Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show: features one of the most painful family arguments ever seen on TV

<span>Cynthia and Jerrod Carmichael in Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show.</span><span>Photograph: HBO</span>
Cynthia and Jerrod Carmichael in Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show.Photograph: HBO

Hard to trust a standup comedian, isn’t it? Part of the job – the main part, really – is trying to convince people that you’re delivering your material spontaneously. Forget how meticulously scripted it is. Forget that it has been carefully crafted over a period of several months, and that it will be delivered word for word, night after night, for more months to come. An audience needs to think that you’re coming up with it in the moment or it’s over.

And very few standups are as skilled at this as Jerrod Carmichael. Always an eloquent and thoughtful performer, his 2022 special Rothaniel managed to change the way we talk about the entire form. In it, Carmichael came out as gay, and worried about how his mother would receive the news. Filmed in tight closeup, his routine appeared to dissolve completely as it went along. Vast, yawning pauses opened up between his words. A few members of the audience started offering encouragement to him, initiating a discussion that carried it along to its death.

Related: Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show review – the most astonishing, emotionally raw reality TV ever made

As an hour-long performance, Rothaniel is extraordinary. As for how real it is, however, it asks more questions than it answers. Had the apparent breakdown been caught ad hoc on someone’s phone, that’s one thing. But this was a filmed special, directed by Bo Burnham, so it’s almost impossible to put your finger on the precise level of artifice involved. Was the whole thing designed to play out like this? Did Burnham know what would happen? Did the audience feedback come from plants? Watch Rothaniel and you’ll come out of it feeling like you know Jerrod Carmichael a lot better than you previously did, and also that you don’t know him at all.

If you enjoy this sensation – if you actively revel in the physical discomfort from not knowing if you’ve been allowed insider access or if you’re actually the butt of a fairly cynical joke – then here’s some good news. Jerrod Carmichael has a new reality show, entitled Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show (7 June, 10pm, Sky Comedy), and it primarily exists to blast that feeling into a quantum accelerator.

Billed as an experiment in radical honesty, the first episode begins as almost a direct continuation of Rothaniel, with Carmichael sitting in pensive silence on stage, before eventually announcing: “I fell in love with my best friend.” The problem, he continues, is that his friend doesn’t love him back. Then the show cuts away to reveal that the friend in question is the rapper Tyler, the Creator. Before long, Carmichael uses the show to interview Tyler about the situation, despite Tyler’s extreme reticence to appear on camera. The scene is so intimate and awkward that it’s legitimately hard to watch.

By the next episode, Carmichael has a new boyfriend. He’s fully committed, speaking movingly about what it’s like to have sex with someone you love. Within minutes, he cheats on his boyfriend, and tellingly informs a standup audience before his partner. He apologises to his boyfriend, and they go to couples counselling. Then he cheats again, with a camera crew present to record it. In a later episode, Carmichael goes on a road trip with his father, and what begins as a textbook reality show episode ends with one of the most excruciating, and seemingly permanent, family schisms ever caught on camera.

You have to wonder why the man has chosen to pick his scabs so publicly. One of Carmichael’s friends, who repeatedly turns up in a balaclava and blacked-out goggles (the internet seems fairly convinced that it’s Burnham) questions this approach, calling the show “masturbatory” and “self-destructive”. But he also points out that the entire medium of reality TV is caked in artifice, and that there’s no point trying to use it to tell the truth. You suspect that Carmichael kept that bit in as a reminder to viewers.

So what is Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show? Is it the truth? Is it performance? Or, more likely, is it some nebulous combination of the two that allows Carmichael to show us everything about him without actually showing us anything at all? It’s genuinely hard to say. In that sense, there’s a little of Nathan Fielder’s work in Jerrod Carmichael. More of the Kardashians than he’d probably care to admit. It is tremendously frustrating to try to pick apart.

Nevertheless, it is a hell of a show. You could describe it as a demonstration of unblinking self-examination, of a man trying to show the world who he is before he has fully figured it out for himself. But remember this is Jerrod Carmichael we’re talking about, and he has form. As grisly as this series gets, he’s still only showing us whatever he’s comfortable with. That might be everything, or it might be nothing. What a fascinating enigma.