Jerrod Carmichael Has Read Your Tweets, and He Doesn’t Necessarily Disagree

In Episode 2 of the “Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show,” we watch the recently out-of-the-closet 37-year-old comedian cheat on his first real boyfriend. In Episode 3 we watch him, dressed in a tux, stop to get a hot dog and miss his best friend’s wedding ceremony. In Episode 4, Carmichael asks his father about his 40-year affair and the other family he kept hidden — a story at the heart of Carmichael’s Emmy-winning stand-up special “Rothaniel.” Cornered by the cameras at a campfire during the father-son road trip, the elder Carmichael is visibly uncomfortable, refusing to talk on camera, and asks his son permission to go home.

The reaction on social media was fast, loud, and furious. Many were shocked by Carmichael’s behavior; more were in disbelief he’d document it for the world to see every week on Max. Some went as far as to question his ethics, accusing him of using his financial power over his parents to force them to confront issues on camera.

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Carmichael said his critics are right.

“I absolutely am. I paid for his life, and he’s gonna be on camera to talk about these things, 100 percent,” said Carmichael while on the Toolkit podcast in response to the specific accusation.

In the season finale, his masked friend Anonymous (Carmichael and team refuse to identify him, but it’s clearly his frequent collaborator and close friend Bo Burnham), after watching the final scene between Carmichael and his mom, warns: “This is going to be viewed by the giant, revolting, mass of people that is like argumentative, insane, and that’s a scary collective for the judgement of the most precious things in your life.”

Carmichael knew the reaction was coming; unlike Anonymous, he wanted to absorb it. On the podcast, he discussed setting Google alerts, watching YouTube and TikTok video essays, and following the discussion on Twitter and Reddit during the first four episodes.

“It’s interesting watching people contend with it, engage with it,” said Carmichael. “The recent wave of artists being on Twitter and Instagram and social media, engaging with the crowd, living with the crowd — there’s this expectation that you share the same values and that you are the same.”

Which is one reason Carmichael lurks, but does not engage or post, on social media.

“As an artist, you are looking for community, but through the expression of a unique, specific experience, and there is some separation there,” said Carmichael. “One of my favorite things to read is, like, ‘He’s not a good person.” And I go, ‘Oh, OK, by your standard.’”

At no point does Carmichael justify his behavior on display in the show, but he does think some may have missed the point.

“Showing it isn’t a celebration of it,” said Carmichael. “I say it in the show, I’m deeply embarrassed by [it], half the show is dealing with things that I’m ashamed of.”

For Carmichael, after decades in the closet meant performing on and off the stage, hiding sources of shame is far worse than the pain of confronting it. Better to lay it bare than be ruled by it, as the public can’t do more damage than he did to himself, hiding for most of his life.

“The point was to put these things out there. Put the things that would otherwise remain a secret in a show,” said Carmichael. “To make the reality show real, and by ‘real’ I mean not hiding unlikable or uncomfortable things.”

That was exactly what Carmichael and his friend Ari Katcher, who directed all eight episodes, pitched to Max: A show of what happens between the tapings of reality shows like “The Kardashians” or “Real Housewives.” The stitching between takes, the parts they didn’t want you to see.

“You get into the industry, and as a public person, you are manipulating the truth of your life for presentation, and I have done that as a comedian, as an actor, as a creator of things,” he said, adding that he was tired of performing more than anything. “There’s the J.Lo ‘This Is Me Now’ version that presents me as just the hardworking do-gooder that’s like, ‘You know, I get a lot of hate, but I overcome it.’ The Instagram version of glamorizing struggle. And then there’s the version that we made, that is showing uncomfortable truths, showing me struggling with parts of my personality that I normally hide.”

Carmichael said he and Katcher were inspired by the documentary “Weiner,” which captured politician Anthony Weiner trying to recover from his own embarrassing private behavior becoming public.

“[‘Weiner’] was finding a man going through an intense moment in his life, struggling with himself, struggling with infidelity and public perception, and it was also the funniest comedy I’d seen in many years. I was like, ‘This is a well-written movie,’” said Carmichael of his admiration for the documentary. “And I thought, ‘I could make that.’ That was the challenge: Can we make a show out of my life if my life already feels like a show?”

weiner documentary
‘Weiner’Sundance Selects

Carmichael and Katcher reached out to the editor of “Weiner,” Eli B. Despres, who came aboard as their co-creator and brought along his Edgeline Films partners, “Weiner” co-directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg. The team supplied the nonfiction filmmaking and storytelling expertise Carmichael and Katcher wanted but lacked; Carmichael saw his job as making the show entertaining. This couldn’t be a navel-gazing exercise, there needed to be conflict and it needed to be real, which meant he’d have to confront the issues in his life that he avoided in the wake of his coming-out special “Rothaniel.”

From there, Carmichael took a back seat as a storyteller and creator. He wasn’t part of the story meetings, admitting he was surprised to learn the first episode was structured around the Emmy ceremony. Advice he once got from Bill Cosby while making NBC sitcom “The Jerrod Carmichael Show” (actors should stay out of the editing room) rang true while Carmichael was editing his directorial debut “On the Count of Three.” Carmichael insisted on edits that he said ultimately hurt the film out of his own vanity — he didn’t like how his face looked in a certain shot. For the reality show, working with good filmmakers who shared his vision, he’d have to trust them to craft his story.

For some episodes, Katcher might show him very early cuts (which were radically different than what aired) to get his specific input on creative decisions that didn’t involve his own presentation. Beyond that, Carmichael was like most of the audience, seeing episodes for the first time as they premiered on Max. After that, at least for the first four episodes, he jumped on social media to witness the conversation it birthed.

Much to his surprise, Carmichael’s parents watched as well (in the series, Max is the only app his mom doesn’t want downloaded on her new Apple TV). Episode 6, which aired May 2, centered around Carmichael bringing his boyfriend Mike home to North Carolina to meet his parents, but he doesn’t get the open-arms welcome he is hoping for from his mother.

“I was talking to my parents, they haven’t really acknowledged most of the episodes, and my father brings [Episode 6] up at the end of the call,” said Carmichael. “He says, ‘I know we don’t usually talk about this, but we watched last night and you know,‘ he said, ‘I see the hurt in your eyes, and I want to let you know everything’s gonna be all right.’”

Carmichael joked that his dad is just parroting something his sister-in-law said in the same episode. Still, it was a surprising gesture he was more than happy to accept. On the other hand, his mother’s reaction infuriated him, asking him on the same call to thank his friends for acknowledging on camera that she is a God-fearing woman.

“It’s hard for me not to just hang up the phone in that moment,” said Carmichael. “‘Lady, I don’t think that’s a problem. You wear it on your sleeve and literally on T-shirts sometimes, that you’re a God-fearing woman. Congrats. Did you see how hurt I am by your lack of acknowledgment? Do you notice those things?’”

Jerrod Carmichael with his mother Cynthia.
Jerrod Carmichael with his mother Cynthia.

As this recent interaction indicated, Carmichael’s show doesn’t achieve all the breakthroughs he hopes for. The finale, in which his mother visits New York, doesn’t knock down the wall between them since he came out. It’s another “Shawshank Redemption”-like chip in the wall that may take years to tunnel through. The finale’s end-credit footage, filmed during Thanksgiving after production wrapped, points to the potential of very slow progress: The family gathering includes Mike and appears less awkward than what transpired in Episode 6 and 8. But that’s reality.

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