There’s been a rapid evolution in the world of TV comedies. Not that long ago, the primetime schedules were filled with series that relied on nonstop lowbrow, inoffensive jokes.
But over the last few years, the TV comedy has grown up. Now thanks to shows like “Transparent,” “Modern Family,” “Blackish” comedies have proven that they can address social issues while also being entertaining.
In some ways, it’s a return to what Norman Lear did with Archie Bunker and “All in the Family” so many years ago.
“The Carmichael Show,” now in its second season on NBC, is one sitcom that’s unafraid to make social issues fodder for the show. A recent episode examined the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby from a variety of perspectives. Other episodes have dealt with transgender kids, the black lives matter movement, gun control and infidelity.
The show was co-created by and stars comedian Jerrod Carmichael. Many times Carmichael's character plays the devil’s advocate in the middle of spirited living room debates, which Carmichael says comes from personal experience in his own family.
Earlier this week, we visited the set of The Carmichael Show as the cast and crew were rehearsing an upcoming episode about another topical issue: depression. The mom and girlfriend characters were arguing over the value of therapy and Carmichael’s character was acting as sort of a mediator in the scene. At one point he says, “I feel like I’m watching a tennis match.”
When The Frame's John Horn spoke with Jerrod Carmichael at a break in rehearsal, he asked him about that line and a whole lot more.
To hear the full interview click the blue play button at the top of this page.
During the rehearsal, your character is watching your girlfriend and mom debate about the importance of therapy, and your character says, "I feel like I'm watching a tennis match." That almost perfectly sums up the show.
Some of the best moments of my life are those verbal tennis matches. In television -- in the sitcom format -- we try and throw smoke bombs and distractions, and I really believe that if the perspective is interesting enough, then people will pay attention and people will be really excited by it. So that's why perspective is so important so that the tennis match is exciting, that's always been the intention and that's always where I'm inspired the most.
You have, in recent episodes, talked about cheating, gun control, sexual and gender identity, Bill Cosby, and yet you are a comedy.
[Laughs] You know, real zany topics like that [laugh.]
But it's a trip because you are trying to wrestle with super serious ideas and subjects and yet you also have to do an entertaining show. So as you're writing or pitching, how seriously do you think about the difficulty of pulling it off and making sure that you still have an entertaining conversation about what may be -- like in the case of Bill Cosby -- a really serious issue?
Yeah, absolutely. Well if it's a topic where a human being is involved or something that means a lot to people, we respect the integrity of that topic, never disrespect the integrity of the subject itself. What I think we all do in conversation in our everyday lives, I think humor happens very naturally -- people talk and people being very strong in their opinions -- humor kind of naturally happens.
You think of these moments that break tension and you create a bubble and then you pop that. You create another bubble and you do it again and you find ways to let something breathe and you find a way to let something exist and be real and heavy, and then someone else comes in with a different opinion and that maybe is where the comedy comes from.
So I trust that eventually we will get to something funny or maybe it won't, and then it should exist like that. I just really want to treat the audience like adults.
A couple of weeks back, somebody pitches these two words: Bill Cosby. What is the conversation you have afterwards?
Let's go even further back than that. It was me saying we're gonna do a Bill Cosby episode [laughs.]
And what was the reaction to your staff?
The staff is excited. I wanted to do it last season.
But what changed?
It wasn't the time. I think us being a show that people could trust to cover things was needed first. I think that we've earned a certain amount of leeway, a certain amount of respect, a certain amount of trust to cover a topic. So I think that Bill Cosby now falls into a list of conversations as opposed to just the novelty. So it was a decision to wait and not doing it was not an option.
And what was the intention of the episode? Was it to make people challenge their own beliefs of what they should and should not do? Was it to illuminate the issue of what it means to actually go see somebody who is accused of all of these crimes?
That the was question. The question was, "Where do we place him now?" A lot of the episodes revolved around this this question that when I'm most excited, it's some type of hypothetical question where the answer may not be clean and clear. So, "Where do we place Bill Cosby now?," lead to all types of conversations, from still in a fond place in our heart to in jail! It's a wide range of answers to that and we just wanted to answer that question.
In an era of single-camera shows, you are not that. You are live and in front of an audience, you're old school. Why is that important to you and why is this setting itself important to the material that you're presenting?
Because it keeps us honest. The audience reacts immediately. You know how someone feels and so you keep going, even as a performer, you're on your toes, you have to be. It's a living, breathing thing. It's a thing that reacts, it's a thing that could turn at any moment. I think that the format itself, it was approached with fear and laziness. I don't think that the format is old school, it wasn't receiving the care that it deserves. It was cheapened, not just in production, but in intention and dialogue, and it was cheap and it treated people like children.
I mean, to be quite honest with you, I found myself so angered by that I was like, "I gotta do it." There's obviously very shining examples and there are people who masterfully pull it off. You look at Chuck Lorre, he's found a science and a rhythm and he's found a way of accomplishing entertaining multi-cams. It can be done but I just think, for the most part, people were just doing the same unbelievable character turns. The same things that were just cheap and that we refuse to do.
Tell me about the make up of the writing staff and what you look for in comedy and life experience.
People that would argue with me. Every interview was an argument. We talked until we disagreed and then we talk for an hour because it was important. It should resemble Lincoln's cabinet more than anything, right? It's just a bunch of opposing minds and opposing views meeting to find what hopefully makes a great episode.
So you want to be challenged.
Of course, or otherwise we're wasting our time. If you think about, if you're not challenged by your friends, those around you, if you're not challenged by the content you receive, then your brain is just wasted. I didn't want to make a show that was a waste.
Where does that idea of being challenged come from for you?
Everything good in my life has come from me questioning everything, challenging everything, from me feeling challenged. Everything, everything. The television shows I watched challenged me. The music I listen to, it gives me something to figure out, even if it's a jazz instrumental, the trombone needs to be doing something that I can't just immediately understand. It gives me something to search for, a reason to use my brain. So challenges within the writers' room, the show, with the content is the most important thing that we could possibly do.
Is there ever a point where you think you've crossed the line on writing a joke or on a topic and you veer back to comedy?
I'm always running from comedy. How is that for a comedian? A comedian who ain't got no jokes! I'm running towards truth and I'm running towards -- in the show -- I'm running towards intention and the clash. Comedy is the escape from it, but only after you get yourself into a little trouble.
"The Carmichael Show" airs on Sunday nights on NBC.