For Jerrod Carmichael, nothing is funnier than the things we’re not supposed to laugh at. “I’ve laughed hysterically, just trying to hold it in, at every funeral I’ve been to,” says the Los Angeles–based comedian. “Because everyone’s so serious. And there are a lot of people speaking publicly, which makes you understand why it’s people’s number one fear — because everyone shouldn’t do it.” It’s that “funerals are amazing” mindset that informs the 28-year-old’s standup routines, with its contentious bits about Trayvon Martin, rape, and enjoying Chik-Fil-A sandwiches despite the company’s anti-gay politics (“I didn’t choose to like Chik-Fil-A – I was born this way”). And it’s the same willingness to take comedy to uncomfortable places that fuels his NBC series The Carmichael Show, which addresses a hot-button topic (Black Lives Matter, transgender issues, gun rights) in each episode.
An old-school multi-camera sitcom in the mold of Norman Lear’s All in the Family, The Carmichael Show was the surprise hit of the summer, its six-episode run earning both seasonally high ratings, and critical praise for its sharp take on big issues. (If protests are so effective, Carmichael’s character jokes, “then why did I see George Zimmerman at a Dave & Buster’s?”) The series is based loosely on the comedian’s experiences growing up with a loving but argumentative working-class family in “the hood” in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “You could convince my parents about anything if you made a strong enough argument,” he says. “I remember doing a presentation — putting on a suit that my parents gave me for Easter — just to get $20 to go to the mall.”
Carmichael says he first realized he was funny during an eighth grade classroom debate, but it took a friend’s badgering to get him to move to L.A. to try his hand at comedy in 2008. He arrived on a Friday, and by Sunday was performing his first-ever standup set, at the Comedy Store’s open-mic night. Carmichael quickly developed his easygoing stage presence: “To say it very honestly, removed from ego, standup is just a thing that I understood, a God-given ability.” Last year, he made his big-screen debut as Garf, the Samuel L. Jackson–impersonating frat boy in the hit comedy Neighbors (he’ll be back for the 2016 sequel), and starred in his own HBO comedy special, filmed live at the Comedy Store by Spike Lee.
The comedian is already hard at work on the show’s second season, which he says will continue to strenuously avoid “shoving a point down your throat” in the name of must-see TV. “We sidestep the whole Alright, let’s hug and agree that was right, and that was wrong,'” Carmichael says of the series. “So it’s not a ‘very special episode’ — it’s another discussion. We want you to think, and if being uncomfortable is part of it…then, yes, I do enjoy that.”