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The tension between fear and relief in Jerrod Carmichael's new special, 'Rothaniel'

Jerrod Carmichael in his new HBO standup special, <em>Rothaniel</em>.
HBO
Jerrod Carmichael in his new HBO standup special, Rothaniel.

A few years ago, I met comedian Jerrod Carmichael for lunch at ABC Kitchen, near Gramercy Park in Manhattan. I was an editor on the New York Times's arts desk at the time, and we were there to chat for a profile pegged to his new HBO special Home Videos, a loose, sort of experimental collection of vignettes in which he filmed intimate, unscripted conversations with the black women and girls in his family. One of those scenes involves his mother, Cynthia, and her tumultuous relationship with his notoriously philandering father; at one point, he asks her if she's ever found women attractive, and Carmichael offhandedly mentions that he's hooked up with men.

To me, someone who'd followed his career pretty closely up to that point (I'm a huge fan of his criminally underseen sitcom The Carmichael Show, as well as his first two HBO stand up specials Love At the Store and 8), this was kind of a bombshell reveal: Until then, Carmichael had only ever publicly discussed his romantic life and sexuality in terms of women he'd dated. And yet, the moment in Home Videos went as quickly as it came, and when I asked him about it during our interview, he was very reluctant to turn the revelation into A Thing.

He paused at first, and then laughed. "It's a thing I said to my mom ... That was it. A thing I said to my mom. I was just talking to my mom. Thing came up. I said it to my mom. Now [you and I are] eating peas at ABC Kitchen. But that's how I feel about everything that's in there — it's just like, 'Yeah, and then that happened.'"

I didn't press the issue – after all, this was his story to tell, or not tell – but I can't say the journalist in me wasn't a little disappointed he was uninterested in discussing it further. It seemed like a huge thing to say and then just let hang out in the ether!

But it's also consistent with Carmichael's style of comedy. 8 concludes with its own out-of-left field zinger that goes unexplained: "The only thing weirder than finding out your father has a second family — is finding out that you guys are that second family." With him, it seems, you've just got to trust that he'll let you in whenever he's good and ready, on his terms.

With him, it seems, you've just got to trust that he'll let you in whenever he's good and ready, on his terms.

That's part of what's so beautifully moving about Rothaniel, Carmichael's latest HBO special which premiered last weekend. Filmed at the Blue Note Jazz Club in NYC (and directed by Bo Burnham), he spends an hour in conversation with his audience and himself, teasing out the bread crumbs he'd sprinkled throughout those previous works. The theme is secrets: Those we tell ourselves, and those we tell about our origins.

The part of the show that's made headlines is the fact that he's finally felt ready to come out to the world. "I'm accepting the love, I really appreciate the love," he says, to a round of applause and whoops of approval from the audience. In typical Carmichael fashion, he tempers the warm response with brutal honesty: "There's a lot that happens, coming out. Like I'm telling you guys, and I know, some of y'all – I see the Yankee fitteds, some of y'all are like, 'We at a gay show, bro?'"

The special is a beautiful and perhaps unprecedented moment. He's a Black male comedian at the stage of his career where he's not quite a household name (though his hosting gig on SNL over the weekend might have helped change that), yet big within the comedy realm and well-respected by elders like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle – and here he is, revealing a truth he'd spent a lifetime being terrified of confronting. Wearing a red shirt and perched on a chair for the entire performance, he appears looser and more vulnerable, his lanky arms more expressive and limber. It's staged but not stage-y; to watch him unload this burden of secrecy in such a deliberate yet natural way is to understand he's conferring a distinct and profound level of trust and openness with us, his audience.

It's not a Q&A, but occasionally, someone in the crowd throws out a follow-up question in response to something he's said, and Carmichael just goes with it, pausing, taking it in, and then thoughtfully engaging with that query – a therapeutic call-and-response segment, as it were. Even if I wasn't physically in the room with him the night of that performance, I felt a sense of intimacy I've never quite felt before with a comedian – and have felt with few other artists.

What struck me most, though, was how his sense of newfound liberation can't fully overcome his own guilt and trauma, at least not yet. Building upon Home Videos and his follow-up "video diary" released a few months later Sermon on the Mount, he unpacks his family's history and their culture of silence, specifically as it relates to his father and grandfathers' rampant cheating and double lives. (His granddad on his dad's side had "about 23" kids outside of his marriage, according to Carmichael. "There's no easy way to say your grandma was a sidepiece," he cracks.) He expresses the weariness that came with knowing at a young age about his dad's infidelity, and trying to protect his mom from the inevitable pain she would feel by keeping his dad's secret for years.

What struck me most, though, was how his sense of newfound liberation can't fully overcome his own guilt and trauma, at least not yet.

And in coming out as gay, he also has to acknowledge the fact that members of his family, including his parents and brother, merely tolerate this aspect of his identity, rather than embrace it. He's still processing his mother's dismissal of his sexuality – because she "can't go against God" – and trying to understand how the woman he loves so dearly could make him feel so small and ignored. "She gives me nothing. Even hate starts to feel like love, because that's acknowledgment ... I think that would feel better. I wish she would yell at me." He's no longer holding back or dancing around some of those details, as he did in 8 and Home Videos, or how it makes him feel: the saddest kind of disappointment and, to some extent, despair.

In the crudest of terms, he's airing his dirty laundry out in front of mixed company, an oft unspoken no-no within a lot of Black circles. He's taking a very personal risk that will likely have emotional ramifications he may never feel comfortable sharing with us (as is his right).

But already he's shared so much. Revealing the truth, accompanied by an asterisk is one way to look at it; another is that he seems to be trying to find the joy in working through all that hurt. Rothaniel lives and breathes in that simultaneously freeing and discomforting imbalance, that tension between relief and despondency, fear and catharsis.


This essay first appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations on what's making us happy.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.