If you watched The Carmichael Show when it premiered this past summer, you know it doesn’t play it safe. Still, many who are now enjoying the show’s second season were surprised to see the comedy loosely based on comedian Jerrod Carmichael’s own life tackling charged issues like allegations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby and what it means to his Cosby Show legacy.
But The Carmichael Show—featuring Carmichael as Jerrod; David Alan Grier and Loretta Devine as his parents, Joe and Cynthia; Amber Stevens West as his girlfriend Maxine; and comedians Lil Rel Howery and Tiffany Haddish as Carmichael’s brother Bobby and his estranged wife, Nekeisha—doesn’t just take on tabloid fodder. Some stories, like the episode about Jerrod’s childhood friend being released from prison after a 10-year bid, airing tonight, hit close to home for many. Yet these stories never seem to find their way on television. Carmichael talked to The Root about the episode, the show in general, why he wanted to represent working-class black people, how he strives to show different types of black women, and why black artists need to embrace the truth in television and film.
The Root: How many years did it take from moving to Los Angeles to getting your own show?
Jerrod Carmichael: I moved to L.A. in 2008. I think I met NBC for the first time in 2011 just to have a conversation, and then we kind of started developing the show in 2012. So it’s been a long process in development, which has been very, very helpful in defining and honing exactly what [the show has] to say, but it’s been a little while.
TR: Do you feel working-class black people are just not on television anymore?
JC: More so than the lack of working-class people, it’s the lack of the working-class perspective. I think a lot of shows had or continue to have people that fit that socioeconomic bracket; however, you don’t really hear their honesty and their truth on television because a lot of times it’s just not as clean or as easy to write into a script. That truth, sometimes, it’s a contradiction, it’s a dichotomy, it’s ambition rooted in wanting to stay grounded. It’s all these things at once and it’s not the easiest thing to write, but I do think it’s the most interesting, so that perspective is what I wanted to bring.
TR: The direction you take with the ex-con friend episode might catch people off guard. Why did you make that decision?
JC: I know that person. That’s rooted in multiple people I know. I know that person and I know that decision you have to make, and so many people have to make that decision when you have a friend that you know as a person. You see their spirit. You know how smart they are, but those circumstances sometimes is what tears you apart, and it’s hard; it’s really, really hard.
I have friends I can’t necessarily be around, and it hurts because I love those people. I know that they are brilliant people. Some of the most brilliant people that I’ve met in my life are guys that happen, through circumstance, to be drug dealers or into certain things, and I know that person, and they’re warm and they’re great and they have good spirits. It’s something that’s very personal to me, and I wanted to see it play out in an episode because I thought it was interesting.
TR: We see this a lot with professional athletes in that people can’t understand why some of them still hang with certain people they grew up with.
JC: It’s difficult when your lifestyle changes, and especially with athletes, it changes rapidly. You literally go from, in some cases, having no money to being immediately in the 1 percent, and your friendships don’t transition that fast. Some people you get stronger with, some people you grow apart from. This dropping friends isn’t an option.
Outside of that situation, no one else is asked to drop friends. If you go to college and you kind of transition that way, you are not asked to leave a lot of people that you grew up with, people that you share bonds with, people that you feel as close to as family members. You’re not asked to walk away from them in most circumstances. Some unique circumstances happen and it’s hard. Again, it’s hard, and you don’t know what to do. And it’s not just becoming a millionaire. Sometimes it’s starting a family. Sometimes it’s other lifestyle shifts that I think a lot of people will be able to relate to.
TR: Why was it important for you to have a character like [Jerrod’s girlfriend] Maxine? Is she sort of a mirror to maybe the professional black folks who are divorced from these kinds of issues?
JC: In life, who you date may be different from who you grew up with and who your family is, and that’s what makes life interesting, because, one, you get to hold up a mirror to your experiences and still have different experiences, and to talk to people who had different experiences. … I think, on the show, the characters learn from Maxine as much as Maxine learns from the characters. I think it is really important to have that balance.
I think the three lead black female characters are three different looks of black women. The black experience is wider than I think American culture knows. It’s more diverse than I think is shown in American culture. I think it’s more interesting than is shown in American culture. It’s passionate, it’s intelligent, it’s thoughtful, it’s beautiful, but it’s wider than what is shown. So Maxine represents one part of it, as well as the Nakeisha character, as well as the Cynthia character.
TR: With this episode about Jerrod’s ex-con friend and other episodes, do you worry about reinforcing any stereotypes?
JC: If you lean towards truth, you don’t have to worry about that. I don’t think about those things because it’s my job to show truth, and these experiences are so true. It’s not my job to put up a facade. It’s my job to show truth. With black art, television and black film, sometimes we get so concerned with [not wanting] to reinforce stereotypes that we get away from anything that’s real. And we don’t do a service to ourselves by doing that, by getting away from anything that’s honest and anything that’s real.
I’m not writing stereotype. I write truth and I write honesty. And I write people that I know. I write people that I met, and I write the experiences that I’ve gone through. So I don’t think about those types of things. What I love about hip-hop is that what Kendrick Lamar talks about is his truth and his experience, and it’s my job in television and it’s my job in film to do the same thing: to lean into the truth. And I think that’s how we grow and that’s how we expand our consciousness.
The Carmichael Show airs Sundays on NBC at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.