GQ Hype: It’s the big story of right now.
“I haven’t been home in… a year and a week,” Jerrod Carmichael tells me. Memorial Day Weekend is upon us, but we’re talking about the holidays, the fall and winter main events everyone goes home for, whether they’re on good terms with their family or not. Instead of going back to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Carmichael spent the time with close friends. That choice propelled his recent hit HBO standup special, Rothaniel, in which he detailed his fraught relationship with certain members of his family and made a very public statement about his sexuality for the first time. There are many different ways to come out, and famous people today seem to favor a casual or ambiguous approach. But Carmichael made a declaration, and built 55 minutes of comedy around it.
The special is a treatise on shame, secrets, hypocrisy, brutal honesty and uncomfortable truths under the shade of the Carmichael family tree going back generations. Hunched over on a stool before an intimate crowd in Manhattan’s Blue Note Jazz Club, Carmichael is raw but relaxed, exposed but comfortably loose, deadly serious but disarmingly, mischievously hilarious. It’s a stunning performance of genuine vulnerability, as if Carmichael pulled up a chair by the fireplace to tell the story he’s been building up to for his entire career as a writer-comedian.
He’s more than willing to talk frankly about the fallout within his family–they had what he calls “subpar-ass reactions” to the special– but it’s clearly weighing on him. That weight, and a holiday season away from Winston-Salem, is what drove him to Rothaniel in the first place. He’d been working on a completely different project with acclaimed director Mark Romanek—“I had this whole long romantic music video, like kind of Hype Williams meets My Dinner with Andre,” he reveals as we sip lattes from his favorite West Village coffee shop. “But it went in another direction.” He had “been writing for, let’s say, a year, two years, these very personal things, and growing as a writer, learning structural things. But I didn’t think it was standup… I didn’t know what it was. And then that coincided with, I don’t know… just a kind of need. A lot of urgent things were happening in my life. I couldn’t make this thing fast enough.”
Making Rothaniel meant returning to standup, “this thing I haven’t done in years,” after half a decade writing for and starring in sitcoms and movies, and finding that gear proved fraught with trial and error. “I had to relearn it,” Carmichael says. “I went up at The Comedy Store, and it was really bad, because I was leaning on old tricks and I was really leaning on my ego. It just wasn’t true and it didn’t match the material. I had to learn how to be myself on stage.”