The Surreal Life Of ‘Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show’

There’s a certain type of comedian who looks at real life and puts it through the artifice of comedy, as a way pointing out how silly we all are or what a kooky little world we live in. Then there’s another kind of comedian, the one who is unsatisfied with the performance of telling jokes or comedic acting. The ones whose own neuroses and anxieties force them to push through the artificiality of art in an effort to attain something that feels “real” or “honest.” Works of that latter kind include the movies of Albert Brooks and Judd Apatow, Garry Shandling’s seminal The Larry Sanders Show, Ramy by Ramy Youssef, Atlanta by Donald Glover, whatever it is that Nathan Fielder is doing at any point. Even more standard fare like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm and the last couple of Chris Rock movies have tried their hand at using broad comedy as set dressing to explore things like the mundanity of life and love. John Mulaney just did an entire comedy special based on his cocaine addiction and rehab, after all.

Jerrod Carmichael’s journey as a comedian has taken him further and further into the territory of that second type. If you watch his three comedy specials in order (Love At The Store, 8, and Rothaniel), you can see him start as a broad but intellectualized comic in the Dave Chappelle vein and slowly transition into an open and vulnerable man on stage finally willing to say out loud the things he had forgone for so long, namely that he’s a gay man and that his family more than kinda hates it—particularly his Christian mother, whose disapproval hurts him the most.

Unlike a lot of standup specials that aren’t actually HAHA funny, Rothaniel was fantastic, a comedy special version of that scene in My Own Private Idaho where River Phoenix confesses his unrequited love for Keanu Reeves by a campfire (more on this later). It was a bold act of radical honesty and vulnerability that still worked as standup, but whether due to its success or the rush of putting his family business out there in a public way, it has inspired Carmichael to push for more avenues of radical honesty, which he seems only able to achieve in front of cameras or an audience.

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This gets us to Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show, a cringe exhibitionist experiment this side of living in the display case at a natural history museum. Carmichael is under the impression that by “trying to Truman Show” himself, he will be forced to live more openly. It sounds counterintuitive. There’s nothing truthful about cameras, particularly when the footage is edited from the point of view of the guy at the helm. It is essentially an exercise in how addicted to being seen you are, risking even the display of the most embarrassing moments of your life. But there’s nothing necessarily truthful about cringe either. Of course, Jerrod knows this, which we know because a friend of his shows up early in the first episode—dressed like the Delocated guy and who may or may not be the comedian Bo Burnham (another guy who knows about mining truth in comedy)—and literally tells him these things to his face, to which a nonchalant Carmichael responds, “But what’s so wrong with exhibitionism?”

The first episode of Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show, which aired last week, follows Carmichael as he works through his feelings with his friend Tyler, The Creator, who he has made the mistake of falling in love with. After getting dismissed via voicenote, Carmichael makes it worse by asking Tyler to the Emmys, the one in which he would eventually win for Rothaniel. This culminates with a dinner so excruciating that The Office could only wish to recreate it. I think only Elaine May could write a scene this painful to watch. Needless to say, Tyler does not reciprocate and actively tries to avoid the situation as Carmichael crouches into himself there like Shinji from Neon Genesis Evangelion, or like Phoenix in that scene I mentioned before. Naturally, this is the moment that went viral, which may be good for the show but it just made me feel so sad.

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I like Jerrod Carmichael a lot. Not just because he’s my peer and we kinda favor each other, at least back when I had a fade; not just because watching him is like watching the version of myself who had the guts to chase the standup career I wanted at 13. I genuinely think he’s smart, insightful, and really funny. He’s done stuff like this before, like Home Movies and Sermon On The Mount, in which he explores his relationships with his family back in North Carolina. But this show feels beneath him. And not just because he can do better than Tyler, The Creator—a man who is queer in the sense that he likes being with women and twee white boys—but also because it doesn’t feel true. I can believe that Carmichael himself doesn’t perform for the cameras in an inauthentic way, but certainly everyone else does and will.

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Hating oneself and transplanting that for comedy is nothing new. But here’s what I think happened: I think that it took over 30 years for Carmichael to come to terms with being a gay black man, and I think the only way he could find the path to that honesty was not through family or friendships or even therapy, but rather through the stage. So if he were to make it so all the world were a stage for him, then that would imply more honesty. Maybe that’s true for him, and he’s certainly excited to live out loud, making up for … let’s conservatively say 15 years of sex that he couldn’t have (at least openly). He’s bouncing through Grindr like a bunny rabbit, antsy and childlike to make up for lost time, and I get it. Perhaps as the show delves further into his strained relationship with his family, this experiment will go somewhere. But outside of his best friend Jessica, I don’t buy that this “radical honesty experiment” encapsulates the entirety of the world Carmichael is trying to probe. In the words of maybe-not masked Bo Burnham, “This is just masturbatory.”

When Nathan Fielder started The Rehearsal, what was fascinating and sometimes off-putting about it was how he started from a place of artificiality and kept digging, kept pushing, kept escalating worlds within worlds, to finally get to one truly honest (and weird) moment. That’s the thing about art and filmmaking: You’re putting on a show, whether with real people or not, and without acknowledging the artificial, you’re asking your audience to trust you. Perhaps I can put myself on camera as I watch to find out if I actually do.

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