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For a comedian of notoriously low-key style, Jerrod Carmichael knows how to make an entrance. His debut HBO comedy special, Jerrod Carmichael: Love at the Store, also happened to be his first-ever stand-up TV performance, and the first for which The Comedy Store’s legendary Original Room permitted cameras inside. Oh yeah, and it was directed by Spike Lee, and the DP was Matthew Libatique, who shot Black Swan and Iron Man. Carmichael was 26. His delivery is casual – he’s known to bring notebooks on stage and abandon lines mid-act if he decides they don’t work – but his jokes have all the languor of a heat-seeking missile. Some of them rattled even Lee, who suggested he not do his Trayvon Martin riff in the film – advice Carmichael politely declined to heed.
So how does a 20 year-old who never did standup before moving to L.A. from North Carolina command that kind of attention, not to mention his own network TV show a few years later? Out of context, it seems incredible. With some backstory, you might’ve seen it coming. Despite coming from a neighborhood that could be tough (two of his friends were murdered, some sold drugs) and low on access to cutting-edge entertainment, Carmichael was an autodidact, with parents who fostered debates about entertainment, religion and politics. The boys he hung out with did funny shows for girls in the neighborhood, and in school, he learned what it felt like to hold (if not win) a room. He also learned that his largely minority, under-funded school system wasn’t going to get him where he needed to be. In his mind, that was L.A., opening for guys like Louis C.K. Once he decided standup was an option, he figured that’s where he should be.
And that’s where he ended up, working small standup clubs and showcases. He got his big break playing Garf in Neighbors; when you nimbly steal scenes from Seth Rogen and Zac Efron in your first feature movie, people notice. For all the auditions that opened up for him, he walked out of quite a few. Carmichael seems artistically incapable of taking any roles that don’t feel right just to get his name out there.
It’s getting out there anyway, even if it doesn’t always go down easy. Chappelle Show creator Neal Brennan said, ‘‘at its best, Jerrod’s standup shows America/humanity at its worst — capitalist, cutthroat, cynical, narcissistic.’’ If his disarming, cheerful delivery adds to our discombobulation, it also powers the laughs – most of the time.
In a major 2016 profile, The New York Times Magazine wrote, “At work here is a fundamental reconsideration of a joke teller’s function: With Carmichael, the goal is not only to orchestrate a series of raucous eruptions — signaling, as they do, a simpatico mind meld with the audience — but to generate rifts of displeasure, confusion and anger too.” If his tendency to punch down induces some queasiness in his audience or provokes critics to label him a race-traitor, his intent is to rattle us out of our assumed worldview.
Following that line of thought, consider his new NBC sitcom The Carmichael Show, in which no topic is off limits for his fictional opinionated family, including Carmichael’s old-school father, Joe (David Alan Grier), his devoutly religious mother, Cynthia (Loretta Devine) and his progressive live-in girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West). Through each, Carmichael raises a skeptical eyebrow without ever telling us which view to take. And this is important. It’s a standard-format, prime time sitcom…for adults. We’re invited to a conversation instead of being cudgeled with one joke after another. Maybe that’s why the great Norman Lear himself is a fan. ‘‘Jerrod helps America look at itself in the mirror. He sees the foolishness of the human condition — he understands that there is humor to be found in the darkest of places.’’
As for Carmichael, “I think there’s a responsibility as an artist to try and push in the direction you think comedy should go. The biggest thing I could do for the art that I love is keeping it art: keeping it special, keeping it honest, keeping it truthful.” Whether we like it or not.