For a comedian to have had his first comedy special filmed at the iconic Comedy Store in Hollywood, let alone be directed by a director as huge as Spike Lee, he has to have a combination of incredible talent and remarkable confidence. Jerrod Carmichael has both those qualities, and they were on full display during his set at Gilda’s LaughFest in Grand Rapids this past Friday. Before Carmichael made it on stage, the audience was treated to opening act Brad Wentzel, a Michigan-based comic whose easy-going delivery of one-liners is what you might have gotten if Mitch Hedberg performed his jokes while doing a Jimmy Stewart impersonation. Wentzel is a tremendous up-and-coming talent, and did an excellent job warming up the crowd with a barrage of tightly-written jokes. Of course, it was Friday the 13th so something was bound to go wrong. Roughly an hour beforehand and merely a few blocks away, Patton Oswalt had narrowly avoided serious injury when the backdrop of the stage on which he was performing came crashing down on him. For Carmichael, the misfortune came in the form of an illness that left him with a sore throat and robbed him of his voice. He spoke in a near-whisper and sounded like he was probably in a fair amount of pain. Any comic would have been forgiven for canceling his shows at that point, especially when he was doing two of them back-to-back. Carmichael persevered, though, and the result was a set that was as intimate as it was hilarious.
Carmichael is known for his loose sets driven more by what’s on his mind than what’s written down on a set list. Even in his aforementioned HBO special, Love at the Store, he occasionally paused or consulted his notes on stage when deciding where to go next. At the hands of most comics, that sort of approach might come off as amateurish. With Carmichael, he is so self-assured and his material is so good that it’s a joy to watch his sets unfold. He’s not one to avoid controversial takes on familiar topics, though. From abortion to women’s rights to marital infidelity, Carmichael frequently and playfully risked offending the audience, and although he lost a few members of that audience on occasion, he inevitably won them back with his next joke. What was interesting was the one line he did not cross. When he asked toward the end of his set what the audience wanted him to talk about and someone yelled out, “Rape!” he did not oblige. This despite a rape joke he included in Love at the Store, which was probably the impetus for the suggestion.
With a comic like Carmichael who is constantly and intentionally pushing the boundaries of good taste, there are inevitably going to be a few misses. I’ll admit to having outright hated the aforementioned rape joke and not thinking it was up to the standards of his other material. I was glad, then, that it did not make a return to his set at LaughFest. Carmichael is a young comic with an immense amount of potential, and as he keeps honing his craft he will undoubtedly be getting a lot of well-deserved attention in the years to come.