject some sort of discourse -- like, true discourse, and nuanced understanding of one another."
So that's just such a true perspective. We try and lean into that with every topic -- not just Trump, but really anything that we do. Just seeing the other side. I think that's probably what so much of the show is about. It's about just trying to see the other side.
Do you have a lot of good debates going on behind the scenes in the writers' room?
Oh, constantly! It's not good unless somebody's mad. Unless someone's arguing and really feeling it. Amongst like me and Danielle [Sanchez-Witzel, executive producer], and me and Ari Katcher, who we write a lot with. It's always a sense of curiosity and exploration for any topic. Questions that we have, unanswerable questions, are usually what we look for.
Obviously, the show's got the smaller-scale dramas that spark a lot of your comedy. Tell me what we can look forward to, as far as the personal clashes that we see on the show all the time.
We have played with a lot of character dynamics, I think, this season more than we have before, because I think we know everyone's perspective. It's fun to see each other kind of trying to help each other – their version of helping, the same way you do with your family or friends. This is the way that I live life, or things that have helped me.
Maxine tries to do that with Bobby, Cynthia and Nekeisha. I think it's warmer in a more interesting way this season, just kind of playing with everyone. Everyone on the show thinks that they're right -- not just thinks, is sure of it. It's fun having our characters trying to lead each other down a different path.
You started with a really strong group of performers. As time's gone by, I'm sure that you have all developed that sort of sense of family that makes it even easier to play these scenes, and more fun. You know how to push each other's acting buttons. Tell me about developing that, and getting to the point where you guys are now with that family feel when the cameras aren't rolling.
I just responded to a group text amongst us a few hours ago! It is a group of people that enjoy each other's company. I can't stress how helpful and important that's been to this process. It's kind of hard to say, because it's a thing that all casts say. It's a good press point: "Oh, we have so much fun, and we laugh ..." But it's like, I hope everyone else is telling the truth, because I definitely am.
It really is such an enjoyable experience. We laugh at each other, we get upset with each other, we argue with each other. It really does kind of play out like a real family. Like me, and Tiff [Haddish], and LilRel [Howrey] have known each other for years. So there was a true friendship there already.
Then over the seasons, with Amber [Stevens West], and David [Alan Grier] and Loretta [Devine], it really is just this core group. I went to church with Loretta and my mom last Sunday. It's like, sometimes, "Oh man, the show's coming to life." It really does feel like that sometimes.
As a standup, you knew what was funny, you knew how to tell a joke, you knew how to tell a story. What have you learned about that in the years that you've been on the show now -- not just acting, but having a hand in the writing and producing? What have you learned, or how have you expanded your skill set in comedy and storytelling?
It makes it hard to do standup! It makes it harder sometimes when I'm in the middle of writing the show, because it sounds like I have schizophrenia because I'm thinking from all sides at once. It's just like, my mind is like immediately arguing, even before I've made my point. It informs it because it really does make you, as a writer of such episodes, see each side of any subject.
As a standup, the most important thing is perspective. Any standup that you care about has a strong sense of perspective. That's what you spend time honing. That's what you spend time all your days just trying to lock down. I think that the show helps. I think the show contributes to that because it makes you see even outside of your own perspective. You know what I mean?
You're writing an argument, you see it, like I hear it as Jerrod, and as someone's from Joe's perspective, or Maxine, or Bobby, or Cynthia. I can kind of hear it from all of their perspectives.
What do you still love about standup? You don't get as far in the game as you got without loving it.
It's so pure. It's such a pure and immediate art form. You're on stage, and you're just baring your soul. Even if it's just jokes and thoughts, you're just up there. And it's a thing that, no matter how good your last set was, it doesn't matter. It kind of starts over each time, and it's a challenge, and I like the challenge of it, in every aspect.
I just went up at The Comedy Store the other night and probably had the worst set ever. Just so many untied thoughts. I just popped in. I try not to advertise that I'm there if I know I'm just in this place of thinking "It's the worst set ever." Even in that, there was some good feeling about it, because I'm like, "Something's there. I feel like there's something there."
So I'm excited to go do it again immediately. It's so pure, and it's just a fun thing to return to, and it's a fun thing to spark thought. You kind of have a thought and you want to see it through. Getting on stage is such a great way to see and test how you really feel about something.
It's a totally different art form working on the show, and a different kind of discipline required. Up until that first staging, there's no feedback other than your little team bubble that creates the show. What do you like about that?
It teaches you to trust your instincts. The good thing where they do go hand-in-hand as a performer, as a standup comedian, you know when something's funny, and you know when something will be meaningful to an audience. So it's like, throughout the process, you hold on to that. You hold on to your gut feeling that like, "Oh -- no, no, no, this works, and this fits."
It's fun. I felt like running with an egg, and I think that's such a true analogy. It is such a delicate thing that you just have to really trust yourself and your ability to carry it through.
A lot of people have compared your show to the classic Norman Lear-type shows. We've had several decades of things largely focused on families, workplaces, and the little things that spark comedy. Do you feel emboldened now to tell bigger stories and stories that have a little more social impact, or import?
I don't think there should have been as long of a gap between the Norman Lear era and now, as far as sitcom, multi-cam or single, as far as like what broadcast shows could do. It's been such a gap of just having honest conversations. You feel emboldened because I don't think we answer any subject or any episode with fear. It's always, we try and go beyond the fear of everything, of talking about a subject with the fear of characters being unlikeable.
That's a big one. Everybody's terrified of that. Networks, writers, creators, everyone is terrified of a character being unlikeable, or saying an unlikable thing. But that's why you get so much cheap material at sitcoms, because usually everyone's trying to protect someone from saying, "Oh, they said a bad thing."
That's why you see reaction shots where if someone does say something remotely unlikable, you see reaction shots of someone smiling at it, and just these non-human things because everyone is so terrified. But what people connect with are those thoughts. Those things that seem unlikable, but they seem real. Those are the things that we get excited to write, and create, and perform as a show.
What's appealing to you about the time of year that you guys come on? Do you feel like you've got actually an advantage being separated from the typical fall season herd?
A little bit. You want to be away from the fire. Everyone gets so excited and so much pressure on the show to do a certain amount of numbers. It makes it so detrimental and hard for a show to grow, and find its audience, and find itself. I think that we've been really blessed. We all know summer isn't the networks spot of pride, if you will. You're literally competing against the sun, literally competing against outdoors for people's attention!
But the way people watch television now, I'm really thankful that we're on Netflix, I'm really thankful that we're able to reach an audience, and try and hopefully grow an audience by the Season 3 premiere. I think being on in the summer has given us the room to grow and be away from the pressure that everyone has at a network for these fall numbers to just be killer.
Because what happens is a lot of times those shows die. Like, a new comedy dies under that much pressure because they want it to be immediately good, and comedies are about growth, and character development, and finding who someone is, and finding a rhythm. You shine this giant spotlight on a show, and it comes out in the fall, and the numbers are not what they were expecting, then they kill the show.
So we're in this age where it's hard for comedies to grow. That's why it is important for outlets like Netflix and Hulu. They used to program reruns in the summer. If you go back, even shows up until the early 2000s, things will come on in the summer so audiences that didn't catch it during the fall line could still see it and have an opportunity to see it. But they don't do it [anymore]. They'd rather make, like, reality television, which I understand. So we look for other outlets to help grow that audience.
How has your standup audience changed since you became a sitcom star?
I don't know. It's funny: I have no idea about anything because I never go out. I haven't been performing a lot this year. I taped the special, and then I just haven't really been going out a lot. The other night was like my fourth or fifth time on stage probably this year. So I don't really get a chance.
I have no idea about the audience. I have no idea. Every now and then I'll go out for a sandwich and someone will say something nice. That's my gauge. Not on social media. I don't go out. So you have to tell me -- that's my answer. Hopefully, it's grown.
I love watching standups, who have gotten mainstream big success, still go out and work out material. That's one of my favorite things to do, rather than come out with the same old jokes. I love that you went up there and just did what you did and saw how it worked.
Yeah. Growth is everything. It's like, what are you just going to lean on your old stuff? It's boring. Where's the fun and creative energy in that? Try new stuff. You'll bomb a few times, but you'll figure it out.
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