Jerrod Carmichael on ‘Rothaniel,’ What’s Next For His Comedy

LJerrod Carmichael, comedian, released one of his best stand-up specials for the year last month: Rothaniel, in which he delved deeply into his family’s history of secret-keeping before revealing a couple long-held secrets of his own. His directorial debut will be released nationally this weekend. Three CountsThe film, where his characters Val and his best friend (played respectively by For Girls‘ Christopher Abbott) make a suicide pact. Carmichael spoke out in TIME to reflect on the turbulent months. These are some excerpts from that conversation.

Your family and you reveal many uncomfortable truths about yourselves. Rothaniel. Comment about your emotions

I’m quite strong and feel extremely adult. In the special, I am honest about things I thought I’d never say out loud. I’ve started feeling more responsibility, which is not a word I would have ever used to describe any of my work. It was definitely something I felt after being out.

One idea to explore Rothaniel is “things that exist but don’t exist; things hiding in plain sight.” Do you think that phenomenon is unique to America?

This happens quite often. I feel like Rothaniel probably played well in London because it’s such a polite society.

But here, I think about homelessness sometimes: how we’re on sidewalks, you see someone suffering, sometimes you feel unsafe. Sometimes we don’t want to go the extra mile to accomplish something worthwhile. So you just ignore and walk by, because it’s inconvenient. This principle holds true everywhere.

Acknowledging the fact I’m gay undoes a lot of things for my mom. That must be referred to against religion. It’s easier to ignore. Let’s keep the party going, smile, take the photo. Don’t acknowledge the thing that could cause the rupture.

I’m enamored with the saying “don’t rock the boat.” It sounds sweet, but the implications are so dark and huge. Don’t rock the boat or what? You’ll fall into the ocean and drown. This sounds cute. So when you feel like you might rock the boat, there’s a lot of danger in that and you just don’t do it.

Please tell me if I go too far. Associative therapy is free to me. That is why I tend to avoid the difficult questions.

Is it possible to become free of associative theories? What have you learnt about yourself and how did that happen?

I tried regular therapy—I’m sure there’s a technical name for it—and I didn’t really like it. I don’t like people giving me advice. I don’t even like nudges.

From watching youtube, I had the inspiration for associative therapy. Annie HallHe is a member of the following organizations: [Woody Allen]His analyst is the one he talks about most. I was like, ‘I live in NY, I should have an analyst.’ And looking into it, it seemed like the form I was looking for: something that allows me to question everything, where you can kind of trust fall. I’ll start talking about one thing, go on a million tangents, and then realize at the end of the session I’ve been talking about the same thing the whole time—that I never really left the subject.

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It is possible to Howard Stern that you and your mom have a “god-sized wall” between you. Is it down in the past month?

No. These things are not easy to prove, but wise people have told me that. That makes complete sense. She’s gotta cross-reference that against everything she’s ever known and been taught by her mother. That ain’t easy. This was something I needed to learn so that I could do it myself.

It’s odd, because it’s created a certain amount of empathy that I think has probably informed a lot of my material, subconsciously. Strange places can be a source of empathy. Oddly connecting with my mother’s steadfastness and her strong belief system, even though it can be used against me.

A week ago, I was in my shower listening to gospel music. The song was amazing and I was captivated by the passion of a woman who sang about Jesus. But then I start thinking about my mom’s relationship to Jesus, and started imagining the singer being my mom. And realizing that religion is the wall that separates us, I started thinking of Jesus as the other man in my mom’s life. I started feeling jealous of Jesus, like, “Wow, she really does love this guy. It’s beautiful. I could never have what they have.”

You’ve called masculinity a “grand performance.” How have you been reckoning with your own performance of masculinity?

I told a friend recently that I take better pictures after coming out because I’m not scared of looking gay. It’s a sign that I am more flexible and move faster. It’s the little things that matter. I don’t worry about being a man anymore. Accept that I am. I don’t have to perform it.

I was doing a double performance, as you’re inclined to perform in certain environments. I’m from the hood, and there’s a lot of performance for protection or self-esteem. There are men I know who own guns but don’t want to use them. The gun is an act with consequences.

Sometimes stand-up can bring that performance out of me: it’s such a masculine sport. I did a show last night, and I’m sulking in my hotel room because I’m not happy with the set. It’s time to stop doing shows with others. This brings out my competitive side which causes me to wander off the path. Perhaps it sounded aggressive. It was true to how I was feeling, but it brought out a level of ego that I don’t need right now.

Is it possible to bring your ego down by sulking?

Yeah, it’s just me trying to forgive myself, pacing around. After the scandal, I was struck by Tiger Woods’ realization of his own shortcomings and how they affected his ability to play. He didn’t forgive himself for mistakes, and you could still see him thinking about the mistakes of his previous hole. Moving on and accepting your mistakes is essential.

I’m really hard on myself; I always have been. It’s nice sulking, though. It’s a lofty sulking. The movie is wonderful. Jackie. There’s a moment after John dies, she’s in the White House, just smoking and popping pills, pacing around in a daze. This glamorous haze of dresses and gowns, textures, and she’s sad. This is what I see a lot of: Suffering in my cardigan and silk shorts.

In your directorial film debut Three CountsPlay Val as a suicide-pact maker with his best friend. What is the relationship between you and Val?

Being in a fog over your head. When I made this film, it was like being at the end my rope. I was tired of doing the same thing over and over again, so a lot motivated this film and me to complete it.

You would like to share your thoughts with people who have been turned off by the notion of suicide comedy.

I get it. I’ve definitely written and performed a lot of subject matter that people say shouldn’t be done. However, I think art’s greatest strength is its ability to examine complex and interesting subject matters like suicide. Integrity is the key to this.

You’ve cultivated a lot of really strong creative partnerships, including with Bo Burnham, who’s directed a couple of your stand-up sets (including RothanielLil Rel Howery. Are there any seeds that will lead to a truly strong creative partnership.

Eliminating ego. Sometimes I have to fight the urge to get a thing in because it’s mine; because I’m so precious with the thought. You can get to that place where you’re boxing out people that have the same goal as you. You can’t get in the way of the thing.

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Tyler, The Creator, is also a collaborator. Interviewed about his album Flower Boy2018 Are you a part of his coming out journey?

T is the person that I talk to most often. We talk about those things all the time: he’s a supportive, beautiful friend.

Your movement between TV and film is fluid. What has your success been with? Rothaniel How has this influenced your decision on how to invest your time, energy, and money?

When I’m doing stand-up, I’m doing stand-up. It’s obvious to others how meticulously you care about things. It’s a lesson learned from Beyoncé: I always look at her performances and am like, “Wow, these look like time well spent. You actually worked for this!”

I shot with Yorgos in Budapest while on assignment [Lanthimos on the upcoming movie Poor Things], I wasn’t taking any calls; it was just that. Whatever I’m doing, I’m doing that thing. Sometimes it shakes out as “writer,” sometimes “director” from time to time. But it’s all just idea-first.

My friend Judy Berman has recently written an essayFamous stand-up comedians often use their platform to combat their critics, such as Dave Bill Maher and Hannah Gadsby. She writes that his approach “leaves little space left for introspection or humility or self-doubt.” Do you have any thoughts on that?

That’s a list of talented comedians. They must be satisfied with what they do. If what they find most interesting is speaking on their “haters”—and I’m using air quotes—then they should do that. There’s been some really good art directed at haters. I don’t think there are any rules.

Every performer should have urgency. The art form should thrive. I want it exciting. I would always say, even starting at open mics, that everything I say has to be the most important thing in the world, whether it’s about me or someone else. This urgency resonates. So, whether it’s toward haters or in the mirror or whatever you choose to explore, I hope you care very, very, deeply about it.

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