Jerrod Carmichael was sitting on Bo Burnham’s couch and realized it might be time to come out. “It just kind of hit me,” Carmichael said over the phone last week. “I felt like I had so much to say and standup just felt so immediate.”
The outcome was a routine that eventually evolved into “Rothaniel,” the 35-year-old Carmichael’s mesmerizing and candid HBO special in which he announces he’s gay to an unsuspecting audience. The show, which Burnham directed, transcends the boundaries of the traditional comedy special many times over: It’s a shadowy, almost noir-like one-man show in which Carmichael invites the audience into his psyche, as he wrestles with his mother’s resistance to his sexuality and the broader sense of repression he’s felt in real time. Even the funny bits are tinged with melancholy and soul-searching wonder while Carmichael proves such a personal centerpiece that audience feels compelled to offer advice.
Though “Rothaniel” arrived as a revelation when it dropped on HBO in April, the comic had been thinking through the potential of revealing his sexuality through his work for quite a while. “I was planning on doing something around coming out but it was closer to Spalding Gray than traditional standup,” he said. “It just kind of sparked that way.”
Carmichael hosted “SNL” the week of the special’s release and has been bathing in praise for it ever since, but has been dreading this moment for much longer. The seeds of “Rothaniel” are actually strewn throughout Carmichael’s work and, the more he talks about it, the clearer it is that he has spent his whole career setting the stage for this moment.
While “The Carmichael Show” solidified his blend of comedy and wry social observation, a series of subsequent works have 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 made out with men. That was followed by a companion piece, “Sermon on the Mount,” where the subject matter doesn’t come up at all.
The next year, Carmichael’s narrative directorial debut “On the Count of Three,” in which he plays a frustrated young man in a suicide pack with his unhinged buddy (Christopher Abbott) premiered at Sundance. It finally came out this month, but Carmichael acknowledged that it speaks to a different era of his life.
“It is odd to have a release so removed from this more recent work,” he said. “The film is the last scream of my youth. I felt like I was at the end of my rope and had to share it.” During the pandemic, he started free-associative therapy and came to terms with a purer approach to self-expression. “My life started being more about taking the leap, and that was my special,” he said. “That will now be reflected in whatever I’m working on.”
Carmichael said he came out to his longtime writing partner Ari Katcher shortly before “Home Videos,” and initially planned to come out to 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 upcoming thirtieth birthday in last year’s pandemic-shot special “Inside,” Carmichael felt the pressure to maintain his authenticity in the work itself.
Still, the first time Carmichael started toying with material for “Rothaniel” during an impromptu set at The Comedy Store, “I was terrible that night,” he said. “I was leaning on old tricks. Bo said it would take me at least a year to get there. But then, one night, I found it.”
Carmichael ultimately came out on the road several times over while doing sets in Atlanta and Austin. “Because of the rules of masculinity, I’m presumed straight by audiences,” he said. “There’s always one person who says they knew, but — yeah, sure. If I go up in front of a crowd tonight that may not know me I’d have to come out again.” He learned to embrace the audience response, which eventually made its way into the special. “I’ll get gasps, which is such a funny thing,” he said. “People don’t mean any harm, it is involuntary, but it is absurd, right? I live my life afraid and all of a sudden I’m on stage with a microphone and telling it consistently to people. The reaction with audiences who thought they knew me is like telling my family over and over.” (Carmichael has said that 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 was another opportunity to chase some big idea. In “Rothaniel,” he often trails off, lost in thought, before snapping to attention with an extended routine. Off camera, he’s not too dissimilar. “Jerrod is the kind of guy who is not interested in small talk,” said filmmaker Josh Safdie, who worked on a “48 Hours” script with Carmichael that never came to fruition. “He exclusively engages in sincere, yet cutting, big talk.”
Lil Rel Howery, who co-starred on “The Carmichael Show,” echoed that sentiment. “What makes Jerrod a singular artist is his honesty in any material he creates,” he said. “If there’s no truth in it or it doesn’t feel real, he won’t create it.”
Carmichael admitted that he would prefer to let his work speak for itself. “I’m actually shy,” he said. “No one believes me. Even as a kid when I used to make movies for the classroom, I’d leave the room while they watched. I’m not on Twitter. I don’t need to play a part in the consumption. I already did my part.” He launched into a mini-history of his childhood obsession with camcorders, which led to early attempts at music videos and other projects. He began to recall his first attempt to produce a morning TV show as a fifth grader, then he apologized for rambling on. “Is that what getting older is? Everything is a story?” he asked. “I was never really 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 the larger whole that even if the full equation eluded him before. “Things have started meshing together more,” he said. “I have always tried to pull everything into autobiography, from ‘Home Videos’ to Howard Stern interviews. It’s all kind of one thing.”
At the same time, he’s got quite the imagination: Carmichael has never been on a motorcycle chase from police officers after chasing down his therapist on a bizarre daylong quest for revenge, as his character does in “On the Count of Three.” The movie’s breathless pace and fatalistic humor suggest the makings of a promising filmmaker.
When the movie premiered at Sundance, more than one critic compared the story to “Thelma and Louise,” which caught Carmichael off-guard. “I’ve never seen ‘Thelma and Louise’ beyond a couple of clips,” he said. Instead, he said, he turned to Hal Ashby’s “Being There” and especially “My Dinner with Andre,” a key influence on much of his work. “That’s the world that I come from — words, words, words,” he said. “How do you make words interesting for an hour? How do you get perspective to be interesting for an hour? Coming from that world into filmmaking, the whole dialogue is relied upon so much. Something with that much conversation is going to be a point of reference. This film was like ‘My Dinner with Andre’ with a helicopter.”
An avowed New York cinephile, Carmichael said he stole one shot in the movie from “Phantom Thread,” though he declined to say more. “You’ve gotta guess it! It’s obvious and not as well-crafted,” he said, and laughed. “I’m sure I’m ripping off 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 any industry connections. “It’s always been wild to me that people consider their managers and agents in that way,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. I think my manager and agents are great at what they do. But they work for you. It’s so crazy 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 some point. To lose that is just…” He trailed off. “I mean, I get it.”
In “Rothaniel,” Carmichael admits that coming out publicly with have an effect on his public persona in ways beyond his control. However, he was reticent to leverage the moment into some larger cause. “ I have no interest in speaking for large groups of people ever,” 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 artist’s role. I’m not a senator. I don’t speak for a region. The whole thing is I go away and try to create something to present to the room.”
Along those lines, he was reticent to think in terms of how his work might play for various audiences. “Inherently, if I claim to represent Black people I’m doing it for white people,” he said. “You understand what I’m saying? These things are in relation to one another. If you represent yourself that is the best way to represent Black people. Especially if you’re gay. You see this all the time. Usually representational things are horrible. They try to mean so much that they can’t have any meeting beyond the initial promotional sweep.”
He laughed again and went on. “Man, it’s so funny,” he said. “When I hear like diversity and things like that it’s like yo, just tell me the movie or show is bad without saying it’s bad. If I hear ‘first’ or ‘history-making,’ I’m like ‘Oh, this is going to be terrible. This is going to be the worst shit.’ I’m saying this because I have nothing to do with any of that and I don’t want anything to do with any of that. Long-form interior stories: That’s the shit where I’m like, ‘What’s up with you?’”