Jerrod Carmichael Wears the Truth in His HBO Comedy Special – The New York Times
The comedian’s latest HBO special, which explores family secrets and sexual orientation, is as much a therapy session as a stand-up show.
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Of all that’s remarkable about Jerrod Carmichael’s latest comedy hour — the storied intimacy of the venue (the Blue Note Jazz Club), the spectral aptness of the lighting (kind of blue), the titanic silences, dental work that would thrill any neat freak — two aspects of this HBO special are especially exceptional. One is a matter of carriage. Carmichael is a stand-up comedian. But all he does in this new show is sit. The opening long shot follows him in the snow, headed toward the Blue Note, where he removes his coat and hat and promptly takes a seat upon the stage before a modest, expectant, engaged gathering of what Carmichael wants to feel is a family and what I can only call community support, because winter isn’t all he braves. For one thing, his long body is on a metal folding chair.
Maybe these people have assembled for what they think is a typical Carmichael show — penetrating observations about being alive. They get those. But under the direction of Bo Burnham and a promise that there’s much to discuss, Carmichael goes deeper this time. “I need you,” he says. His theme is secrets. He’s kept his birth name one, more or less. His sexual orientation, too. The show gets its title from secret No. 1: “Rothaniel.” Secret No. 2 is trickier. Carmichael does some ruminating about the men in his family and their double lives — a family of whole other families. He maintained both his father’s secret and his own from his mother. So it’s also a show about shame.
The secrecy had become a way of life. As had the shame. They’d been eating at him. And now — with cool humor, a masterfully straight face, disbelief that he’s doing this, disbelief that’s he actually gay — he’s rethinking what it might have cost and, by extension, how it feels to be that much closer to free.
Through all of this, Carmichael’s in complete control of his digressive mind. In the middle of recounting a scheme to prepare his mother to learn about his father’s betrayal, he throws in a bit about being disappointed anytime his hibachi restaurant dinners are performed by anybody other than a Japanese chef. He feigns wonder that no one expects a gay child: “Look at his cheeks. I bet he’s going to be a top!”
For most of the show, his legs are apart. Not a detail I’d mention in something with enough close-ups of its star to qualify as portraiture. But with about 20 minutes left, I’d noticed something that struck me, at least, as profound: Carmichael’s legs had gone from spread to crossed.
Ordinarily, one might argue that this sort of adjustment was a sign of discomfort. It hit me as discomfort’s opposite. Carmichael is funny about what a shock he finds his homosexuality to be. That myth that hard dudes from the ’hood don’t succumb to gayness — he’d subscribed to it. But by the time he’s sitting there in one of this country’s primo landmarks of improvisation, innovation and artistic introspection — of incandescence and intensity — Carmichael no longer seemed to be doing a routine. He appeared to be thinking aloud, doing a kind of jazz, playing quietly through the changes, and all of that. The mere crossing of legs felt like a deeply felt gesture of relaxation — of release. The people in that room are witnessing his masculinity shift from shield to sponge.
Well, they’re more than witnessing it. These people are here to help. Carmichael had come to them with stories that are still unfolding around and within him. He’s already told his devoutly Christian mother and doesn’t know, for instance, whether she’ll ever warm to this part of him. His candor here certainly elevates the degree of that difficulty. Why, he wonders, is she so cold? And some unidentified person in the ambient dark of the Blue Note asks, why not give her a little time to absorb his revelation? He considers that. Earlier, he absorbs a different spectator’s crack timing after he tells the room that he’s not hiding anything and someone blurts out: “But your name.” “Whoa,” he says. “Now you guys are too much like my family.”
I watched this show on HBO Max in the wake of the clash at the Oscars. And the intimacy here between this audience and this comedian differs from the national shock therapy from a few weeks before. This was group therapy, a session as much as a show, but also a dinner party. The evening was as much about his biological family and this live, makeshift one as it was his professional kin. I didn’t need Carmichael to make that connection. It was there in what he wore.
That was the evening’s other remarkable detail. It’s just a red, long-sleeve polo sweater that he wears with a pair of gold chains, black loafers and dark slacks that are all but tucked into a pair of creamy-looking socks. He looks simultaneously ready for bed, the office and “The Santa Clause 5.” It’s soft, this sweater, light as a T-shirt and maybe a size too big, yet it hangs on his svelte frame like it’s on sale somewhere chic. You want one. But who’s going to wear it better, or more evocatively?
The sweater’s the color of outfits his forefathers donned, in 1983, doing standup at and near their zeniths. Richard Pryor spends “Here & Now” in a drab green suit whose pants karate-belt in the front. The red shirt he pairs it with has two white buttons; the shoes match. The vibe here breaks radically from Carmichael’s. Pryor has to contend with a rowdy New Orleans audience that he enjoys taming. The interruptions never stop. And Pryor expertly, hilariously, fields so many incoming two-cent interjections that he’s as much a fountain as a superstar.
But what Carmichael’s red shirt really brought to mind was Eddie Murphy’s red leather suit in “Delirious.” Murphy has the jacket unzipped to his navel, inviting you to take in the chained medallion that decorates his hairless chest. A black disco belt hangs unlooped so that the metallic arrowhead tip sits down at his crotch and doubles as a penis. It’s pure ostentation, as if a Ferrari had at last gotten its wish to become Rick James. Murphy prowls the stage like a lion — and mauls like one, too. “Faggots” are his opening move. He fearfully imagines servicing a gay Mr. T and acts out what kind of lovers the best buds on “The Honeymooners” would make. There’s more. But also less, judging, at least, from the stupendous droop of my mouth.
I must have watched “Delirious” a dozen times before I was 10. I knew what my deal was and that “faggot” seemed to sum up and toxify it. I remember finding the middle section, about Murphy being little, a riot. (It still is, in part because he’d located something about the moments of joy in poor, Black childhoods that felt true for lots of other children.)
The umbrage taken over “Delirious,” in some sense, is settled. Murphy earnestly atoned for his homophobic arias 26 years ago and called that material “ignorant” in 2019. But a memory’s a memory. And mostly what I remember is the suit, the red of it, the fire, the warning, the alarm: Don’t be like Mr. T in Eddie Murphy’s porno. And yet, it was never lost on me that, in a sense, all Murphy’s doing in this bit is offering a literal description of the sex men can have with each other. But in 1983, at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the alleged grossness of that intercourse — of gay people — is a rambunctious given. Murphy plugs his electric bewilderment into a packed concert hall’s socket. He presents his targets in their regular, manly personas — growling, gruff, goofy. He was 22 at the time, and what brings down the house during this spree of jokes is a panic about a virus of gayness and how it could infect someone as certifiably macho as Mr. T, a man awash in feathers, gold and vests.
I DON’T KNOW how many times Carmichael has watched “Delirious.” I don’t know if he’s ever seen it, although the odds feel high that he has. (In his special, Carmichael permits us to laugh at the idea that his lips could be locked with another man’s while they whisper “no homo” to each other, in a state of prophylactic denial. The irony still blows him away.)
Either way, his choosing such a passionate red for his televised coming-out sounded a different alarm for me. Murphy’s live-in-concert repulsion fantasias belie a tenderness that resides at the core of some of his work. To watch the early scenes between him and James Russo that set up the plot of “Beverly Hills Cop” is to wonder if the movie knows it’s a love story.
Carmichael’s show makes the news because of the tender artistry at its core, but also because that repulsion remains pervasive enough in the culture — of comedy, of sports, of pop music, politics and movies — that the gay major-league baseball drama “Take Me Out” is somehow back on Broadway two decades after it opened, making its protagonist the country’s only openly gay professional baseball player. Again.
Carmichael is 35, more than a dozen years older than Murphy in “Delirious.” He couldn’t have done this show at 22. Not with this much poise and self-fluency. Not with this much quiet. That sweater would have been wearing him. Now, it’s a garment of happiness and love, control and comfort. He is living up there in that sweater. (As remarkable: The armpits remain dry, and there’s no detectable undershirt, either. Has anyone ever left the Blue Note stage as sweatlessly?) The sweater’s also a tasteful rejoinder to Murphy’s high-voltage tastelessness, to the infernal scourge of inherited shame, a traffic sign of truth that says, “This has to stop.”