Moving through the lobby of a posh Santa Monica hotel one May afternoon, Jerrod Carmichael is not so much walking as strutting. Tall and slender, he’s wearing a black cashmere sweater, matching pants, loafers, an Afro pick, and an outsize smile. And then there’s the brooch: Stunning gold. Cursive font. The letter R. “I love it so much,” Carmichael says, gazing down to admire the pin. It was a gift from a friend a few weeks ago, for Carmichael’s 35th birthday. Ever since, he’s been “building outfits around it.”
The R is a beautiful piece of jewelry, to be sure. But it’s much more than a sartorial statement piece. It represents a rebirth for the comedian. R is the first letter of his real first name, Rothaniel (Jerrod is his middle name), which he revealed in his most recent comedy special, along with a host of family secrets, including his own: that he is gay.
“I don’t feel like a liar anymore,” Carmichael says as we take one of his favorite strolls down Wilshire Boulevard, toward the Instagram-famous health-food haven Erewhon. “I’ve been using the word ‘sturdy’ a lot lately. Like, I feel sturdy. I think I’m accepting a lot of things in my life and not fighting it anymore.”
He may have been a liar, but Carmichael was a damn successful one: As a comedian, writer, producer, actor, and director, he’s been delivering critically acclaimed work for nearly a decade, from his first stand-up special, 2014’s Love at the Store, to his NBC sitcom, The Carmichael Show, which he starred in and that was loosely based on his life, to his autobiographical documentaries, Home Videos and Sermon on the Mount. Along the way, he accumulated an A-list circle of friends: Kanye West; Dave Chappelle; Tyler, the Creator; Jay-Z and Beyoncé. After directing Lil Rel Howery’s 2019 stand-up special, he branched into feature directing with On the Count of Three, a darkly comic indie about two suicidal friends (played by Carmichael and Girls’ Christopher Abbott) on a final, Thelma & Louise-style mission. It premiered at Sundance in 2021 and was released in theaters May 13.
But nothing broke through for Carmichael like Rothaniel (which debuted in April and is still streaming on HBO Max). While his stand-up has always been provocative and fearless — his first special features jokes about Trayvon Martin, 9/11, and how life as a descendant of slaves in America is better than it would be in Africa — the confessional nature of Rothaniel is a revelation. Carmichael is raw and open throughout, and for once experiencing some of the discomfort he normally revels in pushing onto his audiences. Sitting center stage on a simple folding chair rather than standing, he shifts in his seat, holding long pauses, in conversation with the crowd as he grapples with the reality he’s kept from his family, the world, and himself. “I need you,” he tells the audience early on. “This only works if we feel like family.”
Carmichael had gradually come out to his friends over the past few years. His longtime writing partner, Ari Katcher, recalls it being “a slow progression.” It started with offhand, jokey remarks (“I like pretty faces,” he once told Katcher. “I like girls’ pretty faces, I like guys’ pretty faces.”) before Carmichael began identifying as bisexual. “And then it became explicit stories about sex with men,” Katcher recalls. “Then it became, ‘I’m gay and it’s important for me to say that.’”
But coming out publicly, to the industry, to fans, to his own family, was a massive leap forward — one that’s brought him joy and some measure of relief, but also a whirlwind of emotions he’s still processing every day. “It’s happening in real time,” Carmichael says. “I’m coming to terms with it. I’m saying it to friends. I’m digging through years of bullshit. I’m doing psychoanalysis and becoming more open, more honest, more direct.”
Back in the Morningside Manor section of his native Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he was born to a secretary mother and truck-driver father, back when he was forever armed with a camcorder and constantly writing plays and poetry and making movies, back when he dated girls in high school, Carmichael had a friend named Ashley. For a while there, right after high school graduation, Ashley stopped talking to Jerrod. He wouldn’t return to her good graces, she told him, unless he agreed to try out stand-up comedy. Carmichael brushed her off. Sure, he was funny. But, as he explained to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “the average Black person is a top 10 comedian.” Was he really that unique?
A more effective push came from a less-expected place: a customer at the Finish Line sneaker store where Carmichael was working in 2008. The guy was an actor who encouraged Carmichael to head west and try his hand at stand-up. So, a 21-year-old Carmichael packed his bags and flew to Hollywood, couch surfing and hitting up any open mic that would take him once he landed. Ryan Welch, a friend of Carmichael’s (and co-writer of On the Count of Three) who was doing stand-up in L.A. at the time, was struck by his lack of desperation. “Jerrod had such a different energy,” says Welch, recalling Carmichael’s willingness to do material on topics like molestation at the risk of losing an audience. “He had this calm, confident presence. He was going to do what he wanted to do, which is the -opposite of a lot of what you see in that setting.” Katcher, who was also working the city’s comedy clubs at the time, says Carmichael quickly became “the king of the open mics.”
Others took notice: In 2011, Carmichael was offered — and turned down — the role of Winston on New Girl. He had greater aspirations than being a sitcom regular: “I came into the industry knowing what I wanted. I wrote down in notebooks, ‘Three HBO specials and a show on NBC.’ That’s not me being a dick or an asshole. That’s protecting a vision.” Within three years, he made good on his wishes, landing his first HBO special with Love at the Store (which was directed by Spike Lee) and a breakout supporting role in the Seth Rogen comedy Neighbors. Soon after, NBC greenlit The Carmichael Show.
Lasting for three seasons, from 2015 to 2017, the series, like his stand-up, pushed buttons, tackling topics from Bill Cosby to Black Lives Matter and the Confederate flag. One controversial episode argues that it’s OK for certain white people to use the n-word, because it dilutes its power. “I took on perspectives that nobody on television would dare,” Carmichael says, settling into a lunch of salmon and jasmine rice. “I knew what I wanted to do. And I was really specific about it and I fought for it, and the shit got awkward a lot, and people threatened to quit a lot, every week. That shit’s hell and you fight for it. ’Cause it’s mine.”
Ultimately, though, Carmichael was fighting not just for the message, but for the medium, too. In other words, whether it’s stand-up or a sitcom or a movie, it has to hold up, and it has to entertain. “It’s too much make-a-wish in art,” he says. “Fuck that. I don’t care about your dreams. Fuck your dreams. Fuck my dreams. Is it good? Is it funny? That’s the only thing that matters. I don’t expect to be anywhere because I’m gay or because I’m Black. Don’t give me that shit. That’s why I think I worked so hard. That’s why I was in the closet.”
Carmichael had always been boundary-pushing in his work, but as the years went by, he began peeling back more and more layers. At the end of his second HBO special, 2017’s 8, he casually revealed his father had a second family. And with 2019’s Home Videos and Sermon on the Mount, he went back home to Winston-Salem and had deep, interrogative conversations with his family about everything from being Black to same-sex relationships. (In Home Videos, he mentions to his mother that he’s “hooked up” with men. Her retort: “OK, that’s your option.”)
Late last year, he began testing out material for what became Rothaniel, working it out in clubs across the country — Atlanta, San Francisco, Boston. The act took on different incarnations. At first, Carmichael says, he was “obsessed” with the idea of airing a live special, but eventually he arrived at the softer, more contemplative performance we see in the final product.
“When I first started doing it, I was leaning on old joke tricks,” he explains. “And I was like, ‘No, that’s not what we’re showcasing anymore.’”
Instead, Carmichael began to take more of a “stage show” approach to the material, where it came to resemble one long confessional. His friend Tyler, the Creator says the work in Rothaniel sets Carmichael apart from even his most famous contemporaries: “The honesty he has talking about himself is something that I don’t think Chris Rock or Chappelle could do … about them, about their love life, or family. That super raw and honest stuff. [Jerrod] was just like, ‘Here is my chest.’ A lot of people can’t do that or haven’t done that. I think he opened up a door for other people — whether in music, comedians, TV writers, a fucking doctor, the lady at Starbucks who gives you [your] coffee.… Everyone, after watching that, turned their TV off and started thinking about their mom or what they were going through. He made motherfuckers sit and think about their shit. I think that’s going to hold over with a lot of gravity. More than he thinks.”
The gravity is still there for Carmichael, too. On the heels of Rothaniel’s release, Carmichael hosted Saturday Night Live, made the late-night rounds, appeared on Howard Stern, and even made a stop on The View. For more than a month, the spotlight hasn’t left him. But while much of the world has embraced him in the wake of his coming out, his fiercely religious mother — whose tepid response he spoke about in the special, and then again on a visit to Late Night With Seth Meyers — has yet to even acknowledge it as fact. If she flat-out refused to accept his sexuality, it wouldn’t bother him, Carmichael says. It’s her acting like it isn’t even a reality that hurts the most. “That’s depriving a plant of sunlight,” he says.
“There are devastating things in my life now that have kind of tempered some of the happiness,” he adds, referring to the strained relationship with his mother. “But I am much happier in many ways.”
As we walk back to his hotel, Carmichael does seem at ease. He pauses to point out an attractive man he says looks like “a cute mouse.” He’s looking forward to a friend’s birthday party in a few hours at Magic Johnson’s TGI Friday’s in Inglewood. We pop into a Starbucks, where he insists on paying for both of our coffees, launching into a story about a time he tried to cover Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s meal after they’d seen him perform at the Laugh Factory: “Jay-Z grabbed my card like it had piss on it. He grabbed it with just his thumb and index finger, just, like it was wet,” he says with a laugh, “and kind of tossed it onto my lap. I’ve never felt poorer before in my life.”
Soon, the conversation turns more serious, with Carmichael talking about the importance of mentorship. He’s provided his fair share of it to others, like his friend Ramy Youssef, whose eponymous Hulu show he executive-produced, and comedian Drew Michael, whose 2018 HBO special he directed. He’s also received a good bit of it: screenwriting advice from Quentin Tarantino when they worked on a Django/Zorro sequel that never came to be; an endorsement from Kanye as they drove to a music festival (“Know why I fuck with you and Tyler? Because y’all not scared”).
Now, he’s carrying that value forward in a new way. Rothaniel wasn’t just for him, Carmichael says. Nor are all the interviews and appearances he’s done since coming out. Carmichael knows how essential it is to see ourselves reflected in the world, to help us figure out who we can become. He’s being so transparent about his journey in the hope that young gay people watching or listening or reading might connect with his struggle: “For anyone who’s following me, for any kid who needs to see it or hear that process, I want to be open for them. I’m saying it so they can know that ‘Yeah, shit’s not always OK.’”
The process has been a bloodletting, but it’s also left him feeling stronger, Carmichael adds, able to see “the strings on the monster” — things that were holding him back for so many years. Now, he says, “I am clear.”