“Are we gonna be OK?”
Those are the first words we hear—followed by a deep sigh—from Jerrod Carmichael in his new HBO stand-up special entitled 8, and it perfectly sets the tone for the proceedings. With his trademark temperament that is equal parts subdued and seriously aggravated, the 29-year-old comedian uses the stage in New York’s Masonic Hall to engage in a casual chat with the audience, one where he unpacks his concerns and curiosities (which almost feel extemporaneous) with an effortless comfort. But casual chats can often lead to uncomfortable places and discoveries, something Carmichael refuses to shy away from. In fact he luxuriates in the audience’s awkward silences just as naturally as he feeds off their gut-busting laughs.
But to answer the question above: Jerrod Carmichael is doing better than “OK.” 8 is his second hour-long special for HBO in just three years, following the success of his Spike Lee-helmed Love at the Store. Directed with a cinematic sensuousness by his good friend and fellow comedian Bo Burnham, 8 touches on an array of topics ranging from Trump, being Black in America, why babies aren’t miracles, and how he could never be friends with someone who puts bumper stickers on their car.
In between specials, he stole the show in Neighbors and its sequel, filmed a Transformers movie, and also wrote, executive produced and starred in NBC’s The Carmichael Show, which is currently shooting its third season. So it’s been a supremely successful few years for the young comedian, and he’s only just getting started.
Jerrod sat down with The Hundreds to talk about 8, why he avoids social media, political correctness and the funniest joke he’s ever heard.
ERIK ABRISS: Why did you name your second special 8?
JERROD CARMICHAEL: The number eight represents a lot of special things for me: A lot of growth and new beginnings. It also defined and reflected what was going on in my life right now; these thoughts and emotions I just wanted to get out. So the timing of that just felt right for this moment. And eight is a really personal and recurring number in my life.
Can you give me an example?
I don’t even know where to begin [Laughs]. It really is just a number that kind of repeats itself in super important events in my life that kind of represent new beginnings. It has this way of showing up. When I first moved to LA it was August 8, 2008. It’s recurring in a way that it surrounds very personal things in my life. And that’s what I wanted this stand-up special to represent.
8 manages to feel like both a traditional stand-up special and something avant-garde. You encourage audience interaction like a town hall meeting, but it’s also like a TED Talk the way you’re exploring truth in real time. Why did you choose to approach the special this way?
You know something? I just don’t really like comedy specials. I realized as much as I love comedy there’s a part of me that also doesn’t like comedy [Laughs]. I also wanted something that was more a character study. A lot of thoughts—no matter how personal or vulnerable or harsh or optimistic or sociopathic or whatever—all discussed in a really honest way. I wanted to capture these thoughts in a way to match the vulnerability I’m trying to express on stage. So my approach was to make this extremely personal, different thing into an interesting character study.
I want to talk about your comedic style for a bit. We are all familiar with “observational” and “conversational” humor, but yours feels more “investigational,” as if you’re working out ideas as they come to you on stage. And yet these unpolished ideas manage to feel fully developed and hard-hitting. Would you say that’s an accurate description?
Hey, not bad. I enjoy that. Thank you for saying that. I think that’s really good [Laughs]. You know, I just have a lot of curiosity. I like to explore and search for the thoughts that I may have that a lot of times people may want to suppress or push aside—I just like to explore them and talk about it on stage. It is kind of an investigative journalism for my own mind.
You’re noticeably absent on social media. I feel like, because of social media, the space that used to exist where people could talk through ideas—even wrong or bad ideas—has sort of been eliminated. Your comedy feels like a direct response to that. Is that why you avoid social media or do you think that’s just a symptom of where we’re at right now as a culture?
That’s a really good question. It is why I kind of avoid it. It’s not how I think or explore thoughts: it’s not abbreviated. I don’t have thoughts in 140 characters [Laughs]. For the most part that’s just not how my mind works. It relies upon full expression. Some people are amazing at [social media]. Some people are really, really great at it. When I’m on there and I see what some of my friends are doing, I think it’s incredible but it’s just not the way I think. I don’t want to have to part-time anything. I would rather not be on there at all than be “kind-of” on there. You know what I mean?
You enlisted your good friend Bo Burnham to direct 8. Was he always your first choice? What kind of conversations did you guys have?
He was always my first choice. It was over a series of conversations that we had where we discussed the state of comedy and comedy specials over a couple of years—just us talking about the things that we wanted to see and the specific tone. I also think Bo is really one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. I think he’s one of the most brilliant—I don’t even know what to call him: Comedian? Humorist? Thinker? All the above.
I just think he’s a genius. That guy has such great taste. As a director he is able to capture anything beautiful, and as a friend he knows exactly what to look for. It was just this perfect fit. Everything was personal and honest. I’m really happy. I’m really lucky to have been able to work with Bo.
It really is the most cinematic looking special I’ve seen. Not only is it hilarious and thought provoking, but it’s also looks beautiful.
I appreciate you saying that. If I’m allowed to say so myself: I’ve never seen a special look like this before either. I know that’s a thing I shouldn’t say, but I really haven’t. I’m so happy we captured it this way. It’s almost an anti-comedy-special.
I’ve also admired how you tend to disappear and put in the work quietly. It just seems like a rare thing for artists these days, especially when everyone is encouraged to document everything. What is your writing process like?
Mine just comes from where I am in that very moment. A lot of it—as you see in the special—happens onstage. A lot of it comes from conversations with friends, whatever the situation may be. To borrow from how you described my style earlier, I just go out there like I’m reporting. It does kind of feel that way. I go out there and talk about my thoughts and feelings from that day onstage at night. It’s just accumulated. For this special, once all these thoughts were a cohesive set, we recorded it. I want everything to feel in the moment.
Switching gears a bit, where do you stand in this ubiquitous PC debate? I know that question is tired, but the discussion surrounding political correctness can’t seem to go away.
I think artists—anyone who creates—has an honest obligation to have a full thought or idea or perspective that they’re bringing. They should never say things just for a response or say empty things that just elicit a response from an audience. I hope that people allow room for nuance and allow room for a thought to be fully expressed. As a comic onstage, I can say in a premise something that someone gets terribly offended by. As adults in the audience, I just hope that they are open enough to listen to exactly what the comic is saying and see if they can get any understanding from it.
I just think nuance is what’s missing. I think on both ends, from the audience and from the artist. I think nuance is so important. It’s missing because it’s easy to have this knee-jerk reaction because you have outlets. You have an immediate outlet to have a reaction. “I don’t like this” or “I don’t care about that”. And this is ten seconds after hearing the joke! People can respond to comedy specials in real time. They haven’t even finished it and people already have a response. It’s a culture that’s so reliant on people having an instant gratification to things. Especially with me, truthfully, just to feel something, sometimes you may have to watch something twice to even come around to understanding what I’m saying. My sister hated my first special. She hated it. Like, despised it for a year and then watched it again.
Any joke in particular?
No, the whole thing! [Laughs] She hated it. She didn’t hesitate to tell me how much she disliked it. She would tell me so even while feeding her children. She’d be feeding my niece and look at me and say, “I hate it!” But then a year later, she watched it again. This is a woman who’s truly honest with me. Now it’s, “I actually really love it,” after a year of just shitting on the special to my face in front of my nieces. It may take some time. I’m willing to be patient with my audiences if they’re patient with me.
What is the funniest joke you ever heard?
Oh man, great question. A joke that I probably tell the most that I think is really brilliant I saw—believe it or not—during a “yo mama” battle. We were just bullshitting outside of an open mic years ago, and it’s a joke by my friend Angelo, who has now passed away and meant so much to me. He was one of the biggest influences on my life ever. I quoted him while he was alive as much as I quoted after his passing. He said it to our friend Byron. He said: “Yo moms is so black that when she died, they rolled credits over her body.” It’s one of the greatest jokes I’ve ever heard.
Oh my god.
It will stay with me forever! It ranks up there with certain songs as one of my favorite things I’ve ever heard. Like, it’s up there with “Bennie and the Jets” [Laughs].
To wrap things up, I have to say that 8 feels like one of those career-defining specials. Do you ever think about your legacy or the mark you want to leave in the comedy world?
I really do trust that if I’m honest in the moment —if I’m really honest with what I do— time will record that honesty in my favor. I think time favors truth. I trust that more than anything. More than I think about legacy, I think about right now and what I’m doing and is it real. Do I care about it? Do I feel something? As history records it, I think the truth is the most important thing. I just try to bring that to everything I do.
8 airs this Saturday, March 11, on HBO. Photos by Scott McDermott/HBO.