'Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show' exploits pain for good : Pop Culture Happy Hour In Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show, the comedian doubles down on the uncomfortable intimacy of his stand up special Rothaniel, where he came out publicly as gay for the first time. Jerrod Carmichael gets a film crew to follow him around as he bares his soul to the camera as he cheats on his boyfriend and forces his parents into deeply uncomfortable conversations. The HBO series is funny and poignant. But it isn't a spotless, media-managed facade. It's a portrait of a man who absolutely delights in letting us know just how flawed and selfish he is.

'Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show' exploits pain for good

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"Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show" is just that. Comedian Jerrod Carmichael gets a film crew to follow him around as he cheats on his boyfriend, forces his parents into deeply uncomfortable conversations and generally bears his soul to the camera.


The series is funny and poignant, but it isn't some spotless media-managed facade. It's a portrait of a man who absolutely delights in letting us know just how flawed and selfish he is. I'm Aisha Harris.

WELDON: And I'm Glen Weldon. And today, we're talking about "Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


WELDON: Joining us today is the authoress of the books, "Historically Black Phrases" and "We See Each Other: A Black, Trans Journey through TV And Film." Tre'vell Anderson. Hey, Tre'vell.

TRE'VELL ANDERSON: Hello, hello.

WELDON: Hello. Also with us is entertainment host, culture commentator and GLAAD Media consultant Ryan Mitchell. Welcome back, Ryan.

RYAN MITCHELL: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

WELDON: Of course. There is a lot to unpack, so let's get to it. On "Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show," the comedian doubles down on the uncomfortable intimacy of his stand-up special "Rothaniel, " when he came out publicly as gay for the first time. He takes a road trip with his distant father.


JOE CARMICHAEL: (As self) I got feelings, too. The way that you don't want to be hurt, I don't want to be hurt.

WELDON: He struggles to remain faithful to his boyfriend.


MICHAEL: (As self) The trust is the most important thing. So that was more concerning to me, and, I think, more painful than, like, the actual cheating.

WELDON: And hanging over the entire series is the figure of his mother, a deeply religious woman who disapproves of Carmichael's queerness.


CYNTHIA CARMICHAEL: (As self) You know, I still love you really and truly unconditionally.

JERROD CARMICHAEL: (As self) Don't say that. Don't say that. Don't say...

JERROD CARMICHAEL: (As self) Don't say that. Don't say that. Don't say...

C CARMICHAEL: (As self) I know 'Rod, but...

JERROD CARMICHAEL: (As self) ...You love me conditionally when there's a condition.

JERROD CARMICHAEL: (As self) ...You love me conditionally when there's a condition.

WELDON: "Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show" airs on HBO and is streaming on Max. Tre'vell, there's a lot here, right?

ANDERSON: There is so much in this show. But you know, I have to start by telling people if you only watch the first or second episode, you're missing out.


ANDERSON: You've got to go deeper, OK? You can't get stuck on the foolishness of the first two episodes 'cause that's really what it is. Let's just call it like we see it.

HARRIS: Yeah, yeah.

ANDERSON: But it really pushes through that to, by the end of the series, I think, becomes something that is really interesting in showing kind of just the complexities of life. He has some really tough conversations with his mother and his father that as a Black queer person, I have engaged in some of those conversations with my family members.

MITCHELL: Trigger warning.

ANDERSON: Listen, OK. And I'm not sure that I have had success in doing it. And so to see that on screen play out in a really interesting way was...

HARRIS: Yeah, yeah.

ANDERSON: ...A mirror of sorts. There's so much here. We can talk about the whole cheating stuff with his boyfriend, like...

WELDON: Oh, we'll get there. I mean, yeah, they say writing is opening a vein and bleeding on the page. This thing is just - he's scooping out his guts and smearing it all over people who want no part of this nonsense. We'll talk about consent, as well. But Ryan, walk me through your thoughts.

MITCHELL: Yeah, you know, my first initial thoughts are, like, I'm sitting at an intersection of absolutely hating it and realizing that it also might be the best show I've ever watched in my entire life. It's so interesting. Like Tre'vell mentioned, just watching those first two episodes and just leaving after that, never returning, you're really missing something that is so important and valuable...


MITCHELL: ...Which, for me, is kind of upsetting just watching how it all is playing out online when it's like, please push through. This is the art that you actually have been asking for. It's just unfortunate that the person that you thought was kind of this person you put on a pedestal is not anything you thought he was going to be. But if I'm being honest, like, this show isn't really that surprising. If you've watched "Sermon On The Mount"...


MITCHELL: ...And "Home Videos," you know he reveals as much as possible. But, yeah, there's this collective sigh of annoyance that everyone feels. They're like, oh, God, not you again. So I don't know how he really is going to bounce back from that, but I enjoyed it overall.


MITCHELL: I enjoyed it in totality, as Tre'vell said before the taping.

WELDON: So, Aisha, what do you think the show is doing? Does it feel like the next logical step in his career? What's the context we should bring here?

HARRIS: I did watch "The Carmichael Show." Highly recommend it. You will see the seeds of everything here because it's loosely based off of his family. Even the parents on that show, who are played by Loretta Devine and David Alan Grier, they're named Joe and Cynthia, which are his parent's actual names. I profiled him right after "Home Videos" came out, when he first kind of hinted that he might be queer but didn't actually fully come out. And so I've been following him for a while, and what I find so fascinating about this is that if "Rothaniel" was catharsis, this show is arguably exploitation.

WELDON: Right.

HARRIS: And exploitation is not necessarily a negative thing. But when I think about the way "Rothaniel" is, in the way that show was received, he got an Emmy. He got to host "SNL." People were willing to, like, open their arms for him because there was something both radical about the fact that here is a Black queer man who wasn't just talking about being Black and queer but was also talking about his parents doing the things that we're not supposed to talk about our parents having done, the things we're supposed to push down.


HARRIS: But he's doing it alone on a stage bathed in, like, soft blue lighting. And it just feels very intimate and therapeutic. Whereas "Reality Show" is such a completely different thing. It is him sort of taking that. And it's one thing to, like, do this for your art and do it alone. It's another thing to, you know, include the direct sources of your trauma in the art you're making. And I just...


HARRIS: ...Kept wondering why are they agreeing to do this (laughter)?

MITCHELL: Their bills paid?

HARRIS: Well, yes, he does say at one point like, I pay for this house that I'm barely accepted in.


HARRIS: I think overall, I really am drawn to this as a radical experiment that I'm not sure is going to help him but might actually help others who are willing to sit through it, as Tre'vell has said, to keep with it and follow it through to the end.

WELDON: I'm going to ask a question - not the question that we sometimes ask on the show - who is this for? - 'cause I have a feeling I know who this is for. But what is the show about? We've all touched on this. Is it about having these difficult conversations? Is it a good-faith attempt on his part to reconcile with his parents, or is he just holding them to account, right? Is it a way for him to put himself on trial? 'Cause there's certainly a masochistic streak here, too. Tre'vell, do you have any thoughts?

ANDERSON: You know, I think what he's - he says in one of the episodes that the camera allows him to, you know, ask certain questions, engage in certain conversations that he might not have, you know, the audacity to do without the camera there. Like, there are some of the conversations he has with his parents that I, as a Black queer person also from the South - he's from North Carolina; I'm from South Carolina. I would never speak to my parents the way that he speaks to his parents. And he would never, either. You can see it. But the camera...


ANDERSON: ...Allows him to, for example, curse in front of his mother in Episode 6, right? Which...


ANDERSON: ...We, as Black folks raised in the South, know you don't do that, beloved, OK? Especially with the church-going folks.

MITCHELL: Oh, very much.

ANDERSON: But the camera allows him to say things, and he hopes that it will be a mirror of sorts for the folks who have inflicted this trauma and this pain on him, particularly his father, particularly his mother. I'm not sure that they see any of this as a mirror. I'm certain that his mother, at least, based on what we see in this show, does not think anything is wrong with how she, you know, does not accept her child and believes that God can make him straight. There's so much here, y'all. There's so much.

MITCHELL: Yeah. I feel the same way. I think it's really interesting. There was moments while watching that you could see him putting on his producer hat because he knew that this was a moment that, one, they're making a show. We get to see these moments play out. However, because he describes himself as a baby gay, I do think he is navigating something that we, as queer folks, if you've come out a little bit earlier in life, you are out of kind of this, like, teenage, queer-rebellion...


MITCHELL: ...Phase of your life. And I relate so much to those moments with him and his mom or those moments with him and his dad because I remember coming out also Black and queer here, also from the South - Nashville. I remember kind of pushing my mom to, like, forcefully, like, see me and doing it in ways that may have, like, resulted in a sort of rage instead of realizing now...


MITCHELL: ...That you can't force people to meet you there. They're either going to, or they're not. I think in real time, instead of using this money to go pay for therapy, he has brought us into his world and publicly let us into these moments that I'm, like, I'm grateful for, but also, friend, go handle that and your - you know, Black people don't like to tell all their business.



MITCHELL: That is just it.

HARRIS: I mean, this is true, but then we do also see him in therapy session.

MITCHELL: Where he lied the entire time.

HARRIS: Well, we can talk about that, too. But I think to both of your points about the sort of producers had and how we're envisioning this, like, he is, also at his core, a millennial - and not just a millennial who grew up, like, on social media, where we kind of over share or can tend to overshare. I don't want to generalize our entire generation, but this is a part of what we are known for. But what I think is really crucial, I think, to threading that needle and threading this whole narrative of his life, even for those who probably - maybe the first time they ever encountered him was "Rothaniel," or maybe this is the first time they're encountering him at all.

There are clips of him as a kid with a camcorder recording moments from his life. And we see the younger version of himself. We see the younger version of his parents. So he has always been someone who, like, uses the camera as a way to express himself.


HARRIS: And this is just, like, the natural manifestation for him of how that's supposed to work. But for the rest of us, we're just, like, it's a tricky balance. It's, like, on the one hand, I really think it's important for him to feel comfortable enough to tell his mom, I think you're in a cult.




HARRIS: Like, she needs to hear that. And it's, like, don't blame your homophobia on God or whatever. I think it's important for people to hear that because, you know, maybe the cursing isn't something that we should allow, but I think being direct in that radical honesty...

ANDERSON: Absolutely.

HARRIS: ...Is something that, you know, shows up...


HARRIS: ...Time and time again. And I love that we get to see it here, even if it's so uncomfortable to watch.

WELDON: I mean, there's a lot of intersecting identity stuff here, but let me break off my small piece of it, which is coming out late in life. I do think that's a big part of what's going on here. He came out in his 30s. I came out at 25. When you do that, you go through what's called a second adolescence. I would maintain it's - your actually first because your first adolescence - if you're still in the closet - is not real. It's a performance of straightness. And if you come out late in life, you come out with extra baggage. You're angry at yourself for staying in the closet. You're angry at the world. You're resenting the years that you wasted. You regret the life that you could have lived.

So it becomes even more vitally important for you to do exactly what we see him doing here, standing in his truth, living out loud, demanding that your friends and family see you as you really are. And for a period of time, your sexual identity becomes your entire identity. It's all you want to talk about. It's all you want to think about and read about and watch and listen to. And the thing is, that kind of self-obsession - 'cause that's what it is - if that happens in that adolescence, no one bats an eye 'cause teenagers are monsters; they're self-obsessed; we get it. If it happens in adulthood, it reads like narcissism. I really think that's what's going on here. He is standing in his truth. And the truth is that right now, in this period of life, he is kind of a jerk to people around him.



ANDERSON: In more ways than one.


WELDON: In more ways than one.

MITCHELL: I mean, I can't stop thinking about how he treated his best friend in missing his wedding...

ANDERSON: Oh, my God.

MITCHELL: ...To go stop and get a hot dog. You know, that was where I found myself asking, is this a genuine moment, or did y'all think, as the producer, I need to create some tension in this episode and create this moment where I have to have a hot dog on the corner of the street? Like, please. And then his best friend, Jessica, you know who he got an apartment for, for one month, you know?

ANDERSON: For one month.

MITCHELL: Yeah. I think there's so much that, for me, I wonder where the blurring of the lines were when it came to performance and the truth-telling aspect of this because I do think the only truth-teller that we maybe could trust is the camera.



ANDERSON: Well, I think that's the point, right? I think that's what he is trying to do and trying to demonstrate, right? Because for us as the viewer, it is very uncomfortable to witness many of the things that we see on screen from him in his friend's face acting like he's supporting her and then in the next scene in a confessional style, you know, laughing at her.


ANDERSON: ...Or having the conversation with his boyfriend in the first couple episodes about monogamy after we've seen him this entire episode cheat on him multiple times.


ANDERSON: And it's uncomfortable, I think, for some of us as viewers. And I think my challenge to folks who are made uncomfortable by what they see on screen is to dive into why you're uncomfortable, right? What is that bringing up for you?


ANDERSON: But I think that's where the utility of this show comes in - is if you're able to take that discomfort that you sense and work out why it is coming up for you, I think this show could actually be a really great tool for many folks navigating whatever they're navigating in their lives...


ANDERSON: ...Whether it's your friendships, whether it's your relationships with your family, etc.

WELDON: Tre'vell, that's very useful for me to hear because I went into this seeing him, you know, being out here with his radical honesty. That's fine. It's annoying, but it's fine. But he's holding everyone around him to that same standard of honesty. He is dragooning his parents into these conversations in front of the camera, as we talked about. No one asked for that. My impulse watching that is that these are difficult conversations, and people are going to say ugly, ignorant, hurtful things in the moment that should not be immortalized on camera.


WELDON: They should be allowed to be air that people are speaking. It not - should not be something that you can go back over and over again and hold these people because these people - there's a different standard of privacy. These are civilians. These are not showbiz people. Yes, they signed a consent form. But he's also exerting some power over them. As we mentioned, I paid for this house. So it didn't seem fair to me. But it is so useful for me to hear, Tre'vell, that, like, this could help people because my instinct was, shut it down (laughter). Like, this is nobody's business but theirs.

ANDERSON: And I think part of it - right? - is also there's a particular type of shame that y'all have already spoken to that those of us who grow up in similar communities and similar families to Jerrod's - that we have. And for many of us, it takes us years to shed that shame. It takes us years to have a very direct...


ANDERSON: ...Conversation with our parents about what we're going to tolerate and what we're not going to tolerate. And the beauty for Jerrod is that with this show, he's able to fast-track that journey for him in a lot of ways. And the reality is for so many of us - there are Black queer folks out here who die never being able to have this type of direct conversation with their dad...


ANDERSON: ...And say, you lived a double life, and this impacted me this way or to your - my mom, you say you're giving me unconditional love. You are literally comparing being gay to being a murderer.


C CARMICHAEL: A person who choose to go and murder. I'm just using some different scenarios here. Whether you're a murderer, sinner or chose to live the gay life, I love you just the way you are.

HARRIS: Oh, my God, yeah, that scene.


HARRIS: I wrote about this in my book, "Wannabe." But, like, I feel like "Rothaniel" and then this - Jerrod is kind of, again, part of this era where all of these semi-famous people or famous people are battling with the intergenerational trauma that they're dealing with. And so I don't find this any different from, like, Britney Spears on Instagram cursing out her family...

ANDERSON: Absolutely.

HARRIS: ...Or Jennette McCurdy writing about how she's glad her mother is dead.


HARRIS: These are all part of a sort of moment in time where younger generations are like, I can't sit in the silence anymore. I need to let this out. And Jerrod is not nearly as famous or, like, wasn't as famous as those people are. But I think that the fact that he's kind of pinning now his entire identity to this is both brave, and also, I just wonder at what point is he going to feel comfortable enough to, like, let it go because I think if he had done "Rothaniel" and then just, like, moved on to the next creative thing, I think people would be fine. Like, I know a lot of us were wondering after that special, like, dude, like, how is his family going to react to this?


HARRIS: And now we know. But I also think, like, I hope that he, by the end of this, like, feels at peace, a movement toward peace where he can kind of widen out his interests beyond what this is. And it could be, like you're saying, a phase because he's only come out publicly in the last couple of years. So this is all still very fresh and new. He's not quite 40 yet. There's a lot of life to live. This made me both, like, sad for him, but also, it made me really, really hopeful about whatever he does next.


HARRIS: But speaking of that, quick question - who do we think the anonymous person in all black is? - 'cause he is like...


HARRIS: He's the audience surrogate. He's the, what are you doing here? Why are you doing this?

MITCHELL: The voice of reason.

WELDON: So this guy who bookends the show - he's a friend of his who wears a mask, and he has his voice changed. And just by a body type alone, I'm reasonably certain it's Bo Burnham. Note - that's not been confirmed, but I'm reasonably certain it's Bo Burnham, who is a very good friend of his, who directed "Rothaniel." And the irony of him being lectured about revealing too much about yourself by the guy behind "Bo Burnham: Inside" is just...



HARRIS: See; I told you. This is a generational thing.

WELDON: But also, to get back to y'all's point about, like, the producer hat, that also - those bits seemed the most performative to me, the most like a bit.

HARRIS: That and when he's cheating. I was like, you're bringing these - all these men home, and, boy, does he have a type. They're all - they all look basically the same.

ANDERSON: Let's talk about it. OK?

MITCHELL: Do we want to unpack it?

HARRIS: He himself has said he's into Latino twinks. So there's that. There's that one moment where he brings someone over, and the guy asks him, like, so, what do you do? And he's like, ha-ha-ha. And then I was like, come on, now. This guy clearly knows there are cameras here.

WELDON: I was going to say.

MITCHELL: He signed all these releases to get even to this moment.

HARRIS: Yeah. Their faces are not blurred, so...

MITCHELL: Yeah. What's interesting about this kind of voice of reason for me was it kept bringing up a question around, what does his actual community look like who aren't just Black women? And I wondered if there's a missing piece of Black queerness that he could find a community, or is he - has so much trauma in around his family that he really can't see anything, like, find peace in Blackness in the way that I feel like we kind of see play out here.

HARRIS: Yeah, yeah.

MITCHELL: Black women have kind of always been that needle and thread throughout his documentaries I feel like I've seen. But even then, they only know so much. And I think oftentimes, having this voice of reason being kind of this white person, this - all your therapist until the last episode with your mom being white and just, like, wondering where else are you getting a different perspective that could also be similar to your experience and help you through and navigate these feelings that you're going through.

HARRIS: Yeah, yeah.

MITCHELL: It's very interesting where he kind of is positioned and would love to know more about his connection, his own experience with Blackness in that way.

WELDON: Yeah. And this notion of help you through these issues - I mean, this show invites armchair psychoanalysts. It invites you to try to get inside his head.


WELDON: But you do pick up this very masochistic impulse to broadcast himself as a bad friend, as a selfish jerk, as the most hypocritical boyfriend it's possible to have. And he is delighting in showing us that, probably - again, armchair psychology - probably because he believes that showing it to us shields him from having to make any effort to change any of that.

HARRIS: It's very Larry David, it feels like, in a way.

WELDON: We should point out to folks this is a very funny show. I mean, when he is goading his father - that's what he's doing. He's goading his father by talking about daddies and bears and otters.


HARRIS: And showing him a picture of Michael and him...

MITCHELL: In his drawers.

HARRIS: ...Out of the shower.

ANDERSON: In his underwear.

MITCHELL: Oh, my Jesus.


WELDON: But the camera is shuttling back and forth between them, and then we cut to a shot outside where we see the camera dude pivot the camera to the dad's face as he says all this stuff. That is very funny. My read of him from things I've seen him before - it's just he's a very cool guy, a very cool affect. He's very cool. And then we see him puttering around his house, singing about pants.


JERROD CARMICHAEL: (Singing) Pants, pants, pants, pants, panly pants (vocalizing). Pants, pants, pants, pants, pants, pants, pants, pants.

JERROD CARMICHAEL: (Singing) Pants, pants, pants, pants, panly pants (vocalizing). Pants, pants, pants, pants, pants, pants, pants, pants.

WELDON: It's endearing. But it doesn't - it's all mixed up with all this masochistic stuff as well.

ANDERSON: One of the things I wanted to mention was, if you look at the first and second episode, particularly around the boyfriend and how the boyfriend notices that something is afoot, that there is a narrative happening - he talks onscreen about, like, seeing the cameraperson when they're in therapy, when they're in couples therapy and Jerrod is talking about monogamy - seeing the cameraperson, like, specifically move to catch a reaction.


JERROD CARMICHAEL: In my mind, I just go - I don't even know when I'd have time to (laughter)...

JERROD CARMICHAEL: In my mind, I just go - I don't even know when I'd have time to (laughter)...

MICHAEL: And I knew then, like, that they know something that I don't.

ANDERSON: Initially, I had a recurring question of - like, all of these people are participating in this show. They're being goaded into these types of conversations. But hearing that - to me, I think everyone realizes at a point what's going on.


ANDERSON: And I think Michael, who...

WELDON: The boyfriend.

ANDERSON: The boyfriend, yes. And we can - I'll make a side note and say those first two episodes are particularly spicy. I think they are purposefully...

MITCHELL: Done that way.



MITCHELL: The show starts there for a reason. But Michael knows what's going on, sees what's happening and is still choosing to push forward and participate, in theory because he loves this person.


ANDERSON: Right? I think it's also important to note that Michael is present throughout the entire series, and there is a journey that happens with that relationship in the series as well...


ANDERSON: ...That might make the first two episodes...

WELDON: Good point.

ANDERSON: ...You know, go down a little easier...


ANDERSON: ...Perhaps...


ANDERSON: ...In retrospect. But the way they started it out - my God today.

MITCHELL: Can I also say I think there's, like - obviously, the discourse online is really about kind of, like, who can represent Black queer voices in storytelling. And when we ask for representation, I think this is really what we mean. I am happy that this is a part of, I guess, a melting pot of queer identity storytelling that is messy and breaks the rules and feels like, OK, if I like it, I'm going to love it. If I don't like it, at least I'm happy it's there, and I'm grateful for it.

And I am realizing, in the discourse of, like, just being online, people are really only wanting one thing and one version of their identity being shown online. And I think, yes, there are some cases where that makes sense. You have to be mindful and protective of what that means and what that looks like. But I do think putting us further in a box is not actually helping us and storytellers coming after us. I mean, let's be honest. The only reason why Jerrod could do this type of work is because he is Jerrod Carmichael.

I'm hoping and I'm hopeful that this will allow more opportunities for other versions of this story to be shown in a way like this or differently, hopefully. But I think it's so important to not put our representation in a box because, yeah, it is very disappointing when you find out there's yet another Black queer celebrity who might only date white Latino twinks. You know? Like, that is - that can be disappointing. But it's a part of our lives. It's a part of who...

WELDON: Absolutely.

MITCHELL: ...We know, and I think we have to be willing to take it all, accept every little bit of it.

WELDON: Well, you've heard what we have to think. You've heard a fraction of what...

HARRIS: Oh, yeah.

WELDON: ...We have to think because there's a lot.


WELDON: And we want to know what you think about "Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show" 'cause we know you think something. Find us at facebook.com/pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. What a good discussion. Aisha Harris, Tre'vell Anderson, Ryan Mitchell, thank you so much for being here.

ANDERSON: Thank you.

HARRIS: Thank you.

MITCHELL: Thank you.

WELDON: This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and Liz Metzger and edited by Jessica Reedy and Mike Katzif. And Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Glen Weldon, and we'll see you all tomorrow.


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