Best known for his role in the 2014 film, Neighbors the actor, comedian and writer shares about his latest sitcom The Carmichael Show.
Actor & Comedian Jerrod Carmichael
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with Jerrod Carmichael, the creator and star of NBC’s much talked about sitcom, “The Carmichael Show”. Critics have called it vital TV and others have compared Carmichael’s use of his comedic platform to tackle controversial issues to that of a TV legend named Norman Lear.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Jerrod Carmichael coming up right now.
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Tavis: [Laugh] We haven’t even started yet and he’s cracking me up already. I am so pleased to welcome one of Hollywood’s fastest rising young comics to this program, Jerrod Carmichael, the creator and star of NBC’s hit, “The Carmichael Show”.
He is bringing intelligence and humanity back to the sitcom drawing inspiration from his real life family and tackling topics from religion to Black Matters Matter to Bill Cosby, and he has everybody talking. But before we start talking tonight, here now a clip from “The Carmichael Show”.
Tavis: So you having fun yet?
Jerrod Carmichael: Having a lot of un. Having a lot of fun. I don’t have a social life, but I’m having fun [laugh].
Tavis: And you can’t have it all. They say you can’t have it all.
Carmichael: Yeah, that’s what they say. That’s what they say. The attempt to have it all is what gets people in trouble, yeah.
Tavis: What have you found–let me get serious right quick. We’ll come back to the funny.
Tavis: But since you raised that point, Jerrod, what have you found that you do in fact or have in fact had to sacrifice to make this work?
Carmichael: I mean, it’s time-consuming, you know. But it’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. So I don’t really think about that as a sacrifice. It’s like, yeah, of course, we get to work on the show. I mean, watching the language and not saying I got it. You don’t have to.
I get to do this, so it’s such a fun thing to do that, yeah, I can’t think of a sacrifice that I wouldn’t be making for anything that I was in love with, yeah.
Tavis: Were you always clear about–I just read a beautiful piece with you and Norman Lear in, I think, Hollywood Reporter.
Carmichael: Yeah, Hollywood Reporter.
Tavis: A wonderful piece, the two of you talking together. I wondered whether or not you were always clear that this is the frame, this is the structure, of the show that you wanted to do.
Carmichael: The core of it–we’ve done a pilot presentation that had like a different structure, different cast, but the core of it remained the same. It’s leaning into conversations. It’s, you know, trying to put like authentic perspective on television.
So that hadn’t changed. That was the core and that’s something that Norman Lear obviously mastered, and few shows after have really, really hit the needle on the head and we just make an attempt.
Tavis: As we say in my neck of the woods, Norman Lear is high cotton.
Carmichael: High cotton?
Tavis: He’s high cotton, man.
Carmichael: Oh, man! That saying would come from a neck of the woods [laugh]. It’s like high cotton, the woods. Like what we getting at [laugh]? What we getting at, Tavis?
Tavis: Let me do a U-turn right quick here [laugh].
Carmichael: Yeah, send me back to the city. Let’s go back to the city here [laugh].
Tavis: This is the problem having comedians on your show. All I was trying to do was to get to a thought…
Carmichael: No, I know. It’s just me [laugh].
Tavis: Trust me, I can handle it, trust me. I deal with these clowns every day. You’re a piece of cake, yeah, yeah, yeah. These guys are really funny, man. These guys are really funny [laugh].
Carmichael: They know you too well. They know you too well…
Tavis: What I was getting at is that Norman Lear is the gold standard.
Carmichael: Yeah, absolutely.
Tavis: And when Lear is a fan of your show, when he’s talking about you everywhere he goes, when you’re hanging out doing interviews with Norman Lear because he’s coming to your set and your staff saw that, your staff lined up to meet him when he came in.
Carmichael: Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, he has to be used to that. There’s certain people who are just–you know, they walk around and they’re almost statues of themselves. He’s so lively and I mean it in the most honorary way of like everyone kind of lines and, even if you don’t bow. you kind of find yourself just doing a little nod [laugh]. You meet certain people, you just do a little, you know.
Tavis: What is it about his work that people are celebrating because they see it emulated in your sitcom?
Tavis: Truth, okay.
Carmichael: Truth. It’s the most important thing and a thing that I found people love in theory that they don’t necessarily stick to in practice, but truth. I think it’s true perspective. It’s true characters, likable or unlikable, agree or disagree, it’s the truth, and that’s my job.
Tavis: The truth can be unsettling, the truth can be unhousing, the truth can be disruptive.
Tavis: And as a comic, none of that matters to you, does it?
Carmichael: No. The intention is to feel something. You know, I don’t want someone to walk away from anything that I create and not feel strongly about something in almost in either way. Of course, I want you to love it. Every entertainer wants you to love it, but feeling–somewhat about being offended. People talk about being offended.
I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Being offended means that you’re aware of something. It opened your consciousness to a thing and you can either continue to disagree or you can maybe change your mind. But it puts it in your face and you should have to deal with it.
Tavis: But I always–I love comics. I mean, I love comedians. I could sit in comedy shows. I could do comedy shows and music concerts and sporting events like every night of my life if I had to.
Carmichael: Who’s your favorite? What’s your last concert?
Tavis: Last concert was Wynton Marsalis.
Carmichael: Yeah, he’s amazing.
Tavis: I love him, yeah, yeah. What was your last concert? You been working too hard [laugh]!
Carmichael: Yeah. You know, it’s funny. I genuinely was like I don’t know. How does music sound [laugh]?
Tavis: But speaking of music, your theme song is cool.
Carmichael: We sing it.
Tavis: It’s very cool, though. It’s very, very cool.
Carmichael: Oh, thank you. We had so much fun just going into a studio, David and Amber and Loretta, Lil Rel, Tiffany.
Tavis: I wanted to ask–I was about to say that the thing I so respect about comedians, the ones who are really good at what they do, I mean, anybody can tell a joke, you know. But the best, Pryor on down–they found this way with their artistic gift to balance truth-telling with humor. Which is to say that, if you don’t get that balance just right, then you end up proselytizing and nobody wants to hear you preaching to them.
Carmichael: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
Tavis: How do you find the balance in your standup, for that matter, but more importantly, on the show?
Carmichael: You find the truth and the humor comes. You explore it. It’s exploring your curiosity within a topic, within a subject, within your own emotions. You explore that curiosity and then eventually something funny is going to happen.
As a comic, you’re a comic because it’s your natural inclination to go toward the laugh, to find what’s weird, to find that one thing that’s often a pattern and to harp on that. So you find that naturally. You look for it. Your mind is conditioned to look for that. I just need a topic to explore and a genuine curiosity for it and then, you know, the humor will come.
Tavis: After binge-watching your first season, I knew–we just met for the first time tonight. I’m honored to meet you, by the way. But I knew after binge-watching your first season that you were the guy that could handle this. And even then, I got on my knees and said a prayer for you.
Carmichael: Thank you, thank you [laugh].
Tavis: Because when I heard you were going to do an episode about Bill Cosby, you moved to the top of my prayer list because I’m thinking this Negro is on NBC [laugh].
Carmichael: Yeah, it’s a high-wire act [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah, it is, yeah. But you acquitted yourself well. You pulled it off. But now I’m asking you to tell me the back story for all the drama that went on when you said, “I think I want to do an episode about Bill Cosby.”
Carmichael: You really want to hear the back story?
Tavis: Yes, I do.
Carmichael: This is the part of the show where you have the surprise guest. We have Jerrod’s lawyer here! He knows the back story [laugh].
Tavis: Tell me what you can tell me.
Carmichael: Really what it is that I think NBC–I wanted to do the idea. I wanted to do it last season. The timing didn’t quite work out. I wanted it to be the first episode of this new season. NBC had the amount of nervousness that you expect a billion dollar corporation to have, you know, to protect themselves, but they were also creatively open. We built up enough trust to do it.
I’ve met Cosby. I’ve talked to him a lot. It was an episode that my intention was for Bill Cosby and any of the accusers to both be able to watch the show and find it fair, and that was really, really important. I wanted them to be able to find it fair because our job on the show wasn’t to debate guilt or innocence. That’s not why we were there. Our job on the show was to explore a specific emotion…
Tavis: Which was what?
Carmichael: Talent versus morals, and it’s a thing that I had—I’d done a Comedy Special. It was a bit that I had done and that I kind of hold close to me. It’s just that line. It’s that where do you place someone in your heart, in your life, as your source of entertainment when something like this happens? Like what do you do?
And that’s what we focused on in the show. It wasn’t like a, you know, lynch mob. From knowing Bill Cosby, you know, I still couldn’t run from this topic. It was an important one to do.
Tavis: Did you feel like you’d achieved your goal when it was done?
Carmichael: I believe so. I believe so. I feel great about it. I think so. I think that people…
Tavis: You’ve not been sued by the accusers or Cosby as yet?
Carmichael: Not yet, not yet, but you know. Where’s some wood [laugh]? No. Once again, it was a high-wire act, but I think we balanced pretty well.
Tavis: What I really appreciate about that episode is that–not that I’m the smartest guy in the room, but…
Carmichael: I think you’re pretty smart. If anyone deserves to be this, yeah, yeah [laugh].
Tavis: But I was watching it and, because of my warped, crazy mind works, I’m trying to figure out how this thing is going to end, and you got me. It did not end where I thought it was going to end, and I loved the way it ended. I didn’t have any idea, but I was just trying to guess where I thought and how I thought the thing was going to end.
Carmichael: Where we were going to land? In the gray area, in a real life–once again, it goes back to truth. Our lives don’t always–you know, situations don’t always have ribbons on them in these bows. And then, it all came full circle and I didn’t want to create a sitcom that did that. The Cosby episode landed and we did a protest episode last year that landed in a gray area and we want to explore that.
Tavis: I celebrate this in you as a human being and as an artist, but what is it about that search for truth? I was just talking to some young folk the other day about this. I was trying to make the point that you have to always be humble enough to recognize that you don’t have a monopoly on the truth. I was saying to them that there is the truth and then there is the way to the truth. They’re not always the same thing.
Carmichael: That route is everything, the search, the quest for. That’s where art is. You know, that’s where art and creation is in that search for it. Everything good in my life came from me questioning everything, from challenging everything.
We all have a role, we all have a purpose. I think mine is to push toward an expansion of consciousness in maybe a very specific way. And that is done through an exploration of the truth and through that journey that you were talking about.
Tavis: So it’s really cool, I think, that you have given Loretta Devine and David Alan Grier, who play your parents on the sitcom, the actual first names of your parents. I think it’s cool. But two questions on that. One, were your parents cool with that?
Carmichael: When you hear the actors, what are you gonna say. You’re going to turn down David Alan Grier and Loretta Devine playing? You know, they were very excited. They were genuinely excited, you know.
Tavis: So the second question is what do I not know about your parents, courtesy of the sitcom? Obviously, I feel like I know something about them, but tell me more about your mom and dad is what I’m asking about. Tell me about your mom and them. That’s what I’m asking about, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Carmichael: I mean, they’re great people. They taught me to explore and question everything. They’re really smart, hardworking, fun. The fun of the show comes from real life fun of just like me and my dad just arguments. It’s just a stream of arguments. Just everything is questioned, everything is questioned.
Anything is a bet, a challenge, a game. I bought clothes in high school from betting my dad [laugh]. You lived in a house, you would think that I bought clothes from bets. My mom would get upset to hear that I would literally gamble.
Tavis: That means you won a few things, though.
Carmichael: I won a couple things…
Tavis: You have clothes on, yeah, yeah.
Carmichael: A couple rock and roll shirts, what was hot when I was cool, yeah.
Tavis: Again, I’m just one fan watching, but I think that to a person on your show, which I don’t often feel this way, but I think to a person on your show, the casting is absolutely brilliant.
Carmichael: Oh, thank you.
Tavis: Tell me about how those ended up being the players?
Carmichael: They came in. You know, David comes in and it’s an immediate lucky that he showed interest. Same thing with Loretta Devine and Amber Stevens who I think is just this phenomenal actress who came in for a presentation I did and scheduling wise couldn’t do it, so it worked out, thankfully, for this one.
Tavis: Did not know her dad is Shadoe Stevens.
Carmichael: Yeah, yeah. He’s at the tapings. He and Beverly both at the tapings. So supportive…
Tavis: And the guy that plays your brother on the show?
Carmichael: That role was written specifically for him. Yeah, Rel Howery is one of the funniest people…
Tavis: He is hilarious.
Carmichael: He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, like genuinely one of the funniest I’ve ever met. So it was written specifically for him. Yeah, he’s great.
Tavis: Given what I’m hearing you tell me that your parents poured into you, having an appreciation, an embrace of a search for truth could have led you in a variety of different routes. You could have been a preacher, a professor. You could have been a number of different–a school teacher, a number of things. How did that end up being channeled into–how did comedy end up being your gift?
Carmichael: That was the escape for me. That was the outlet that just kind always seemed to be present in my life. I remember in eighth grade, kind of the more I learned, the funnier things became. You have these reference points and you’re able to bounce information off of information and, you know, make these connections which is the core comedy.
So the more I read–I started reading a lot in like eighth grade and I got real excited about jokes and I used that to get out of homework. That was my thing.
You know, we all have a thing that we latch onto, you know, in high school or middle school or whatever, in sports and guys really great would get girls and some guys just have a car [laugh]. Sometimes you just got a car and that ain’t nothing [laugh]. If anything, that’s everything. That’s everything, right? For me, it was comedy and that’s what I latched onto and I just ran with it.
Tavis: I sense a confidence in you and I raise that because that is so important. Not a cockiness, but a confidence. I find that so many young Black men just lack that. And sometimes, it’s not so easy to figure out. I know people who have confidence who were raised in two-parent families and those who don’t.
Carmichael: Because we’re not taught that we have options and we’re not taught that the world is ours. And that’s part of one of the most important things to me, like seriously, is talking to kids who grew up like me, who grew up not thinking the world was theirs. You know, I’ll say bits and I’ll get onstage and talk about I can’t wait to be a Republican, right? The true intention behind that is to say you have that option.
Like policies aside, it’s just saying you can go to even such an extreme thing that’s not written for you, a thing that you’re actively excluded from can be yours. Even that can be. Anything I can do, any kid from my hood that works as hard can do that. You know what I mean? It’s like having confidence. You should have that confidence.
Once again, once you know what that thing is, have confidence. I have as much confidence in what I do as any person would hope that a doctor who operates on them has, you know. And you should never apologize for that, you know. So I just completely believe in what I’m doing and the intention. I always check the intention.
Tavis: Now you really got my curiosity stoked. Would you be like a Jack Kemp Republican or a Donald Trump Republican? What kind of Black Republican would you be?
Carmichael: The Black Republican, yeah [laugh]. That was funny. I can’t yet bring myself to do it. I joke about it, I’ve played with it, I dance on it, but I’d be a very giving, I’d be a nice Republican that saved a bunch of taxes [laugh]. Most peoples’ tax hurts. I don’t want to hurt anybody.
Tavis: Somebody told me years ago, Tavis, you’ll be a Democrat until you start making money [laugh].
Carmichael: Oh, my God! It’s hard. And then the modesty comes back [laugh].
Tavis: I take it, I take it. Is there anything that–we’re talking show-wise now. I suspect, and you can disabuse me of this notion if I’m wrong, but I suspect the rules might be different for your comedy, your standup stuff, than for the sitcom. But is there a line? Are there subjects, things that you don’t want to touch or won’t touch?
Carmichael: No, no. It’s always checking your intention. You take the Cosby episode or you take–we’ve done episodes on gender and, you know, these subjects that need to be handled with…
Tavis: That gender episode with the Black boy, that hit me, man. I was like, wow.
Carmichael: Thank you very much. He was great. You know, the script was great and Mike Scully wrote it. It was fantastic. We handle things with integrity. We check the intention. So if I have thoughts and feelings and it comes from an honest place, not a place of saying things for shock value because that’s cheap.
But if it comes from an honest place and the intention is honest, then why not talk about it? We have to talk about it, you know. Bill Cosby, one of my heroes, you know, within comedy, and I don’t even like that word.
You know, it’s like you can’t just ignore the truth and I had to talk about it. It was an obligation to talk about it, you know. And that came from a place of genuine handling it with integrity. We want to respect the accusers, very much so, and respect the integrity of what the situation is, but also explore what the truth is to you within it.
Tavis: I hear and I share furthermore your disdain for the word “hero” and yet it occurs to me that, as Cosby was a hero to a generation, if you keep rolling the way you’re rolling and keep searching for the truth and finding the funny in it, you’re going to be a hero to a generation of young folk who are watching you. So how you going to handle that?
Carmichael: I want people to know that the world is like, once again, I want everybody to know that like you have options. You know, that was the biggest realization of my life. I mean, it’s a thing I cherish and it’s a thing that I want to just give back as much as I can give back. It’s like the knowledge that you have options because that opens the door to everything.
Tavis: Now answer my question. Do you feel a certain…
Carmichael: I was driving like the dude in the car in high school. I was just driving around [laugh].
Tavis: You’re good at what you do, but I do do this every night, you know.
Carmichael: Excuse me, Tavis [laugh]!
Tavis: But, seriously, do you feel any pressure? I mean, it’s a great show. It’s an amazing show and the buildup on this thing is just getting bigger and bigger and bigger. How are you processing the pressure? I mean, whether it’s from yourself, your friends, the fans, the network, I mean, you feeling any of that or are you just…
Carmichael: I really don’t think about it. I’m really lucky I have great friends around me who couldn’t care less about any of it [laugh]. Just like about anything and that keeps the world normal, so it’s like I live in a good space in that sense just surrounded by–which is everything–being surrounded by good people. I really don’t think about–I don’t even really realize that it’s a television show that’s on NBC.
It’s very specific like moments that I’ll just look up and there’s like a billboard in Los Angeles or something. I’m like, oh, oh, yeah, that’s the thing. Oh, that’s the thing that we’re doing. And then, immediately, it’s like back to work. I think about the work, you know, because I get fulfillment from that, so I think about the work.
Tavis: I’m going to close on this note because you’ve drilled this point tonight and I’m glad you did it because it’s actually spoken to me in a way that I want to marinate on and process beyond this conversation in a minute and 15 seconds from now.
I heard your point repeatedly that it’s important to know that we have options. That’s true for all of us, but particularly for people of color and for young Black men, that we have options.
Tavis: What do you hope your options are going to be in the coming years? I mean, where you taking all of this?
Carmichael: Just have more opportunity to get out like art and work and content. I just want to be able to have an idea in the shower [laugh] and have it put on a screen somewhere.
Tavis: Is that where music comes to you?
Carmichael: Yeah. Just very long showers [laugh].
[ TECHNICAL INTERRUPTION ]
You’re told that white people don’t do this and Black do this, and it’s so inhibiting. And we’re, you know, so smart and so capable and I just want to contribute to the growth of that, to the genuine beauty that is that.
Tavis: Well, because I don’t want you to slap me, I won’t call you my hero. But there are a whole lot of us who are really, really not just proud of you–I don’t want to sound paternalistic in any way…
Carmichael: No, I appreciate it.
Tavis: But just appreciate your gift, your artistic genius and the way you’re going about using it in that search for the truth, so thank you for coming on.
Carmichael: Thank you for having me. It means a lot. Thank you.
Tavis: Congratulations, man. Hope to see you again in the years to come.
Carmichael: Thank you. Absolutely.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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