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“Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show” Is Exhibitionism as Art

Last month, Tina Fey offered a warning to comedians on the cusp of stardom that swiftly went viral: “Authenticity is dangerous and expensive.” Guesting on the pop-culture podcast “Las Culturistas,” the comedy legend told hosts Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang to learn from her mistakes by keeping their opinions to themselves. Citing Yang’s role in the upcoming big-screen adaptation of “Wicked,” she declared that he had crossed the threshold at which candor becomes a liability: “I regret to inform you that you are too famous now, sir.” One imagines that Fey would provide the same counsel to Jerrod Carmichael, who won an Emmy, in 2022, for his standup special “Rothaniel,” and just appeared in the Oscar-fêted film “Poor Things” alongside Emma Stone. But Carmichael, who publicly came out in “Rothaniel” at age thirty-five after more than a decade in the spotlight, is evidently more interested in divulgence than caution. Shortly after the special’s release, he carmichael-interview.html”>told the New York Times, “I’m just trying to tell the truth now; the thoughts that I used to run from.”

Even so, his latest project, an eight-part docuseries titled “Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show,” is a startlingly open invitation into his post-closet life. The program, which showcases his high-rise New York apartment and features the hard-bodied comic in various states of undress, is a credit to exhibitionism. Carmichael has HBO’s cameras capture his day-to-day as he attempts to reconcile where he came from (a working-class, religious Black family in North Carolina) with who he aspires to be (a more considerate friend and partner, a son able to bridge the rift caused by his parents’ homophobia). In “Rothaniel,” Carmichael positioned himself as a casualty of familial fractures: he was a secondary victim of his father Joe’s chronic philandering, forced to keep quiet about the half siblings who resulted from those affairs, and the eventual revelation of his own sexuality left him estranged from his beloved mother, Cynthia. “Reality Show” richly complicates this narrative. Though he was once a self-described “mama’s boy” acutely aware of his father’s sins—snuggling with Cynthia every Friday night, when his dad left the house, suspiciously spiffed up and wafting cologne—Carmichael repeatedly cheats on his own boyfriend, Mike. After a lifetime of being crushed by secrets, he himself might enjoy the transgression of sneaking around a little too much.

“Reality Show” opens five days before the 2022 Emmys, as Carmichael tries to decide whom to take to the ceremony. His mom? Too fraught. His best friend, Tyler, to whom he recently confessed unrequited romantic feelings via text? T.B.D.! In a moment of desperation, he invites a Grindr rando as Plan C: “Do you mind being a backup date?” (The series is arguably most compelling as a snapshot of life on the C-list: Carmichael is too prominent to put his face on hookup apps but rarely recognized by the guys he finds there.) There are other glimpses of Carmichael’s newfound celebrity perks, like the stylist who brings him a rack full of clothes for the occasion. But the show focusses primarily on relationships from his pre-fame, pre-fortune existence: his parents; his high-school friends; and Jamar Neighbors, a standup he met when he was first coming up in the scene. Though his romance with Mike is just a few months old, it developed after a long friendship. The comedian is refreshingly open about how his recent success has affected these dynamics. Mike is a writer in a master’s program in Iowa, but, as Carmichael puts it, “it doesn’t feel like long distance ’cause, like, I have a lot of money.” When he confronts his dad about feeling unwelcome at his parents’ home since coming out, he notes that the rejection seems particularly unfair because he’s the one paying for the house.

Each episode foregrounds a strained relationship in Carmichael’s life as he attempts to strengthen the connection. (A recurring theme: just because Carmichael wants to become a better person doesn’t mean that his loved ones will jibe with his new self or forgive his old one—assuming he manages to reform at all.) To dub the result a “reality show” undersells its artfulness and its subtle visual flourishes. The director Ari Katcher achieves a careful balance between naturalism and narrative coherence, and eschews the genre’s glossy direct-to-camera confessionals altogether; Carmichael’s inner thoughts are conveyed instead through snippets of borderline-diaristic standup. (Having attended one such show, at which Carmichael seemed to be improvising based on events of the past week, I can say that the material is far more effective onscreen than it was in the room.) “Reality Show” can be tremendously moving, but it’s just as often funny in the way that life is funny. Friends read him with hilarious ferocity, serious moments are punctured by horny Grindr notifications, and the whole enterprise is enlivened by Carmichael’s quick, contrarian wit.

The fifth episode—a pretty perfect half hour that could be a stand-alone short—is emblematic of Carmichael’s striving for greater honesty and his willingness to ask tough questions about himself. A platonic love story between Carmichael and the “slightly homophobic” Neighbors, the episode follows the two Black men as they tour together. In an early scene—Carmichael in a luxurious cream cardigan, Neighbors in what is almost certainly a bootleg “Friday” T-shirt—Carmichael pushes his friend in a new artistic direction, suggesting that he talk about his time in foster care instead of defaulting to juvenile, generic punch lines. But Neighbors can’t replicate what he derisively calls Carmichael’s “therapy comedy.” Part of the problem is that the older comic’s childhood was more tragic: his not-quite-quip that “I’m the last crack baby I know” is met with silence from the audience. When he attempts to prod his mother about the biggest mystery of his life—the identity of his father—their conversation takes a dark turn. Ultimately, he finds that the confessional, take-no-prisoners mode that Carmichael favors comes with too high an emotional cost: “I’m tired of throwing people I love under the bus.”

Carmichael isn’t naïve about the warped mirror that is documentary filmmaking, nor does he expect his viewers to be. He gives voice to the skepticism he’s likely to face through an unnamed friend, who has apparently agreed to appear on the series only if his face is hidden entirely by a balaclava and a ski mask. This anonymous confidant admonishes Carmichael, saying of the comedian’s self-produced “Truman Show,” “There’s public, and private, and then there’s masturbatorily public.” (The scene in which he sucks a hookup’s toes might fall under the third category.) Carmichael’s faith in the camera as a tool for frankness isn’t exactly persuasive; he simply says that it’s “dumb to lie” in front of a mechanical eye, then proceeds to do so more than once. But it may well work for him as an accountability aid, forcing him to have difficult conversations that he might otherwise avoid. I often wondered how the participants—especially Carmichael’s parents—felt about him trumpeting family secrets to the world, and about his intent to broadcast intimate conversations to a TV audience. For all Carmichael’s insistence on the project’s radical transparency, there are sides to the story that we may never hear. ♦

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