The audio doesn’t pick it up, but on the latest episode of the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, filmmaker and comedian Jerrod Carmichael found himself shadow-boxing as he described his habits as young standup and his more combative approach to comedy. His prevous performance style led to entertaining results, but looking back on it now, he knows he needed to move beyond those habits in order to create his newest special, “Rothaniel,” which is confessional and achingly elegant in how it was shot, as if to honor the pain of keeping his sexuality a secret for so long. “It was like a wall between my old habits and what had been growing over the years, personally with me,” Carmichael said. “[Bo Burham] would see that. He calls it ‘swaging out.’ Cuz he knows it hurts my feelings. He’s like, ‘Oh, you have to just swag it out.’ Like trying to be mean and making a little face. Old habits die hard, but I had to learn to drop that.”
In the video above, you can see how Carmichael consciously approached the special as an act of storytelling, which needed an audience to do something a little different, and something a little trickier to engineer, than simply respecting his cleverness with words or his ability to make an argument. “The point was understanding. So I needed them to hear me. I needed them to understand, which is different than before,” Carmichael said. “It’s not treating the audience to some boxing match that they’re not aware of. It’s now being excited to share something and being excited that they’re there to listen.”
Watch Carmichael break down his approach his audience for “Rothaniel” above, or listen to the entire discussion below.
Partial Transcript Highlights Below:
On “Rothaniel” and His Relationship to the Audience
Carmichael: The biggest thing that changed, I think, is my relationship with the audience. I was very combative and it was always contentious. And I was always trying to prove that I was right. I’m still trying to understand what my goals were, you know, like as a young comedian. I wanted to be exciting, you know, I still want that. I want be interesting. I still want that. But you develop certain tricks of performance, but these were used in a distract from what the goal was, which was truth. Like I was telling the truth and the show was to be truthful. I’m inclined to make it universal and like make it not about myself, because I’m afraid, I was afraid, you know? That was a fear and insecurity as a performer. So [I was] adjusting the relationship with the audience from, “Hey, look at how smart I am” or what I can get away with to, “Look at me. Listen to me. I’m gonna tell you something,” actually telling stories for the first time.
I was never a storyteller, uh, even in life. All that kinda helped me just one be truthful and to trust the flow of my own faults. I’m saying all that to say that it was like a wall between my old habits and what had been growing over the years, personally with me. Bo would see that. He calls it “swaging out.” Cuz he knows it hurts my feelings. He’s like, “Oh, you have to just swag it out.” Like trying to be mean and making a little face, it’s – old habits die hard, but I had to learn to drop that. And what I mean by my relationship with the audience changing is like, I needed them for that. Like, you need someone to listen to the story. And it’s probably me leaning in and not being afraid to be seen that changed the most, right?
The point was understanding. So I needed them to hear me. I needed them to understand, which is different than before. It’s like, I needed their respect, I guess I needed their attention. And I was like, ready to like – I’m like shadow boxing saying this for some reason – like it brings out a more aggressive [response] just reflected back to like how I approached it before. It definitely was more of a showcase of my words, of my ability to make an argument. But now I’m like, one, a lot more gratitude because you know, sharing a part of myself, sharing stories. I’m thankful for the ability to do that. I’m thankful that people are there, that people are listening. I’m working out problems on stage. I’m thankful the way I’d be thankful for a friend for being there and hearing this. It’s not treating the audience to some boxing match that they’re not aware of. Like it’s now being excited to share something and being excited that they’re there to listen.
Courtesy of HBO
On Audience Interaction
Carmichael: I remember one show in Atlanta, just after coming out, like just like questions just started happening just naturally and it just worked it way into the show. You know, coming out and leaving the audience with that much, it left room, the pauses kind of left room. And I found, I think that like at times where I felt the most vulnerable, like people would sense that. Like a lot of times, women in the audience would grab that and just kind like and just like wrap me in it, wrap their arms around me with words, with intention. I learned a lot about energy and intention and stuff doing the show. But anyway, it happened and we invited it in one of the tapings. And I think they’re pulled from like different shows. I think some [were from] an invited Q and some were things that happened on stage, naturally.
On Taping the Show Four Times
Carmichael: It’s pieces, but then it’s also like intention. We did four tapings at The Blue Note. And all four – it could have cut like any combination of different shows. I’d done it sullen. I’ve done it defeated. I’ve done it in the context of it, be it being in the middle of a text war with my mom or like something with my family that like, like the show kind of took on different shapes and forms, depending on mood and intention. I guess it was like acting in a way, but the material was truthful, but it’s still trying to find truth in that same way. It’s like an acting exercise. It is acting. It’s the method acting [but it’s still] a weird, like, I am a performer, performing for you this story. You know? It just so happens the material is my own, you know, but I’m still trying to do a good job as an actor of this material. I don’t know what you call that. But like that was how we worked through it.
Courtesy fo HBO
On Not Working Material Out on the Road
Carmichael: Well, I’m not like other comics in that I don’t really work my material out on the road, to be honest. Chris Rock says that about me. He’s like, “You’re the only comic I’ve seen – everyone else gains it through the road. Like every night being in a new city, experience people in that way it molds you and helps form the perspective and the ability to connect. And I am, I think, far more internal than that. A friend likes to refer to them as, uh, “bedroom faults” but the intention is just a little bit different. And so I’ve always made specials for television when I’m on the road.
And what I’m trying to showcase also is the ability to be honest, you know, within the confines of a show. So the process is a little bit different, I think, then like a lot of standup. I went on the road and obviously it’s important to see how it lands with an audience and to see what’s funny, but it wasn’t shaped in the way of like, oh, “They don’t like this, okay, let me change this or, you know, this could be funnier here.” It was more like, you know, does this information lay out in a way that presents a good show, you know, a good experience for the audience?
But again, I’m saying all that to say that I kind of never – my first special, “Love at the Store,” the intention was I’m a guy that goes and tries new shit on a Saturday night at The Comedy Store. And like, there’s my notebook. There’s me comfortable. There’s a comic before me. I put a comic after me. I mean, you don’t see that in a special, but to have the experience just a night, me, you know, at the store? That was it. And I think it was a little too slick and I think the creative vision wasn’t clear there between me and Spike, but, you know, working with Bo, like he also knows and knew from “8”, just how I craft a show and that the intention is for television. I make specials, you know what I mean? I’m a comedian who would much prefer to be defined by the work that I’ve made, “8”, “Rap,” “Love at the Store” than any night. I think it is like a slightly different intention than Seinfeld or Chappelle or Rock.
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.