If 'Carmichael Show' Topics Feel Uncomfortable, That's Because They're Real
Photos: Chris Haston/NBC
When comic Jerrod Carmichael moved from his hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C., to Los Angeles in 2008, he was 20 years old and without any stand-up experience. Still, that didn't stop him from jumping into the city's comedy scene.
"What I believe in more than anything is my ability to figure something out," Carmichael tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "So I moved to LA with the intention of figuring out stand-up comedy. ... I wanted to work on stand-up; I wanted to be great at stand-up."
Now 29, Carmichael is the creator and star of the NBC sitcom The Carmichael Show. On the show, he plays a character, also named Jerrod Carmichael, who debates with his family about complicated, often uncomfortable topics. Recent episodes delved into the ethics of attending a Bill Cosby comedy show or whether or not it's OK to use Plan B, the "morning-after pill," when a condom breaks.
Carmichael says that the family debates on the show are inspired by real life. "I grew up in a household that's very argumentative ... in a very healthy way," he says. "My life, I like to say, is populated like Lincoln's cabinet. It's just a bunch of people [who] disagree with me and [who are] on a quest for the truth. ... That's who I am and who my friends and my family are, so it just made sense for the show."
On using his family members' real names in the show
The reason I use my real name for the show and even my parents' [names] to a certain extent, is that it holds me accountable. ...
The thing with your name on it, you want to protect and you want to be the best version that it could possibly be. If your welcome mat of your home had your last name on it, you would kinda wipe some leaves off of it every now and then I imagine. You don't want your name to have anything on it, so that's how I feel about the show. I want to protect it. I want my real name and I want my real perspective.
On discovering comedy at a young age
Comedy gave me a very strong sense of self worth. I remember kind of discovering it in 8th grade, and I discovered it through reading and I discovered it through knowledge and being able to turn information and emotion on its head. ...
I remember [my 8th grade teacher] had me read the newspaper everyday. I started gathering information and I started having this insatiable thirst for information and news and how people felt. ... And I became the popular kid at a young age just through comedy.
On an episode he did about Bill Cosby
When we did the episode about Cosby, it was more so a mirror than it was us making any accusation. So I respected him as an artist and respected his work and that's what I'm talking about in the episode. I'm saying "Hey, but this work is still good." ... But I wasn't holding anything back and saying "Oh we have to protect ..."
The intention was to find a truth from my life and apply that to the show — and the truth was how difficult it is to separate the two [the artist and his art]. It's about the difficulty. It's about looking in the mirror and saying, "Alright well, now knowing these things, how do I compartmentalize and should I and is it right to?" ... Do you burn the [Bill Cosby] records? Is that experience ruined? They're just so many questions around it.
On growing up in a working class neighborhood in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Growing up where I grew up, a lot of things that shouldn't feel unreachable feel unreachable. I didn't know people who made it in the entertainment industry, but I also didn't know any doctors and I also didn't know any lawyers. ... Not being around that, you don't think that's an option. You don't know what your options are. You don't know what you can do. And I was really blessed to have people that allowed me to realize that the world is mine as well.
On a joke in which Carmichael says he's "starting to appreciate slavery"
The thought behind [the joke] is that without slavery I wouldn't be in America. That's a guy dealing with taking this heinous, horrible thing that is slavery and trying to find a silver lining, which is [the fact that] we are in America with a lot of opportunity.
The question begs: Would I trade slavery for this experience? Or was slavery — and even the pain you can use to motivate you and what's left over from it — do I take that and use it as fuel? ... In a sense, am I thankful that slavery happened? And it's weird that a lot of people shut down ... and just dismiss it as "No, that's not a thought you're supposed to have," but it's a very real thought and a really real question.