Jerrod Carmichael Comes Out in ‘Rothaniel,’ but It’s About More – The New York Times

Jerrod Carmichael Comes Out in ‘Rothaniel,’ but It’s About More – The New York Times

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In “Rothaniel” on HBO, the stand-up grapples with secrets that defined his upbringing, the toll silence has taken and the price he’s paying to break it.
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In his 2014 debut special, “Love at the Store,” the stand-up comic Jerrod Carmichael offered advice to gay people about the right time to come out of the closet. “Save it until you need it,” he said, quipping: “I would come out of the closet when a friend asked me to move.”
It’s one of many of his old jokes that hit differently after “Rothaniel,” a riveting new special from Carmichael who, sitting onstage at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York, reveals that he is gay, has been lying about it for years and wants to now tell the truth. Coming out of the closet will be the headline, especially in a stand-up scene historically rife with homophobia, but the most fascinating, charged material in this hour (premiering at 9 p.m. Friday on HBO) grapples with the roots of his silence — and the price of breaking it.
Stylishly directed by Bo Burnham, who staged Carmichael’s last special, “8,” with similar idiosyncrasy, “Rothaniel” begins with a street-level shot looking up at snow falling, then follows Carmichael walking toward the club, but from so far away that you can’t make him out. As a director of specials, Burnham specializes in claustrophobic close-ups, which he employs here too, but he begins at a distance.
As soon as Carmichael starts talking, you realize that he has kept us at one, too — until this reintroduction. While he has the same charming smile and supremely relaxed conversational style, he sounds different here: melancholy, earnest and poetic, direct. He’s now sitting, encouraging the crowd to talk back, speaking in an intimate tone, leveling with us and himself. Those old provocative stand-up premises only hinted at this new man, especially when they dug into family matters. “I want to talk about secrets,” he says early on here. “I felt like I was birthed into them.”
This is a work about the complexity and ubiquity of secrets. It’s a word he has used before in similar ways. In his last special, he looked at a white woman in the front row who came with a Black boyfriend and said: “If his grandma were alive, you would be a secret.”
Now he isn’t joking. Or he isn’t only joking. This special doesn’t feel like stand-up but it is. Carmichael is masterful at disguising punch lines in a thought so as not to interrupt its flow. The jokes are ultimately ornamental, decorating the emotional core: a story told through confessions. The initial one reveals that his first name is actually his middle name. The special’s title is a reference to his real one, a conflation of two of the names of his grandfathers. He explains in detail how much he hated the name, how he bribed yearbook editors in school to change it and got the bank to remove it from cards. It’s one of many biographical moments that illustrate how he developed the tools for the closet, how to live with things that, as he put it, “exist but don’t exist.”
Much of this has to do with family history, which he has always talked about in his work but glancingly. Now he is blunt, detailing lives that also held secrets people knew but didn’t at the same time. Carmichael is alert to how pervasive they are, showing us the normal ones we don’t think much about. For example, he digs into the irony that we all are a product of our parents having sex, but none of us can stand to talk with our parents about sex.
Carmichael is an incredibly poised, even chilly performer, comfortable in silences, seemingly unflappable. But what he does in this special is deconstruct this persona, reveal it as a useful mask, even an inherited one. He doesn’t just show us the roots of this façade, but also why he clung to it — and what it cost him. Some of this, like his explanation of why he smiles so much, is brutally frank. Other times it’s really funny. Being in the closet, he says, made him overcompensate: “Sometimes we’re making out,” he says about a boyfriend, “and just whisper ‘no homo’ to each other.”
The heart of this show is about the painful tension between family ties and personal growth, and the most searing segments focus on his relationship with his mother. Her reaction to his sexuality, rooted in her faith, leaves him cold. The fact that he has such love for her, that he describes himself as an echo of her in some ways, makes this even more poignant. This special, which at its climax finds its star hunched in a nearly fetal posture, hits jarring notes that have never been matched in this form.
It’s not just emotionally raw, but present and immediate in a way that a polished joke will never be. In one remarkable moment toward the end, he looks directly at the camera, and I physically turned away, as if it were so private that it would be impolite to watch.
Art this uncomfortable tends to have rough edges, and this special does, too. But it’s artfully presented, almost to a fault. Burnham and Carmichael are such slickly skillful and assured artists that it can be hard to believe them when they get messy. Carmichael isn’t trying to tell an uplifting story so much as a real one, and “Rothaniel” does not build to a tidy resolution. It’s raw, and you might have some questions.
I would recommend watching Carmichael’s lovely little 2019 documentary, “Home Videos” (also on HBO Max), shot in his hometown Winston-Salem, N.C., that features a conversation with his mother to give her some equal time. You can see the warmth between them, and his role as a needling son, asking her if she ever did cocaine or slept with a woman. When she says no, he tosses out abruptly that he hooked up with men. In a later interview, he downplayed the comment as just something he said in the moment.
His mother has her story, too, though this special isn’t about that. Earlier this week, Carmichael performed at Union Hall in Brooklyn to prepare for hosting “Saturday Night Live” this weekend, an episode that will be surely dominated by bits about the Academy Awards. He joked that he was the least famous person to ever host “S.N.L.” and that all you had to do to get the gig was come out of the closet. He said he hadn’t talked to his mother in months though he once did every day.
Once again, he was sitting, chatting with the crowd less than delivering a set, and seemed to be seeking something in the moment, a real experience, albeit one that could help him build a monologue. Carmichael asked the audience what he should talk about on Saturday. Someone yelled gas prices. “I’ve been rich too long,” he retorted.
Another person mentioned the feud between Kanye West and Pete Davidson. Carmichael said he knew both of them through discussions about mental health and suicide. “But now,” he joked, “every time I hear about either of them I want to kill myself.”
But when someone mentioned possibly doing a song, Carmichael shook his head, saying that was not in his performer’s tool kit. “I wish I was an entertainer,” he said. “My skill is I’m not afraid and I have a pocket full of matches.”
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