The effervescent Jerrod Carmichael stopped by Questlove’s Pandora radio show, Questlove Supreme, and the stand-up had a lot of updates on his TV show, his tour, and everything else he’s been up to recently.
The lengthy interview is full of playful banter, and lots of thoughtful Q+As on Carmichael’s first forays into stand-up, his decision to move to LA, the evolution of The Carmichael Show (which, btw, is on Netflix now), and much, much more.
Here are some highlights from the episode, which ran nearly two hours; the entire show can be heard on Pandora’s Questlove Supreme channel.
On Season 3 of The Carmichael Show:
Jerrod: The first episode we taped, my grandmother commits suicide. She kills herself on camera. It’s going to be a fun season.
Questlove: So do you just sit there and figure out what taboo subjects can we cover and just revel in it?
Jerrod: Any conversation I have, or any subject that comes up that wakes me up — the things that you talk about throughout the day to actually wake you up, like the conversations you’re engaged in — that’s the ones that we try and make episodes out of, because it’s boring otherwise. And assisted suicide was a thing we were talking about, and it was like, “Oh yeah, this will be a fun episode to do.”
Questlove: How did you talk her into this?
Jerrod: She was so excited. She was excited. I mean, I think people get excited if the material is like– it can spark some type of conversation, or is edgy, or exciting to do. And so she was all for it.
Questlove: Has Comcast ever– or your higher-ups at Comcast ever said, “We can’t do that”?
Jerrod: They’ve had caution. They’ve actually let us get away with a lot of stuff. The guys at Comcast that I’ve encountered actually really like the show. I mean, I know it’s easy to say. I don’t want it to sound like– but if you watch the show next to most, any multi-camera especially, or any broadcast like comedy, what we try and do is the opposite, which usually is like turn your brain off. It’s a really happy world where everything’s shiny, and people speak in kind of unrealistic joke patterns. And even the lighting, and everything about it, and the subject matter is usually– when anytime someone uses the word tackle, that means that they’re not going to tackle it. It’s going to be some left-leaning, we’re-all-united type of ending. I try and do the opposite of that. I just try and look for whatever the real thing is.
On the Writers’ Room:
Questlove: What is the writer’s room like for your show? Who’s all in it? What does that look like?
Jerrod: It’s a lot of arguing, and yelling at each other, and having fun, and disagreeing, and jokes. It’s a fun environment. I’ll bring a lot of concepts before the season starts, and we’ll just try and break stories around them, and find perspective, and argue a lot. It’s really fun.
Questlove: Well, I was going to say, how deep were the arguments? One time, I went on a set of a comedy show to watch a taping, and during the breaks, it was something out of like a New Edition dance step. Like, the second they said, “And cut,” suddenly, the showrunner ran to the spotlight, and then his 15 writers surrounded him in a circle. It was like Harlem Globetrotters…[A]nd after I saw the rhythm of it, the third time of go-round, I was watching the ones that got dismissed. “Nope, not funny. Not funny.” And each time around, their body language just became more… defeated. How do you encourage the best out of your writers?
Jerrod: I think it’s like– if you’re being honest with me, I think that’s your best. Always look for truth first. So the thing that I care about the most is that they are bringing honest perspective of something. A joke is just this tension you create, that you just let the air out. So sometimes people yell something that’s not really even a joke. They’re really angry. And it works. You know what I mean? I guess I’m saying, you want to keep morale high. You want people to feel like their voice is being heard. But the most important thing that you can bring is truth, and that comes in any shade of emotion, so we just try and make everybody feel included. And we hear, but it’s also a tough thing. Certain thing, you have to go what your gut says.
Questlove: Do you trust yourself to have the final say, though?
Questlove: That’s so dangerous.
Jerrod: Yeah, but it’s fun. Because anything good comes from a specific vision. So it always has to be through a filter of some sort. Things are a collaborative process, but it has to be something that usually one or two people kind of agree on that has to be the guard for the entire process. And so a lot of things– I do trust it because I just trust gut instinct. It’s like, “No, I feel this.” And even if it’s not the funniest joke, I feel like it fits. It’s kind of like jazz, if you will, where it’s kind of off this feeling as it fits into a structure. And so I just trust that more than anything.
On joke writing:
Phonte: Take us through the construction of a joke. And I mean, in English class, you know how they would have the chart where it’d be like, “Okay, exposition, rise and action, fall and action, all that stuff? So the beats of a joke, particularly– I mean, the cereal joke, walk us through that.
Jerrod: That I did, in its full concept, from eating cereal with Jamar at 3:00 in the morning. Me and Jamar, we lived together for a while, and when we started getting money or whatever, the biggest change was cereal [laughter]. We just started buying. We had all the cereal in the world. And then it was just one night at 3:00 in the morning after a trip from Ralphs [laughter], l sat down, and I was just like – and I’d said it as I said the joke like that, “We eat cereal like a teacher told us we’ll never have cereal [laughter].” It was like we were trying to prove something, and which we were. Which we were. It’s the same thing with shoes or whatever you do. That truth hit me, and a lot of times, when a truth comes, that’s what the joke is. It’s like, “Oh yeah, that,” and everything, though, is setting up and explaining that truth.
Phonte: Yeah, so how do you go take it from a truth to a joke
Jerrod: Just argue it. It’s like, a lot of times I have a point or a thought, and I just argue it. I’ll argue it with friends, or I’ll argue it on stage. Based off the audience’s reaction and their expression, I was like, “Oh, you still hate it. You still don’t understand.” And I’ll keep arguing it, and then I’ll find a way in. That’s kind of what I’m doing. I’m just arguing.
On growing up in North Carolina:
Phonte: A lot of times in your comedy, you talk about your beginnings and how you were coming up poor and all that. Tell me about that.
Jerrod: It was a very– tell you what. No, it was fun [laughter]. It was a good environment in the sense that it was filled with these characters. It was interesting… And it’s like, as I learn, the more I meet people, [it was] such a similar experience to anybody who grew up in any hood. It’s so many of the same elements there. It’s just a lot of people, working class, trying, a lot of single-mom homes, people that wanted new Jordans…Starting eighth grade, I used humor to not do homework, that type of thing. But starting around then, I was. I was always writing, and creating stuff, and writing plays, and filming things.
Phonte: And from just writing, the creative writing and stuff like that, how did you take that to the stage? When did you actually start doing stand-up?
Jerrod: I started doing stand-up here in LA. I didn’t want to start in North Carolina. I’m really competitive, and I wanted to be around people that truly dedicated their life to it, and people that were serious about it. And a lot of times in cities outside of LA and New York, with stand-up, people are doing it. But it’s kind of a thing that people do, and it’s too easily a hobby, even if people’s heart and passion was into it. Just having the time to do it, it was kind of this hobby. And I wanted to move into where people were just ruthlessly ambitious and trying to do it. And that’s the energy that I feel more comfortable around.
On making the move to LA:
Questlove: So why not New York instead of LA?
Jerrod: Two things. I had an interest in film and television from the beginning. It’s the thing that I wanted to learn and be around in. And I was excited to jump into that. Also, I have an aunt who lives in New York, and I have friends that were in New York, and I had a place to stay. I didn’t want a security blanket. It’s just LA. I’d never been here, and I didn’t know anyone.
Questlove: What year [did you move]?
Jerrod: 2008. I was working [at Finish Line in North Carolina]. This all happened in a matter of two months. I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. A friend of mine took me to a comedy club. I’d only been in one comedy club before in my life. It was at the Cellar in New York. My family visited. I saw Dave Attell perform. That was the first time. My second time at a comedy club was in 2008. A friend took me. I wanted to do it. Somebody came in the Finish Line. It was this guy. He said he was a– making small talk, I asked what he did. He said he was an actor who lived in LA. I was like, “Man, that sounds cool. I want to move there.” He was like, “Just move [laughter].” And I was like, “Oh.” And he told me, “Go to Craigslist or Westside Rentals, find a place, and move.” And then I did. I remember printing the receipt paper, wrote those things down, and I was here in August.
Questlove: What spots were you working out of when you first came to LA?
Jerrod: Improv, Laugh Factory, all the clubs. A lot of back rooms, bars, surprise shows, people that thought they were coming to watch a game.
Questlove: Who’s the first person that you kind of had to be friends to sort of get the rules in?
Jerrod: My friend, still my best friend to this day, Jamar Neighbors. Love him. The only piece of advice I’ve taken was from him. He’s from LA, and so he was familiar with it, and he was still coming up and still figuring it out. But I did my first open mic at The Comedy Store, and I got off stage, and he said, “Hey, man, you’re funny. You just slow down a little bit.”
On letting the punchline sink in:
Questlove: So you don’t feel a certain way? If you say a punch line, and it might go over the audience member head or whatever, right, you’ll just…let it stew?
Jerrod: Yeah. You thought it for a reason, and you craft it, and say it a certain way for a reason. And it’s like, especially if I’m taping, like taping a special, it’s not just even about the room. It’s going into people’s homes. And it’s like, you record it for that experience. And that’s what I make specials for. But on stage, any live show, if a thing goes over, there’s something for you. Sometimes I’ll write something or think something that I know, in a roomful of 100 people, 10 are going to connect with this, and I’m completely cool with it. But there’ll be something for everybody. That’s the goal. But some things aren’t for everybody.
On his HBO specials:
Questlove: The first show, the one you did, the Love at the Store, how did that come about and– well, first, how long did it take for you to write that material, and how did Spike Lee get involved?
Jerrod: That was kind of material that I’ve– that was 2014, I think, when we taped that. It was just stuff over the years that I kind of picked up on. And a lot of– I say over the years. There was some things from over the years, and then a lot of it was just new. The goal for that was to treat it as if it was just, you come into The Comedy Store on a Saturday night, and just me kind of doing some old material, trying out new stuff, and just for it to be organic and natural. The voice that introduced me is this guy, Argus Hamilton, who always has the 9:15 spot at the Store, and he would bring me up. And so that’s why I had him bring me up. Jamar did a set. It was a very– yeah, it was like a very– I wanted it to feel that vibe. I got Spike because I wanted it to feel like a documentary… Comedians have this tendency to go away from their own lane and try and fit into what they think comedy is. And so that’s why specials start looking alike and sounding alike, and people’s material starts running together because everyone tries to fit comedy instead of bringing comedy to them. So with the Love at the Store, it was just important to have it personal. It was just a personal documentary. I’d go to my notebook. I’d try out new shit.
Phonte: In the new joint, the 8, the latest special, I saw– well, my experience with it was different because I just saw it first. And then, I forgot what that write-up was, what it was in, where the critic was there, and he was just like, “Yo, this was odd. It was live.” And I can’t remember what it was, but you say that you wanted the first one, Love at the Store— it felt more like a documentary. To me, 8 felt like a documentary, like that was just– the way it was shot and some of the shots where it was just really close on – you’re in those real long pauses – that was just something, man, that again, took a lot of balls to do. You know what I mean? Who directed it?
Jerrod: Bo Burnham. And Bo and I were just– we based it off concert footage. We based it off of a– it had to be personal and vulnerable. That was the goal because, for me, that was just a thing that I love about comedy, in humor. Just as a concept, just a vulnerability of it, and we really just wanted to focus on that.
On getting crazy famous:
Questlove: So okay, should your popularity ramp up a hundredfold, where you land three or four big movies or whatever– all right, say if you get Murphy-ized, would you think that your level of comedy could translate to stadiums and– because you’re such a intimate performer that, is that even a dream?
Jerrod: The only way I would do it is if I found a way– two things. If I felt like the material somehow warranted that type of venue at that point. You always want to stay open as an artist. I don’t know exactly how change evolved. So staying open to that. Or if I found a way to bring the performance or some type of show to that arena where I could truly fill it, not just for the sake of seats. Because comedy, anything over three or four thousand people, really– even just sound, the way a laugh travels, it’s not everyone doing something in unison. It has to travel and reach people.
On being (or not being) PC:
Questlove: Do you still come from the school of, “Okay, I’m going to take the most taboo thing I can find and make it funny”?
Jerrod: No. That’s genuinely never my thought. I never think about whether or not a thing is taboo or– it really is, if it excites me, if it’s something that I have a perspective on, I don’t say anything unless I– it comes from an honest place, such an honest place that I’ll either defend it– I’ll defend it after it’s been released, but I’m really defending it in the joke. The joke is the defense of this thing. You know what I mean? It’s a self-represented concept that you give. And it’s like, yeah, I said all this stuff. A lot of times, I’ll preface something with like, “I know this is wrong, and you’ll disagree with it, but here’s an honest thought.”
My obligation is to me, and to be honest, and to give you honest thoughts. I don’t consider it at all. I don’t consider, like, all– well, people aren’t going to hate this because I’m not saying hateful things. It all comes from such a real place that I’m either defending the joke, or if you don’t understand, I’ll defend where I’m coming from. It’s not defending whether or not a thing is right or wrong. That’s not what art is. Art isn’t about, “Hey, this is a right point. Let me create something around it.” It’s feeling, and I’m articulating a feeling to you, and I’m saying, “This is how I feel about a thing.” I’m not trying to convince you otherwise. I’m saying this is how I feel.
Phonte: I thought you did well on the Trump episode.
Jerrod: I thought he was going to win. I felt like Trump was going to win.
Questlove: You felt that then?
Jerrod: I named the episode– we taped it in April, and I named it President Trump because I was like, “Oh, he’s going to win.” It was like, there’s no way he doesn’t win. I really believed it. And that’s why. I was gambling on that. And so just seeing everyone go like, “Trump is bad,” or not take him seriously, to see boring [laughter] and not real to what he is really.
Questlove: I think I know where it came from, but what made you see that he was going to win?
Jerrod: Because we’re infatuated with him. It was like, very few things I have seen in my lifetime get this type of mass infatuation. One is the O. J. trial, the Macarena, Donald Trump. You know what I mean? Essentially, those things. It’s mass infatuation. We couldn’t let him go. We couldn’t stop talk– either side. And it’s just that much publicity. You can’t discount publicity in America. It’s the thing. Nixon v. Kennedy, Kennedy was younger, more attractive, and willing to wear makeup during the debate. He’s the easier guy to market. This is America, and I don’t want to sound cynical, but marketing is everything. And everything you know is a lie.
On his next projects:
Questlove: Do you want to play the [blockbuster] game?
Jerrod: I have to write it. The thing is, one of the movies I’m working on is technically a bigger comedy, and it’s a concept that I came up with a couple years ago, and it’s a bigger comedy. Bigger comedies typically aren’t that good. They really aren’t. The same thing with the multi-cameras, the same thing with anything, is to bring some type of perspective or thoughtfulness into whatever we’re doing. So I think you can do– I think a huge action movie can be good and have some type of thought behind it. I think Beverley Hills Cop is great, but it’s just to– my goal is just to avoid the mindless and avoid the horrible version of it. Because there’s a horrible version of indie. There’s a horrible version of– everything that is a bit underground isn’t good, but you’re just trying to do the good version of it. So that’s what’s fun, is seeing if we can try and do a good version.