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Rising Comic Jerrod Carmichael On Stand-Up, Millennials and Joking About Police Brutality

by Michelle Zei
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If you haven't heard the name Jerrod Carmichael yet, we guarantee you will soon. And then you won't forget it. Jerrod is an anomaly: a 27-year-old stand-up comedian who avoids digital content and whose first major introduction to the world was last year with his own HBO comedy special "Love at the Store," directed by Spike Lee; and now he's gearing up to premiere his namesake sitcom The Carmichael Show on NBC August 26th.

But Carmichael didn't just stumble upon success. He's been grinding in LA comedy clubs for the past six years. There's something noticeably old-school about Carmichael, from his mild manners to his impeccable work ethic (it seems like you can still catch him doing stand-up nearly any night of the week in LA), or maybe the fact that stand-up is his first love at a time when many funny, young people seek alternative routes with soundbite-heavy skits online. Whatever it is, Carmichael's voice refreshingly echoes the realities of our time and isn't afraid to challenge audiences.

His material is distinctly millennial: It's multicultural, hip-hop-influenced, celebrity-obsessed, digitally-distracted and keyed into social-justice. While some may perceive his bits about Trayvon Martin as crossing a line, Carmichael is on stage telling jokes about some of our country's deepest sources of pain -- namely the woefully high murder rates of black Americans and systemic inequality. All this, no less, at a time when it's clear that silence and political correctness haven't achieved the mythological post-racial society. All he wants is for people to listen.  

So you're from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. When did you decide to pursue comedy and move to LA?

When I was 19, a friend of mine started to push me to do it. I always had an interest, but it was like a theory, like "I'll probably move to LA" but it was never anything I ever took seriously until a couple months before I moved. I was 20 and my sister bought me a one-way plane ticket and was like "are you sure?" I said "yeah, yeah." so I found a place of Craigslist and just did it, around the decision to really do stand-up. You have to be around people at a very high level if you want to do anything great. You want to be around peers, future peers, and competitors and all that, so for me I love North Carolina but I didn't choose to start there because I really wanted to be pushed.

What kind of comedy did you watch growing up?

I watched Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor a lot in my house because of my parents and I watched Comic View, Martin, The Golden Girls, The Steve Harvey Show, and Fraiser. I haven't been able to watch comedy without analyzing it for a while. I was like 11 or 12 when I really started dissecting it. I try to analyze it the way you would analyze a jazz song. Miles Davis said there are no mistakes in jazz and I believe that to be true of comedy. There aren't mistakes, like if you did something it was for a reason, so you have to explore that. There's no right or wrong. A lot of people are terrified of being themselves because they want to make a living and it's easier to do what the next guy is doing. It's that fear of failure where people think "if I don't try anything and just fit in this mold then I can make the amount of money that person made or have the career that person had" but you have to be unique. Especially, now it's not like before with the Catskills where the jokes were interchangeable and weren't so personal, then someone else could write your jokes and you could go perform them as long as you had a good delivery or whatever. But now it's such a personal thing, they want to know you or your thoughts, your honest views on things, or your techniques for challenging people which is a thing I like to utilize.

Now you see a lot of people trying to break into comedy through YouTube or Vine but you entered on the scene through stand-up and an HBO special. Can you talk about that?

A lot of people will hit really hard on the web and they'll want to do live shows but they haven't worked that muscle. They haven't done it before and it doesn't work out. Look, there's some amazing web guys who don't do live performances and they've found their medium and that's excellent. But sometimes a video goes viral but they can't adapt to live performance. I don't think it's hard, I just think doing stand-up is a journey in self-exploration. You have to really go within and know yourself really, really well.

You have very few videos online.

I kind of consciously kept it really low. I want people to come see my stand up. I didn't want to just flood people with more and more material online, I wanted people to see it.

In your shows you engage the audience in a friendlier way than most comedians -- like asking them how their day is going as opposed to picking them out of the audience and making fun of what they're wearing. 

Yeah, this one show the guy was sitting in the front row and he said "I know you're about to get me, I'm an open target right now." I was like "no you bought tickets, two drinks" -- I think he had a few more than that -- "I'm glad you're here." I was picked on. I don't like the idea of just picking on someone because they came to see you do comedy. That's not how I like to do comedy, but I do like to talk to people. The same way I hope people respect my view or technique for getting an idea out, I respect theirs. I like having a conversation.

In your "Love at the Store" special there are moments where it seems like you cross a line with the audience, for example the bit about Trayvon Martin. Can you talk about that joke?

I've heard the criticism of the Trayvon part, and it's like, are you listening to what I said? It's a challenge. You don't care and if you do, do something -- here's the thing that happened with Trayvon, George Zimmerman is a free man. We as a society failed, I take blame for that because we let it slip away. We let it slip away! I don't think we were as relentless or as organized as we could've been or should've been. There's a certain relentlessness that forces people to change their mind and forces people to recognize their faults. Beyond when a horrible tragedy happens, beyond wearing hoodies and changing our profile pictures, we needed more real outrage. That joke was my way of challenging, like, do you really care? Either do something about it or face your innate selfishness. And I want people to do something.

Do you think having Spike Lee direct the special influenced the way people perceived it, especially in terms of the more controversial aspects?

Having Spike Lee on board allows people to listen, because even some of the things that I'm challenging I'm probably supporting if you really listen. I'm probably supporting what you're supporting I'm just using a different technique to hopefully get people to wake up and feel something beyond apathy. I just hope my intention shines through, my intention isn't to make anyone mad but it is to challenge certain thoughts. Usually when someone is offended they shut down and they stop listening and hearing you. If you're upset I can take that, as long as you're still listening.

Do you feel like your comedy resonates more with millennials than other age brackets?

I love the response from my generation: they just get it. They understand it. They know. Cops pulled guns on me down the street, I mention it in the special, it's real. I'm saying it as a challenge even for people like me, who look like me, for me! That's the thing that I wish, that people would just look deeper. Like don't dismiss me, just listen.

What do you think characterizes your generation?

My favorite thing about our generation is that we're finally able to be human beings, we're finally able to see past the roles of race and gender even, we're able to go beyond it and have the opportunity to be ourselves. I'm not pretending we're in this utopia and race problems are gone and gender inequality is gone, but we're still able to be ourselves in most social situations and I think that's beautiful. I think we're just more open, not just looking for the flaws. We're the beneficiaries. I even joke about the Civil Rights Movement and what I'm trying to say is I can maintain the reverence without holding on to the pain. Our generation is able to know the history of the word nigger but it doesn't bother us and that should be a good thing. We get chastised for not feeling hurt when we hear it.  People say we should stop saying it, but it's like no it's a word and we gentrified the n-word and that's amazing! That's amazing! That's a sign of who our generation is and it's amazing progress, it's like you either embrace it or you get left behind.

Artistically speaking, the problem with a lot of artists, whether it's comics or musicians or whatever, is they don't even know they're free. I've talked to guys who don't know they're free to do whatever they want. They live in this box of what they're supposed to do and say. Even speaking to comedy, there was a guy who was like "you can't pull out your notebook during a comedy special" and I was like "remind me why again? What's that rule you're adhering to?" but we're able to do whatever we want, it's so beautiful.

How do you maintain such a positive attitude?

My desire is to see the good in everything and everyone. This may be a device in some sense but if you really want to see the potential for good in everything imagine you're at the bottom of a well and then look around and imagine that person is the first face you see looking over the well that has the potential to help you and save you. And if you look at everyone through that lens you can find something amazing in everyone. We have the ability to help each other.

With a role in Neighbors, then your own special, and now a sitcom you've accomplished a lot at a young age. What has your journey been like since you got to LA?

You move and you just hit the ground running. Open mics become shows and shows become general meetings with iced green tea. For me the journey has always been just head down, focus, work and let it consume you if you love it.

Do you ever receive criticism that you haven't paid enough dues? What do you think about the notion of paying dues?

A lot of people's criticisms of me are rooted in me just not following the rulebook. You pay dues but it's such a personal system. You can't as an outsider say. You learn these lessons and then you move on. It's gonna be a different time-frame for everyone. What takes someone ten years, might take another guy one. You can only answer it for yourself. People are so caught up in policing that they aren't making art. And look, I like arguing if it's more than shitting on something and putting it down. Then I don't mind it, if it's actually something constructive. I just like progress on all fronts, personal, artistic.

How do you feel about the platform you're building for yourself?

Comedy can be mindless and still prove profitable, and I don't want anyone to leave my show without feeling something or thinking about something. Even if it's anger, or they don't like it, great! Usually people don't feel that and I know what Richard Pryor did to me, even when I was listening to topics that happened a generation prior, not necessarily truths of my generations, I could feel that he was someone that was cutting through.

I have a responsibility as an artist. How do I push the culture further, even just for comedy for the art form, for stand-up comedy, it's like how do I move it forward? That's part of my job. I'm aware that HBO isn't just handing out specials. I'm aware that people under 40 aren't really getting them, let alone a black dude under 40, under 30. I'm aware of that so I have to do my part in moving it forward and not just doing things you've seen before.


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