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How Arguments Shaped Jerrod Carmichael’s TV Show, And His Comedy Brain

The Carmichael Show is a sitcom steeped in family arguments, but for rising star Jerrod Carmichael, that’s where comedy comes from.

How Arguments Shaped Jerrod Carmichael’s TV Show, And His Comedy Brain
(L-R) Loretta Devine as Cynthia Carmichael, Jerrod Carmichael as Himself, David Alan Grier as Joe Carmichael, Amber Stevens West as Maxine, Lil Rey Howery as Bobby Carmichael [Photo: Matthias Clamer, courtesy of NBC]

For someone who’s being touted as comedy’s Next Big Thing, Jerrod Carmichael is sure fascinated with what came before him.

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Jerrod Carmichael

His new project, The Carmichael Show, could have gone any number of ways—single camera sitcom, scathing satire, workplace comedy about colonizing outer space. Instead, the TV series, which premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on NBC, is a throwback that wraps its creator’s point of view within the classic chassis of Norman Lear gems like All In The Family. In reaching back to his own experiences for material, Carmichael figured out that the engines fueling his comedy, his favorite TV shows of yore, and his own family, are all comprised of the same substance: arguments.

“When I was growing up, everything could be an argument,” he says. “Just anything. My family, we’re very competitive and very argumentative and very honest, and I felt that was rich territory.”

One thing that’s incontestable, in Carmichael’s family or otherwise, is that the 27-year-old comic has a lot of momentum moving in his direction. Before he appeared in movies like last year’s monster hit Neighbors, or got Spike Lee to direct his HBO special, Jerrod was already a man in rabid demand. Between 2010 and 2012, he landed on every major Comics To Watch list, and his debut at Just For Laughs in Montreal sparked interest from network executives who wanted to be in the Jerrod Carmichael business. By 2013, he’d begun to officially develop a show with NBC.

Neighbors, 2014Photo: courtesy of Universal Pictures

Like a lot of projects in early gestation phase, the concept Carmichael and his producers first started with is a lot different than where they ended up. Jerrod’s character, for instance, struggled with money a lot more, to the point where his financial situation was tied into the premise. The concept of the original pilot presentation involved the character giving his girlfriend an inaugural “I love you” as a present because he couldn’t afford anything else. It wasn’t quite right—and not just because the real Jerrod had officially ascended to a higher tax bracket. Things truly began to come together when the show became centered more around his family.

“I get into a lot of great discussions and arguments with my family, so I decided to really focus on that in the show,” Carmichael says. “The show is really about getting to the core of an argument. I thought we could really say something by taking that approach and having it not just focus on me, but on many different perspectives coming together and not necessarily finding any answers but just having their voices heard.”

On the show, Carmichael plays a fictional version of himself who has just moved in with his girlfriend, Maxine, played by Amber Stevens West. The first source of conflict depicted (there will be many) is Jerrod concealing this cohabitation from his parents, played by stone-cold comedy vets Loretta Devine and David Alan Grier. Seasoning the pot further is another rising comic, Lil Rel Howery, who plays Carmichael’s sparkplug of a brother. Describing these characters is pretty much the same as describing the show’s premise, since they were designed to carom off of each other in as few locations as possible.

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Photo: Chris Haston, courtesy of NBC

“If it does feel like an homage to shows from before, it’s because of my intention to really stay in the pocket of a conversation and stay in a scene for a while,” Carmichael says. “It’s just the two acts and we stay in one location and we mine everything we can out of that place before we go anywhere. And that was true to shows in the ’70s. We have the technology to take the characters anywhere now, but I like to leave it more limited so the focus is on the conversations.”

A lot of Jerrod’s stand-up material comes from conversations, and trying to getting to the root of the thought behind them. Now, he just has a platform to present those ideas in a broader spectrum, and include opposing voices from different generations. Another way the show resembles the Norman Lear comedies of the ’70s is because the characters sound off on issues of the day, touching on issues like President Obama and Ferguson as more than just time-stamping cultural references. These people have opinions, and they are passionate about expressing them, and they will not be swayed in 22 minutes. Kind of like an actual family.

Jerrod Carmichael: Love At The Store, 2014Photo: courtesy of HBO

“It’s always the things we disagree upon that I want to explore,” Carmichael says. “So it’s like, yeah, let’s talk about the hot-button issues and let’s push it. I like when a thought makes someone deal with something, when it’s right there in your face and you’re not just being pleasant but you’re actually saying something and that’s really fun and exciting. So I just like to do that as much as possible and that’s what I want to keep doing with the show.”

Hey, no argument here.

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