The «Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show» is exhibitionism as art

Last month, Tina Fey offered comedians on the brink of fame a warning that quickly went viral: «Authenticity is dangerous and expensive.» The comedy legend, who was a guest on the pop-culture podcast «Las Culturistas,» told hosts Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang to learn from her mistakes by keeping her opinions to herself. Referring to Yang’s role in the upcoming big-screen adaptation of «Wicked,» she said he had crossed the threshold where honesty becomes an obstacle: «I regret to inform you that you are now too famous, sir.» One imagines that Fey will provide same advice to Jerrod Carmichael, who won a 2022 Emmy for his standup special «Rothaniel” and just appeared in the Oscar-winning film “Les Miserables” alongside Emma Stone. But Carmichael, who came out publicly in «Rothaniel» at the age of thirty-five after more than a decade in the spotlight, is evidently more interested in disclosure than caution. Shortly after the release of the special, he said New York Times, “I’m just trying to tell the truth now; thoughts I’ve been running from.»

Still, his latest project, an eight-part documentary called the «Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show,» is a surprisingly open invitation to his life in the closet. The program, which showcases his high-rise apartment in New York and features the hard-bodied comic in various states of undress, is a credit to exhibitionism. Carmichael let HBO’s cameras capture his daily life as he tries to reconcile where he comes from (a working-class, religious black family in North Carolina) with who he longs to be (a more considerate friend and partner, a son able to bridge the rift caused by his parents’ homophobia). In «Rothaniel,» Carmichael placed himself in the position of a victim of family breakdowns: he was a secondary victim of his father Joe’s chronic philandering, forced to keep quiet about the half-siblings that arose from these affairs, and ultimately the revelation of his own sexuality left him estranged from his beloved mother, Cynthia. «Reality Show» complicates this narrative richly. Although he was once a «mama’s boy» who was acutely aware of his father’s sins—he would cuddle with Cynthia every Friday night when his dad left the house, suspiciously drinking and pouring cologne—Carmichael repeatedly cheats on his own friend Mike. After a life of being crushed by secrets, he himself might enjoy the transgression of sneaking a little too much.

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«Reality Show» opens five days before the 2022 Emmys as Carmichael tries to decide who to take to the ceremony. His mom? Too full. His best friend Tyler, to whom he recently confessed his unrequited romantic feelings via text? TBD! In a moment of desperation, Grindr invites a date as Plan C: «Do you mind being a backup date?» (The series is probably most impressive as a snapshot of C-list life: Carmichael is too prominent to put his face on hookup apps, but the people he finds there rarely recognize him.) There are other glimpses of the Carmichaels newfound perks of celebrity, like a stylist bringing him a rack full of clothes for the occasion. But the show focuses primarily on pre-fame, pre-luck relationships: his parents; his high school friends; and Jamar Neighbors, a standup he met when he first appeared on the scene. Although his romance with Mike is only a few months old, it developed after a long friendship. The comedian is refreshingly open about how his recent success has affected that dynamic. Mike is a writer in a master’s program in Iowa, but as Carmichael says, «it doesn’t feel like long distance because I have a lot of money.» When he confronts his father about feeling unwelcome in his parents’ house since he arrived, he notes , that rejection seems especially unfair since he’s the one paying for the house.

Each episode shows a strained relationship in Carmichael’s life as he tries to forge a connection. (Recurring theme: just because Carmichael wants to become a better person doesn’t mean those close to him will curse his new self or forgive his old self—assuming he ever manages to reform.) To call the result a «reality» show is an understatement its sophistication and its subtle visual flourish. Director Ari Katcher strikes a careful balance between naturalism and narrative coherence, eschewing the genre’s glossy straight-to-camera confessions entirely; Carmichael’s inner thoughts are instead conveyed through snippets of borderline-diary standup. (Having attended one such show where Carmichael seemed to improvise based on last week’s events, I can say that the material is much more effective on screen than it was in the room.) «Reality Show» may be extremely moving, but it’s it’s as often funny as life is funny. Friends read it with gleeful fury, serious moments are punctuated by horny Grindr alerts, and the whole enterprise is enlivened by Carmichael’s quick, nasty wit.

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The fifth episode — a pretty perfect half-hour that could stand as a stand-alone short — is emblematic of Carmichael’s quest for greater honesty and his willingness to ask tough questions about himself. The episode, a platonic love story between Carmichael and the «slightly homophobic» Neighbors, follows two black men on tour together. In an early scene—Carmichael in a fancy cream cardigan, Neighbors in an almost certainly illegal «Friday» T-shirt—Carmichael pushes his friend in a new artistic direction, suggesting he talk about his time in foster care instead of not paying. to juvenile, generic punch lines. But Neighbors can’t replicate what he mockingly calls Carmichael’s «therapeutic comedy.» Part of the problem is that the older comedian’s childhood was more tragic: his not entirely funny remark that «I’m the last crack kid I know» is met with silence from the audience. As she tries to prod her mother into the biggest mystery of her life – the identity of her father – their conversation takes a dark turn. Ultimately, she discovers that the no-holds-barred confessional mode Carmichael favors comes with too high an emotional cost: «I’m tired of throwing the people I love under the bus.»

Carmichael is not naïve about the warped mirror that is documentary, nor does he expect his audience to be. Through an unnamed friend who has apparently agreed to appear in the series, he gives voice to the skepticism he’s only likely to face if his face is completely hidden by a balaclava and ski mask. This anonymous confidante admonishes Carmichael, saying of his self-created comedy «Truman Show,» «There’s public and private, and then there’s masturbatory public.» (The toe-sucking scene might fall into the third category.) Carmichael’s faith in the camera as an instrument of sincerity is not exactly convincing; he simply says it’s «stupid to lie» in front of the mechanical eye, and then does it more than once. But it can work well for him as an accountability tool, forcing him to have difficult conversations that he might otherwise avoid. I’ve often wondered how the participants—especially Carmichael’s parents—felt about him trumpeting family secrets to the world and how he intended to broadcast intimate conversations to a television audience. For all of Carmichael’s insistence on the project’s radical transparency, there are sides to the story we may never hear. ♦

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