Jerrod Carmichael on ‘Rothaniel’, What’s Next for His Comedy

ILast month, comedian Jerrod Carmichael released one of the best stand-up specials of the year: Rotaniel, in which he delved deeply into his family’s secret-keeping history before revealing some long-standing secrets. This weekend, he will follow up with the national release of his film directorial debut, on the count of threein which his character Val and his best friend (played by girls‘ Christopher Abbott) make a suicide pact. In an interview with TIME, Carmichael reflected on his turbulent few months, joking about suicide and sulking like Jackie Kennedy. Here are excerpts from the conversation.

You reveal many uncomfortable secrets about yourself and your family in Rotaniel. How are you feeling?

I feel very resilient, and I feel very grown up. In particular, I’m honest about things I thought I’d never say out loud. I started to feel more responsibility, which is not a word I would use to describe any of my jobs. But I definitely started to feel it after coming out of the closet.

An idea you explore in Rotaniel it is “things that exist but do not exist; things hidden in plain sight.” Do you think this phenomenon is unique to America?

It happens a lot. I feel like Rotaniel probably played well in London because it’s such an educated society.

But here, I sometimes think about homelessness: as we are on the sidewalks, you see someone suffering, sometimes you feel insecure. And we may not be willing to take the steps necessary to do something meaningful. So you just ignore it and pass, because it’s inconvenient. The principle is probably the same everywhere.

Acknowledging the fact that I’m gay undoes a lot of things for my mother. She has to cross that reference with religion. It’s easier to ignore. Let’s continue the party, smile, take the picture. Don’t recognize the thing that could cause the break.

I’m in love with the saying “don’t rock the boat”. It sounds sweet, but the implications are so dark and huge. Don’t rock the boat or what? You will fall into the ocean and drown. But it sounds so beautiful. So when you feel like you can rock the boat, there’s a lot of danger in that and you just don’t do it.

Tell me when I get too far. I do free associative therapy. So I blame that on my tendency to stay so far away from questions.

How did you get into free associative theory and what did you learn about yourself?

I tried regular therapy—I’m sure there’s a technical name for it—and I didn’t really like it. I don’t like people giving me advice. I don’t even like nudges.

I got the idea of ​​free associative therapy by watching Annie Hallin which he [Woody Allen] he is always talking about his analyst. I was like, ‘I live in NY, I should have an analyst.’ And looking at it, it looked like the shape I was looking for: something that allows me to question everything, where you can kind of trust. I’m going to start talking about one thing, go on a million tangents, and then realize at the end of the session that I’ve been talking about the same thing all along – that I’ve never gotten off topic.

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You guys said Howard Stern that you and your mother have a “god-sized wall” between you. Dropped in the last month?

Not. Wise people tell me these things take time, and I choose to believe them. Makes sense. She has to compare this to everything she has ever known and been taught by her mother. That’s not easy. I had to do this myself, so I understand.

It’s weird, because it created a certain empathy that I think probably informed a lot of my material, subconsciously. Finding empathy in strange places. Strangely connecting with my mother’s steadfastness and hers strong belief system, even though it can be used against me.

I was listening to gospel music in the shower a week ago. I was listening to a woman sing passionately about Jesus, and it was so beautiful. But then I started thinking about my mother’s relationship with Jesus and I started imagining the singer being my mother. And realizing that religion is the wall that separates us, I began to think of Jesus as the other man in my mother’s life. I started feeling jealous of Jesus, like, “Wow, she really loves this guy. She is beautiful. I could never have what they have.”

You called masculinity a “great performance.” How have you evaluated your own masculinity performance?

I told a friend recently that I take better pictures after coming out because I’m not afraid to look gay. I think I move better, I move more freely. Small things. I don’t care about being a man anymore. I accept that I am. I don’t have to do it.

I was doing a double performance as you tend to perform in certain environments. I’m from the periphery, and I work a lot for protection or self-esteem. I know guys who have guns but don’t want to shoot: the gun is a performance, with consequences.

Sometimes stand-up can bring that performance out of me: it’s such a masculine sport. I did a show last night and I’m in a bad mood in my hotel room because I’m not happy with the set. I have to stop doing shows with other people. It brings a competitive side, which makes me go off course. It probably sounded more aggressive. It was true to how I was feeling, but it brought a level of ego that I don’t need right now.

Does bad mood help to bring down that ego?

Yeah, it’s just me trying to forgive myself, pacing around. I remember reading about Tiger Woods after the first scandal, and how it made him aware of himself and what distracted or ruined his game. He didn’t forgive himself for the mistakes, and you could still see him thinking about the mistakes of his previous hole. Accepting, forgiving and moving on is important.

I’m very hard on myself; I’ve always been. It’s good to sulk, though. It’s a sublime bad mood. i love the movie jackie. There’s a moment after John dies, she’s in the White House, just smoking and taking pills, pacing around in a trance. This glamorous haze of dresses and gowns, textures, and she’s sad. I go through this a lot: sulking in a cardigan and some silk shorts.

On his film debut as a director on the count of three, you play Val, who makes a suicide pact with his best friend. How do you and Val relate?

Existing with a cloud over our heads. I felt kind of at the end of my rope making this movie. I got tired of acting, and a lot of pain motivated the movie and my decision to do it.

What would you say to people who are disheartened by the concept of a suicide comedy?

I understand. I’ve definitely written and interpreted a lot of subjects that people say shouldn’t be done. But I believe the power of art is to explore interesting and rich subjects, like suicide. It just needs to be done with integrity.

You’ve cultivated a lot of really strong creative partnerships, including with Bo Burnham, who has directed some of your stand-up sets (including Rotaniel) and Lil Rel Howery. What are the seeds of a really strong creative partnership?

Removing the ego. Sometimes I have to fight the urge to take something because it’s mine; because I’m so precious with the thought. You can get to that point where you’re fighting people who have the same goal as you. You can’t get in the way of the thing.

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Another of your collaborators is Tyler, the Creator, which you interviewed about your album Florist in 2018. Did you have any conversations with him about his coming out process?

I spoke to T most days, probably. We talk about these things all the time: he’s a beautiful, supportive friend.

You move very fluidly between film, TV and stand-up; mainstream fare and more experimental work. Have your success with Rotaniel impacted how you want to invest your time and energy?

When I’m doing standup, I’m doing standup. I think people can see how much you care about things. It’s a lesson learned from Beyoncé: I always look at her performances and be like, “Wow, that seems like time well spent. You really worked for it!”

When I was in Budapest shooting with Yorgos [Lanthimos on the upcoming movie Poor Things], I was not answering any calls; it was just that. Whatever I’m doing, I’m doing that thing. Sometimes he excels as a “writer”, sometimes as a “director” every now and then. But it’s all just idea at first.

My colleague Judy Berman recently wrote an essay about famous stand-up comedians too often using their platform to fight their enemies, including Dave Chappelle, Bill Maher and Hannah Gadsby. She writes that her approach “leaves little room for introspection, humility or doubt”. do you have any thoughts on this?

This is a list of talented comedians. I simplify the argument to just, they have to be happy with their work. If what they find most interesting is talking about their “haters” – and I’m using air quotes – then they should. There’s been some really good art directed at haters. I don’t think there are any rules.

I just hope every artist has urgency. I want the art form to thrive; I want it to be exciting. I always say, even starting with open mics, that everything I say has to be the most important thing in the world, whether it’s about me or someone else. The urgency is resounding. So whether it’s towards enemies or the mirror or whatever you choose to explore, I hope you care very, very, deeply about that.

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