The actor-comedians discuss season three of the hit NBC comedy The Carmichael Show.
Actor-Comedians Jerrod Carmichael and David Alan Grier
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight a conversation with Jerrod Carmichael and David Alan Grier of “The Carmichael Show” lauded as one of network TV’s most daring voices. The NBC sitcom has started its third season with frank discussions of rape and patriotism. Yet despite the heavy topics, it still has plenty of laughs to go along with it.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. Jerrod Carmichael and David Alan Grier in just a moment.
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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
Tavis: [Laugh] I’m laughing already. We ain’t even started yet. Pleased to welcome David Alan Grier and Jerrod Carmichael to this program — back to this program. They are, of course, stars of NBC’s “The Carmichael Show”. Before our conversation, here now a scene guest starring — oh, my God, I love her — Marla Gibbs.
Tavis: There’s so much in that clip, I don’t know where to start [laugh]. I’ll start by saying it’s good to see you both.
Jerrod Carmichael: Great to see you.
Tavis: Glad to have you back on this program.
Carmichael: I was just telling, my mom only cares about me talking to you.
Tavis: Hey, Ma [laugh].
Carmichael: Yeah. My mother is like, “When are you going back on Tavis?”
Tavis: Word to your mom, word to your mom. Let me start with this, I guess. So rape, assisted suicide, when we getting to the N word?
David Alan Grier: It’s coming.
Carmichael: The 21st. June 21, yeah.
Carmichael: Oh, it’s right around the corner. People are gonna…
Grier: There’s another response to that question, but I didn’t go there [laughter]. I said it’s coming.
Carmichael: It’s coming.
Tavis: Do you want to go there? It already has…
Grier: Negro, please! We’re doing that [laughter]. Come on now.
Carmichael: It was such fun with the tape, and it’s very timely. A lot of these episodes are timing out some unfortunately and some fortunately just like with culture in a real way this season, yeah.
Tavis: Without asking you to give anything away, give me a sense of how you’re framing to the extent you can, Jerrod, that episode. Is it about who can use the word? Is it about the word itself? Is it about…
Carmichael: You know, it’s more so about rules. You know, you grow up and it’s not just being Black, but I think this kind of applies to some of everyone you grow up with this set of rules, this unwritten set of rules that you kind of abide by and these guidelines. It’s just kind of understood, you know, especially like growing up.
It’s in the Black community. There are certain things we didn’t do, certain things we didn’t allow. There are certain rules and it’s kind of examining that and to kind of turn it on its head. You know, saying the N word — I have to stop myself from saying nigger. I just want to say…
Tavis: I hate saying the N word. Like I hate it, I hate it.
Carmichael: It feels so cheap just to not say we’re not adults [laugh]. But it’s examining it as a rule itself, so it’s a really rich conversation.
Tavis: Is there anything for Bill Maher to learn from this episode [laugh] maybe?
Grier: To all the white people on the planet, just don’t use it! One of my friends says, “Is it ever appropriate?” I was like you can use it if you’re ready for what comes afterwards [laugh[. I mean, when I was growing up, prepare to get your [bleep] whupped, okay?
I grew up in Detroit. You will get a knuckle in your eye. I mean, that’s just — I’m 60 years old, but that is the appropriate response, okay? That’s what you said?
Tavis: Yeah, just don’t use it, yeah, yeah.
Carmichael: A knuckle in your eye [laugh].
Grier: Oh, yeah. What are you gonna do that for? You knew!
Carmichael: The visual of that. It actually hurts thinking about it, a knuckle in the eye.
Grier: Oh, yeah. I mean, that would cure a lot of that.
Tavis: Now you’re on to something, David, ’cause that’s serious business. A response to a white person using a word like that, how do you guys take such serious issues and find the funny in it?
Grier: Well, I mean, for me, the Carmichaels really represent a closer reality. When I go home and when I hang out with my family, this is the kind of stuff we talk about, you know. Not by the letter, but we talk about everything and within the context of a family.
And, you know, everybody in Rome’s got to say their piece. Some people didn’t read the article. They’re gonna say their piece [laugh]. Some people read the article. They’re gonna say their piece.
Carmichael: Then there’s some person who got the news from the worst website.
Grier: Oh, yeah, oh, yeah, by way of Facebook.
Tavis: And they’re gonna say their piece.
Grier: Oh, yeah, oh, yeah. So, you know, that’s just the way a family works and they all have equal strength. I mean, everybody says, well, look, let your cousin speak. He’s a guest. You know, that kind of stuff. So I think the show really captured that organic family dynamic.
Tavis: Is it getting harder, Jerrod, or easier — maybe neither. You tell me — to situate the show in the moment in which we live? I ask that because it seems like SNL certainly has found its legs in this Trump era, but not just Donald Trump, but with all this going on in the world, is it easier or more challenging to situate a comedy like this?
Carmichael: For us, the key is nuance. You know, a conversation that has both sides genuinely heard as opposed to — I think it’s now a time in culture where it’s easy to get swept up in talking points, swept up in almost like a hashtag culture of like how everyone else feels about something and allowing your views to feed into that.
But the difficult thing is nuance in an argument. So that’s what we try and stay true to when making the show. It’s just like, well, even if it’s unpopular, even if people don’t like it, you don’t worry about that because we all say unlikable things.
We all have unlikable views. We all have unpopular opinions, unpopular thoughts, that whether you share it or not, as a human being, you know, it’s a full spectrum. So just showing those moments is really important and I just try and do that.
Tavis: Let me ask two politically incorrect questions, if I may.
Carmichael: Please. Get really…
Grier: Get grimy, Tavis! Get grimy!
Carmichael : Tell us how you feel, Tavis!
Tavis: I figure if two Black comedians say [inaudible], if I can’t ask y’all, I can’t ask nobody.
Carmichael: Oh, this sounds like it’s either gonna be really fun or the beginning of the end of both of our careers [laughter]. So about the Jews — don’t ask about the Jews, Tavis!
Tavis: White folks never say the N word and I don’t mention the Jews.
Grier: There you go.
Tavis: I don’t mess with the Jews. Some of my best friends…[laugh].
Grier: See? You already…
Carmichael : Tavis will be on the air for the rest of his…[laugh].
Tavis: My first question is how is the network treating you 40 years after Richard Pryor’s show appeared on NBC? I didn’t realize it had been 40 years just researching for our conversation.
Carmichael: Yeah, it’s crazy that amount of time has passed, yeah.
Tavis: 40 years since Pryor did this on the same network.
Carmichael: Yeah, NBC. There are a battles. It’s a string of battles because, one, you’re dealing with a corporation, right? You never want to forget that. As much as you want to be a bleeding heart artist and say but this is truth and this is, you know, what should be seen, you are working within the confines of corporation.
Anything that you see on television, even the internet to a certain degree, you’re working with these rules and people that are very cautious about perspectives that’s so strong. Because the fear is that it will turn viewers away, right? People don’t want to say real things because they’re afraid if you disagree, you won’t watch us.
But, you know, I think it’s, again, staying true to yourself and perspective as you know it. That’s what we hold onto anytime the network’s a little cautious. We say, but this is honest, this is real, and people connect with that and people love when you don’t lie to them.
Grier: Well, to answer your question really plainly, how’s the network treating us, I for one wish we did a lot more shows. I wish that we were not taken off the air for a year. And I think we deserve that and we’ve earned that. So that’s how I feel.
Tavis: Can I be more [inaudible] even?
Grier: Go ahead, man.
Tavis: Why won’t NBC get behind your show the way ABC has gotten behind Black issues?
Grier: It’s racism, Tavis! Now what show you just say? What is [laugh]?
Tavis: Black issues.
Grier: Okay, well, maybe…[laugh]. I didn’t think it through. I just responded.
Tavis: I’m not trying to bash NBC, but it’s a serious question, though. I mean, you can see the difference.
Carmichael: Answering very honestly with you, you know, I think NBC’s figuring out what their comedy brand is, right? We’re kind of a casualty of figuring out exactly what the tone is, who the audience is, all of these things. Our show, I truly believe, is one of the more provocative shows on television.
More than it’s a family show, it really is about the argument itself that allows us to do episodes like the one that aired last week about consent and it allows us to do episodes where your grandmother wants to end her own life. You have these really heavy episodes, but it also puts up an extra wall of caution, that same caution I was talking about, so…
Tavis: But I thought Norman Lear fought these battles years ago so y’all wouldn’t have to.
Carmichael: Yeah, but it’s a constant battle. It’s a constant battle because at any time, you know, if something proves profitable, people try and protect that at all costs. But what you end up doing is making a watered-down version of what you’re trying to create. So what you do instead of — I mean, we said nigger six times on network television.
Grier: But did they say how many niggers…
Carmichael: Well, we asked for one. They gave us one. Danielle, our show runner, asked me to write two.
Tavis: Y’all did six.
Carmichael: We wrote four…
Grier: We wrote six…
Carmichael: No, we wrote four and then we taped six.
Grier: How long was the meeting? Jerrod said to me it was eight hours. Every white person, “Well, the nigger — this is what you’re supposed to write. Jerrod, when you say nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger.” Every white person was like, “Are you guys talking about the nigger show?” [laughter]
Well, I mean, that’s what the show’s about, you know. I’d like to speak my mind, you know. White folk love saying it. They always want this sensation. They’re like, “Tavis, can I say it now?” My god, no! No!
Tavis: All right, enough niggers for one episode [laugh].
Carmichael: I think we topped that episode on this episode, yeah [laugh].
Tavis: Well, all those will be bleeped by the time this actually airs, so…
Carmichael: Oh, come on.
Tavis: Not everybody hears, really.
Carmichael: I think this is more educational than Sesame Street [laughter].
Grier: Well, wait. One thing. I never as a Black man, you know, when they say, oh, it’s different if it’s the “er” or an “a”. In a social situation, are you really breaking down the ere or the a? Are you like, “Say that again, please?” All right, we cool, we cool.
Tavis: You mean, the phonetics on that, yeah, yeah. I don’t think so.
Grier: In the moment, the word is the word.
Tavis: Which raises the question. How do you guys actually get shows done with all this going on, all this comedy?
Carmichael: We have our moments where we’re just all like losing it.
Grier: That’s true.
Carmichael: Like we have a lot of moments where we’re just like — not only that, but what’s fun about us is that we get so deep in conversations even outside of whatever we’re taping that we’ll be in the middle of a conversation and like Jerry will yell action and we’re still talking about — we’re just like locked in and we’re just like yelling with each other.
Then Loretta’s like, “David, we gonna talk about this later!” [laugh]. It’s like this yelling and it’s fun. It really is like a real argument.
Tavis: You and Loretta have — we’ll talk about the cast in a second. The whole cast is great. But you and Loretta have a chemistry that…
Grier: I’ve known her forever. It’s like a marriage.
Tavis: Is that it, is that it?
Grier: It’s like a real marriage, Tavis. No sex whatsoever. You don’t even live in the same house [laugh]. That sounds every marriage I ever had. We know each other like every day and I go home. No, but I’ve known Loretta since like 1983. We’ve worked together so many times over the years. So it’s just kind of a…
Carmichael: I looked at it like with everything from “Dream Girls” and you look at an episode of “A Different World”, it’s like…
Grier: “Boston Public”, but what I was just trying to say is like there’s certain things you can’t fake. I mean, there’s just a knowledge that we have of each other of all those years, and there’s a trust that’s there that didn’t have to be learned or qualified. It’s just walking in a room. That’s what we have.
Carmichael: And they push each other’s buttons very well. Like they know how to genuinely not only like get on each other’s nerves, but then use it for the camera [laugh]. They’re like two of the most brilliant actors. It’s amazing.
Tavis: When you guys cast this, Jerrod, did you know of this longstanding friendship and believe that that would aid and abet?
Carmichael: I didn’t know…
Tavis: You didn’t even know?
Carmichael: No. I didn’t know until after casting. I didn’t know it was that long. Like I didn’t know like “Dream Girls” is where you guys met. I didn’t know any of this. We were just happy to have both, you know. And then the chemistry working the way it does is like this added bonus. It’s amazing.
Tavis: When you’re coming up with this concepts, Jerrod, to turn into shows, it’s a strange question. How do you know? What allows you — what makes you assume that a particular theme or topic will work for an episode? I raise that because you as comedians, you may have a topic or a theme you can get two or three good jokes out of, but it doesn’t mean you can — it’s not that elastic…
Carmichael: You don’t want to jus throw jokes at a subject. It really is whether or not you can have a real argument about it. Can I talk about this for 22 minutes? You know, if you bring up — we did a Cosby episode. I mean, we had to shorten it. You know what I mean? Because like you can talk about that.
You can talk about Alzheimer’s, you can talk about these things, you can talk about these family situations for a long amount of time. So just make sure you have the perspective. Not only that, but then can I argue against myself or can we argue in the writer’s room. You know, we have this brilliant staff and it’s like is there an opposite perspective that’s as strong that can be heard?
Grier: But don’t you think — I think when I’ve written things and you put a premise out there, a good premise grows. It blossoms like a tree. So that means the discussion goes on and on and on. It gets bigger and bigger and more complex. A bad idea is going to rot. I mean, you’ll put it on the table, a few jokes, and this is gonna die.
I mean, one of the clues to me for a great idea is if it sparks that kind of conversation. There are a lot of times when we did the episode with my mom, I didn’t as an actor know if the audience was going to go with us until the night we actually filmed it. Because that’s when we have a live audience. We do everything else amongst ourselves.
Tavis: How scary is that? Not knowing until…
Grier: It’s exciting. I mean, it’s titillating. Don’t you think that it’s like comedy? You can sit in your bedroom and write all this brilliant “material”, but it’s not until that other element you have to put it onstage, then you get that feedback and then we know. I mean, so…
Carmichael: It’s so fun because they expect, you know, a lot like typical sitcom, right? So then she’s like, “Hey, I have Alzheimer’s” and everyone’s like “Oh, okay. That’s a little…” And then “I want to kill myself” and it’s like, “Whoa!” and then…
Grier: But there’s always one dude in the back, “Oh, no!” [laugh].
Carmichael: It’s always the one dude.
Grier: Don’t do it, Marla!
Carmichael: That’s my favorite. When you hear like a Black woman just go “Mmm!”, it’s like something that…
Tavis: There’s a question there, I think, which is — how do I want to phrase it? What is the joy on the one hand or the risk on the other hand either onstage or on the small screen in pushing Black peoples’ buttons? Making Black folk laugh is one thing, but pushing their buttons…
Carmichael: If I may…
Tavis: Okay, please. You may, yeah [laugh].
Carmichael: Black people at our best are the most gifted people in the world. I genuinely believe that. I think the most incredible artists. I think what we have to remember to do is hold onto not only truth, but also expand consciousness with our work.
Because it’s really easy to — because Black people have very strong reactions to your material. And if it’s something that, you know, is kind of outside of it, you can be rebelled against. I mean, I had a nightmare about Black Twitter the other night.
I woke up…[laugh]. I’m not even on Twitter. I’m not even on Twitter. I was like, “Oh!” I’m gonna start using Black Twitter as the boogey man for my nephew. Just like that Black Twitter is gonna get you. I’m gonna make him terrified of Black Twitter [laugh]. It’s just indicative of how it’s a very strong response. But I think it’s so important to challenge.
You know, I think you have to have Malcolm and you have to have Martin and you have to have — you can still want what’s best and have differing views, you know, and I think that’s really important. I think in arguments in general, nuance kind of falls out, you know. And especially, I think with Black art and Black content, it’s very easy to just give the empowering speech of like I know we’re strong.
I know we’re capable. I know we’re amazing. I know we’re brilliant. I know we’re geniuses. And now how can we expand that? How can we challenge everything that we know? How can we push us forward and move into the future and not just hold onto everything from the past? Some things are meant to be let go of in order to grow.
Tavis: Have you ever tried anything, David, onstage or elsewhere and Black folk said to you, “That ain’t funny, man.”? “That right there ain’t funny.”
Grier: Well, the audience en masse owing to — I did a bit about breaking up was a woman who has kids. You have to break up with the kids too. When I went into a part of the bit of going, you know, to the son, “You know I’m not gonna be your make-believe dad anymore”, then every woman in the audience was like, “Oh! Boo!”
That’s not really me, you know [laugh], but you got to get out there and try. I mean, that’s the element. But they told me vociferously don’t go down that road.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. I saw your standup a few months ago. I texted you…
Carmichael: You texted me. I appreciate it. Thank you very much, Tavis.
Tavis: I thought it was amazing. I’ve seen that thing half a dozen times and I’ve been dying to ask you this question. So I didn’t know what to expect, of course, when I saw this standup. I’ve seen your standup many times, so I didn’t know what to expect.
But there’s something about this last standup you did that was different. I mean, in terms of the way you framed it, the style. Am I — what did you do that was different, that was…
Carmichael: The goal was vulnerability. You know, like the goal was to make it as vulnerable. Actually, the spark of it was I was listening to this Marvin Gaye album called “Vulnerable” actually, and the material on it was so honest and so open. Like with standup comedy, it’s usually so macho and big and I just wanted it to be vulnerable.
I wanted to say these thoughts that were unpopular, things people would disagree with. And I worked with a friend of mine, Bo Burnham, who is just a very, very brilliant human being, amazing director. He’s a comedian himself and performer. I wouldn’t even call him a comedian. Just a performer. He’s amazing.
We just tried to shoot it, you know, in such a real way. It was just looking at, you know, old Jonathan [inaudible] videos and Etta James Live in Montreux, these things that just captured a very vulnerable performance.
You know, he and [inaudible] just did this amazing job capturing that and we just wanted it to be honest. We just wanted to do a standup special that was completely different than anything that you would normally see. So we just cut out anything that wasn’t necessary and just kept it really honest and about the words and about the perspective.
Tavis: It worked, it worked.
Carmichael: Oh, thank you. I appreciate you saying that. Thank you.
Tavis: What’s always fascinating for me, David and Jerrod, is to look at comedians in that setting. I think it’s fair to say that audience was not overwhelmingly Black.
Carmichael: You know, what’s funny…
Tavis: The way it looked on camera, you tell me, yeah.
Carmichael: Yeah. I was telling somebody because they were like, “Man, you had all this mostly white audience.” I requested it such. It actually may have been a little bit over 50% Black and, since Rosa Parks, I think we’ve gone back to just sitting in the back [laugh]. If you look at the balcony, it was just like a bunch of Black people. Why don’t you guys sit down here [laugh]?
Tavis: I was looking for them.
Carmichael: Where they at? They were genuinely — I had family up there. Like my brothers up in the back of the room. I ain’t sitting close to the stage.
Tavis: I only raise that because I don’t know whether, David, if there is a particular challenge to telling those kind of jokes and that kind of material in front of white folk versus being at the Apollo.
Grier: Hey, I started at the Apollo.
Tavis: That’s why I asked, yeah.
Carmichael: I loved it. His Apollo standup was so dope [laugh].
Grier: I told my first joke when I first performed as a standup at the Apollo, and it hit so hard I thought the Sandman was behind me. But I was afraid to look upstage ’cause then I thought I’m totally gonna lose ’em, and I just kept going. I didn’t know until later, but the Apollo was, oh, it was deep. It was deep.
Tavis: Sandman didn’t get you, though. He didn’t get you.
Grier: No. I was great. I mean, it hit good in a good way.
Tavis: You killed it, yeah, yeah.
Grier: And I’ve performed there many times, but nothing is like the Apollo. It’s big, but when you’re onstage, it gets small. It’s like a tunnel. That’s how it feels. Yeah, it’s an incredible place, incredible place.
Tavis: All right, Jerrod. I’m gonna give you the last word here. So what do we have to look forward to this season on the show? Tomorrow night, you can tune in, of course.
Carmichael: Yeah. Marla Gibbs does this amazing job. I’m so thankful for her playing the grandmother with Alzheimer’s. I mean, we have things about, you know, your self-appearance. We have things about a three-some episode. We have…
Tavis: What was that?
Carmichael: Kind of breezed through that [laugh].
Grier: Needless to say, Loretta and I don’t get involved [laugh].
Tavis: He cut you out of that one, huh?
Tavis: He cut you out of that scene.
Grier: But wait. Let me tell a quick story. Like Marla was there and she kept going, “David?” I was like, “Yeah, Marla, what?” “I don’t wanna die.” I was like, “Well, it’s too late now! Exit!” [laughter]
Tavis: No recurring role, huh?
Grier: Exactly. You can come back in the green [laugh].
Carmichael: I said, “Marla, I’m so happy to have you back” and she said, “Like you are? Then why you killing me off?”
Grier: Exactly [laugh]. She was lobbying. I said, well, maybe we can face time with your spirit or something. I don’t know.
Carmichael: It’s my favorite season of television ever. And I now it’s hard for me to be objective here, but I mean it. Everyone’s just…
Tavis: I trust your judgment. And if you say that, then it works for me. “The Carmichael Show” starring Jerrod Carmichael and David Alan Grier and the rest of that amazing cast. Love you, guys. Good to have you back on.
Carmichael: Thanks for having us.
Grier: Well, thank you.
Tavis: Tell your mama I said hi.
Carmichael: I will.
Tavis: Hey, ma. Hey, Ms. Carmichael!
Carmichael: I’m back on Tavis, ma.
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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