There aren’t many network sitcoms that have managed to generate buzz as effortlessly as NBC’s The Carmichael Show, which ends a fantastic second season on Sunday night. Co-created by and starring 28-year-old comedian Jerrod Carmichael, who also writes, The Carmichael Show is a throwback to Norman Lear’s socially conscious sitcoms of the 1970s. Centred on a fictional version of Carmichael’s family, the show mostly takes place in the North Carolina home of Jerrod’s parents, Cynthia and Joe, played by Loretta Devine and David Alan Grier. After a puzzling delay, NBC finally renewed the show for a third season.
Like Lear, Carmichael finds humor in generational friction — The Carmichael Show pits Jerrod and his live-in girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West), a therapist-in-training, against his more conservative parents. Rounding out the cast are Jerrod’s eternally broke brother Bobby (Lil Rey Howery) and Bobby’s live-in ex-wife, Nekeisha (Tiffany Haddish). Each episode is built around a hot topic: The show has taken on police brutality, Bill Cosby, Islamophobia, and porn. In its second season finale, “President Trump,” Joe creates a stir when he decides to support Trump.
We spoke to Carmichael about the show’s Trump-tastic finale, the glory of reruns, and his guilty fixation on Bruno Mars.
The Carmichael Show is a very traditional multi-camera sitcom that deals with some pretty touchy subject matter. Do you feel like the format lets you get away with edgier content?
Yeah, well you have an audience there to react, and you have an audience there to almost give you permission to laugh. The beauty of humor is that you get such an immediate response — you’re in a room full of people and you get to respond immediately, as opposed to just everyone sitting around saying, “Well, is that offensive?” We said a thing, and then you heard the laughter. So the format does kind of allow us to get away with a little bit more.
So it’s the live audience that really makes the difference.
Yeah, it makes a difference. It’s a stage play. It’s so immediate, there isn’t a delay in reaction.
The show manages to be controversial without coming off as offensive. When you’re writing, how do you balance the need to appeal to a mass audience while still saying the things you want to say?
It’s just trying to find truth and balance in any argument. Whatever we’re talking about, we’re trying to really see both sides. There’s no message. There are opinions, there are thoughts and theories, but there isn’t a message. I think that’s when it becomes offensive — when it starts feeling like propaganda. We just lay out the most even argument that we can and I think that’s what people are attracted to.
There’s a great line in the finale where your character says, “True democracy isn’t just listening to people you agree with,” and that seems to sum up a big part of the show’s philosophy.
That’s truly my perspective. I always joke that my friends are kind of like Lincoln’s cabinet — people that disagree with me on every fundamental level. And I keep them really, really close, because it’s important. It’s the only way you can grow.
I was impressed that the finale wasn’t really a knock against Trump supporters, which is what I kind of expected when I read the episode description.
It wasn’t a lesson to be learned. The lesson to be learned, if there was one, is that even if you completely disagree, listening is the only way forward. As much as you want to just rebel and shut down – the only way to fix anything is to listen, even if it’s Trump!
Where did that come from, the idea that Joe would support Trump?
It came from hearing these sprinkles of Trump support. No one wanted to go full Trump but every now and then I would hear people say something and not realize they were agreeing [with him]. So it’s like, let’s just put that into one person.
Yeah, I’ve heard people say the odd thing like, “Well, he does have a point about X.”
Exactly. Dave Chappelle once said he doesn’t like the term “crazy” because it’s dismissive. And that’s very true, you can’t just dismiss someone or something as “crazy.” That doesn’t help anybody. That doesn’t move anything forward. The ironic thing about democracy is that it’s still democracy even when you don’t agree with it.
I’ve been particularly impressed with the rhythm of the show — most episodes take place in one living room, with the same few characters, and yet it always moves pretty fast. How do you inject that sense of movement into such a fixed template?
Again, it goes back to truth. I think we’ve all had great conversations for 22 minutes. We have been in living rooms where we’ve argued with fewer people than that, where it’s just you and one other person. I think the truth of that is what we hold onto with the show. If there is a lull, it’s the argument’s fault. I trust the attention span and intellect of the viewer, so I don’t think [the characters] need to move around a lot. I think as long as the argument moves, and as long as the conversation and emotion of it moves, that’s enough.
Your show is often compared to Norman Lear’s sitcoms of the 1970s. Which of his shows in particular were you influenced by?
Definitely All in the Family. It was probably one of the most important shows in history. It was important because it was so intertwined with the culture, and it commented and created and reflected and was truly a mirror. So I’m very influenced by that.
I grew up watching reruns of All in the Family.
Wasn’t it great? Even though it was from a time prior, didn’t you just have the feeling of, I can’t believe they’re getting away with this?
I have real fears about the end of broadcast television — a world where kids can’t just turn on the TV and discover reruns like that. I really like being able to flip through channels and come across something I may have never otherwise seen.
It’s an interesting thing, because what our generation has done is essentially opened the archives to all prior generations, right? It’s a weird time in history where every other time in history in recent cultures can exist concurrently. So we are in 2016 but I have a friend who dresses like she’s in the ’70s, and another friend who only listens to ’80s hip-hop. It’s all existing at once and you can reach back.
The thing we have to be cautious of, I think, is making sure that our interests aren’t trending. And what I mean by that is, we’ll sometimes get caught up in a thing in culture and it comes in these waves — for instance, Betty White became a thing when they wanted her to host SNL. I’m sure a lot of people revisited her roles on Mary Tyler Moore and Golden Girls because of it, but the beauty of just flipping the channel is that you can discover things. You have to make sure your interests aren’t trending so you can leave room for discovery. It’s just caution — with so many options has to come a bit more discernment.
That’s what I worry about, too many options.
Yeah, it is a lot. Hopefully it drives competition and makes everyone work extra hard to make sure that theirs is the best. I kind of watch TV the way I watch music: by avoiding it. If I didn’t have the internet or own a television, the only shows I would know existed would be like, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. You want to make your show one of those — the thing that everyone is talking about. So hopefully that drives everyone to work harder as creators.
I don’t know if you read that Vulture article by Mark Harris about your show.
Someone sent that to me. I’ll go through these phases where I’ll read things and sometimes I won’t, I’m kind of off the internet now. But I did just see that one, that was nice.
He kind of called you the next Jerry Seinfeld.
I’m like, hey, look, if there are similarities — I think he highlighted certain similarities.
A lot of people said that about John Mulaney before his sitcom came out, and then it was cancelled immediately.
Yeah, you gotta be careful with the “next” anybody.
I’ve noticed that both on The Carmichael Show and in your standup you’ve made swipes at Bruno Mars. What’s your beef with Bruno?
Can I tell you a very real thing — I think Bruno Mars is absolutely incredible. I think he’s such an amazing performer, I genuinely believe that. It’s technically Mark Ronson, but his “Uptown Funk” — I could go on and on. The selflessness as a performer where it’s as much about the other two guys as it is about him, yet still he shines and pops when he’s on any screen. I can only imagine how enthralling a live performance must be. So for whatever reason I make myself feel guilty for liking him.
I guess you have to work through that however you can.
That’s all it is. It’s just a man’s guilt manifesting itself as a joke. It’s my own personal issue.
Well, thanks for owning up to that.
No, of course, he’s great! He’s fantastic. He can sing live, he can dance, come on! He’s amazing!
He’s like a machine, I feel like he’s almost not human.
Yeah, that’s how good he is! He’s almost too good!
The Carmichael Show airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on NBC.