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Jerrod Carmichael on ‘Rothaniel’, what’s next for his comedy

LLast month, comedian Jerrod Carmichael released one of the best stand-up specials of the year: Rothaniel, in which he dove deep into his family’s history of secrecy before revealing some long-held secrets. This weekend, he will continue with the national release of his first director’s film, On the count of threein which his character Val and his best friend (played by Girls‘ Christopher Abbott) make a suicide pact. In a TIME interview, Carmichael reflected on his turbulent few months, joking about suicide and sulking like Jackie Kennedy. Here are excerpts from the conversation.

You reveal a lot of awkward secrets about yourself and your family in Rothaniel. How are you?

I feel pretty sturdy and I feel very adult. In the special, I’m honest about things I thought I’d never say out loud. I started to feel more responsible, which is not a word I would ever use to describe my job. But I definitely started feeling it after I got out.

An idea you are exploring in Rothaniel is “things that exist but do not exist; things that hide in plain sight. Do you think this phenomenon is unique to America?

It happens a lot. I feel like Rothaniel probably played well in London because it’s such a polite society.

But here, I sometimes think of homelessness: how we are on the sidewalks, we see someone suffering, sometimes we don’t feel safe. And we may not be willing to take the steps necessary to do something meaningful. So you ignore it and pass it by, because it’s inconvenient. The principle is probably the same everywhere.

Admitting that I’m gay undoes a lot of things for my mom. She has to cross that against religion. It’s easier to ignore. Let’s keep the party going, smile, take the picture. Don’t recognize the thing that could be causing the breakup.

I’m in love with the saying “don’t move the boat”. It sounds sweet, but the implications are so dark and huge. Don’t rock the boat or what? You will fall into the ocean and drown. But it looks so cute. So when you feel like you might rock the boat, there’s a lot of danger in there and you just don’t.

Tell me when I stray too far. I do free association therapy. So I blame that for my tendency to stray so far from the questions.

How did you get into free association theory and what did you learn about yourself?

I tried regular therapy—I’m sure there’s a technical name for it—and I didn’t really like it. I don’t like people giving me advice. I don’t even like nudges.

I got the idea for a free associative therapy while watching Annie Hallin which he [Woody Allen] always talks about his analyst. I was like, ‘I live in New York, I should have an analyst.’ And on closer inspection, it looked like the form I was looking for: something that lets me question everything, where you can knock the trust down. I’m going to start talking about one thing, go off on a million tangents, and then realize at the end of the session that I’ve been talking about the same thing the whole time – that I never really left the topic.

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You says Howard Stern that you and your mother have a “God-sized wall” between you. Has it dropped at all in the last month?

No. The wise tell me that these things take time, and I choose to believe them. It makes sense. She has to cross this with everything she has ever known and learned from her mother. It is not easy. I had to do it myself, so I got it.

It’s strange, because it created a certain empathy which I think probably influenced a lot of my material, subconsciously. Finding empathy in strange places. Oddly related to my mother’s consistency and strong belief system, even though it can be used against me.

I was listening to gospel music in the shower a week ago. I was listening to a woman singing passionately about Jesus, and it was so beautiful. But then I started thinking about my mother’s relationship with Jesus, and I started imagining that the singer was my mother. And realizing that religion is the wall that separates us, I began to think of Jesus as the other man in my mother’s life. I started feeling jealous of Jesus, like, “Wow, she really likes this guy. It’s nice. I could never have what they have.

You called masculinity a “great achievement.” How did you count with your own performance of masculinity?

I recently told a friend that I take better pictures after coming out because I’m not afraid to look gay. I think I move better, move more freely. Little things. I don’t worry about being a man anymore. I accept that I am. I don’t have to run it.

I was doing a double performance, because you’re prone to playing in certain environments. I’m from the neighborhood, and there are a lot of performances for protection or self-esteem. I know guys who have guns, but don’t want to shoot them: the gun is a performance, with consequences.

Sometimes stand-up can bring me this performance: it’s such a masculine sport. I did a show last night, and I’m sulking in my hotel room because I’m not happy with the decor. I have to stop performing with other people. It brings out a competitive side, which makes me deviate from my trajectory. It probably sounded more aggressive. It was true to how I felt, but it brought out a level of ego that I don’t need right now.

Does sulking help bring down that ego?

Yeah, it’s just me trying to forgive myself, pacing. I remember reading about Tiger Woods after the first scandal, and how it made him realize himself and what distracted or ruined his game. He didn’t forgive himself for mistakes, and you could still see thinking about the mistakes of his previous hole. Accepting, forgiving and moving on is important.

I’m really hard on myself; I always was. It’s nice to sulk, though. It is a high sulk. i love the movie Jackie. A moment ago after John’s death, she’s in the White House, just smoking and taking pills, pacing in a daze. This glamorous haze of dresses and gowns, textures, and she is sad. I often go through this: sulk with a cardigan and silk shorts.

In your debut as a director On the count of three, you play as Val, who makes a suicide pact with her best friend. What is your relationship with Val?

To exist with a cloud above our heads. I felt a little overwhelmed making this film. I was tired of acting, and a lot of that pain drove the film and my decision to make it.

What would you say to people who are put off by the concept of a suicidal comedy?

I understand. I’ve certainly written and played a lot of stuff that people say shouldn’t be done. But I believe the power of art is to explore interesting and rich subjects, like suicide. You just have to do it with integrity.

You have cultivated many very solid creative partnerships, in particular with Bo Burnham, who has produced some of your stand-up sets (including Rothaniel) and Lil Rel Howery. What are the seeds of a truly strong creative partnership?

Removal of the ego. Sometimes I have to fight the urge to let something in because it’s mine; because I’m so precious with thought. You can get to that place where you eliminate people who have the same goal as you. You can’t interfere with it.

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Another of your collaborators is Tyler, the Creator, whom you interviewed on his album flower boy in 2018. Did you have any conversations with him about your exit process?

I talked to T almost every day, probably. We talk about these things all the time: he is a good friend who supports us.

You move pretty easily between film, TV, and stand-up; general public fare and more experimental works. To your success with Rothaniel how do you want to invest your time and energy?

When I do stand-up, I do stand-up. I think people can see how much you care about things. It’s a lesson learned from Beyoncé: I always watch her performances and go, “Wow, that feels like time well spent.” You really worked for this!

When I was in Budapest filming with Yorgos [Lanthimos on the upcoming movie Poor Things], I did not take any calls; it was just that. Whatever I do, I do this stuff. Sometimes he manages as a “screenwriter”, sometimes “director” from time to time. But that’s just an idea first.

My colleague Judy Berman recently wrote an essay about famous stand-up comics too often using their platform to fight their enemies, including Dave Chappelle, Bill Maher and Hannah Gadsby. She writes that her approach “leaves little room for introspection, humility, or self-doubt.” Do you have any thoughts on that?

It’s a list of talented comedians. I’m simplifying the argument to just, they have to be happy with their job. If what they find most interesting is talking about their “enemies” – and I use quotation marks – then they should. There has been some really good art directed at enemies. I don’t think there are any rules.

I just hope every artist has the urgency. I want the art form to thrive; I want it to be exciting. I would always say, even starting with open mics, that whatever I say has to be the most important thing in the world, whether it’s about me or someone else. The urgency resounds. So whether it’s towards enemies or in the mirror or whatever you choose to explore, I hope you care very, very deeply.

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