Jerrod Carmichael Is Still Telling New Stories
Photo credit: HBO
Early in the season two premiere of The Carmichael Show, Jerrod Carmichael—the sitcom’s creator and main character—watches while his on-screen family argues in the kitchen. In this particular episode, the main cast of characters go back and forth, swapping opinions and jokes after Jerrod’s mother Cynthia (played by Loretta Devine) learns that her friend is being cheated on. The conversation wanders before Jerrod offers his take: “Successful people cheat. That’s the reality.” The other characters look appalled, the live studio audience gasps, Jerrod doubles down on his cynicism, and those watching at home briefly reconsider their viewing choices.
As a writer, actor, director, and comedian, Jerrod Carmichael has made a name for himself by pulling humor from unlikely sources. In stand-up specials like 2017’s “8” he sifted through the troubles of adulthood. With The Carmichael Show, he used the familiar conventions of sitcom television to discuss topics like gun violence, gender fluidity, and xenophobia.
The methods used for these projects are familiar pattern for anyone who has ever watched a Jerrod Carmichael production. An uncomfortable topic is introduced, an even more uncomfortable opinion follows, and an honest and funny justification for that opinion completes the formula. This approach to sharing was replicated throughout the series with different characters and their varying personalities, but at the end of the day it always came back to him. With Carmichael’s show, episodes about religion and conservatism often mirrored this pattern while looking into the thought processes of the character’s conservative parents. In his standup routines, the people in his life are mostly used as role players in the bigger scheme of his ideas. Even when the focus was on other characters, as in a midseason episode focusing on his brother and gentrification, those characters often feel less like fully formed voices and more like static foils for Carmichael’s own thoughts and ideas.
The Carmichael Show ended two years ago and was only loosely based on Jerrod Carmichael’s life. But in his newest HBO docuseries—released in two parts as Home Videos and Sermon on the Mount—Carmichael turns the camera on his real-life friends and family. Home Videos focuses on the black women in his life and their views and experiences. From his nieces and cousins to his mother and his sister, Home Videos is a deeper dive into the thoughts and feelings of the women who influenced him and helped make him into the person he is today. He prods his youngest niece, gauging her feelings about race before discussing acceptance and her favorite role models. Later, he sits in the middle of a conversation with his sisters that touches on everything from the double standards impacting black women in America to interracial dating. The staging is similar to The Carmichael Show, but this time those on the periphery are given the spotlight. Even during the larger philosophical conversations that Carmichael starts, he is content to listen and step aside while his sisters take center stage. The topics vary from serious talks about the stereotypes surrounding black women to lighthearted takes on family, but the conversations are always unapologetic and honest.
In Sermon on the Mount, the other side of that honesty is put on full display. Carmichael talks with the men in his family. He reminisces with his brothers and cousins while looking at the pressures and fears that will impact them moving forward. If Home Videos is a celebration of the powerful, black, female voices that have informed him, Sermon on the Mount is a more introspective look at the room for improvement that exists for their counterparts.
In both parts of the documentary, Carmichael is at his best when he dives deeper into personal subjects that he has only briefly mentioned before. In his 2017 special “8” he laments that “the only thing weirder than finding out your father has a second family—is finding out that you guys are that second family.” His discussion of the matter stops there, but in the final interview of Home Videos, when Jerrod sits down with his mother to discuss her life, the topic arises once again. During the talk, the subject of infidelity is brought up, and we learn that his father cheated on his mother. In Sermon on the Mount, the full weight of this information comes to the forefront along with the people affected by it. In Sermon’s first discussion, he listens to his youngest nephew talk about what it means to be a man—things like having a job and being strong are high up on his list. His understanding of manhood is surface level, but many of the other men in the series seem to be similarly misguided. His conversations with older men like his uncle, who admits to having 14 children because it “made [me] feel like a man back then,” further highlight the series’ more serious themes about masculinity and responsibility. Carmichael’s younger family members are less superficial. Whether he is discussing the joys of fatherhood with one of his brothers or digging into the benefits of having a two-parent household with his other siblings, the generational divide in Sermon on the Mount is most apparent when it comes to matters of adulthood and responsibility.
Many of the previously mentioned themes reoccur subtly, but they are most overtly confronted when it comes to Carmichael’s own parents. The documentaries’ penultimate moments come at the end of the Hone Videos and Sermon on the Mount, in which Carmichael’s talks with his parents reveal the most vulnerability while exposing their differences. In his conversations with his mother, she is open and honest. Even when Carmichael himself casually reveals things about himself—including his past relationships with men, a topic that has been heavily reported on since—his mother is unfazed and loving. On the other hand, when his father is given the chance to open up, he’s too hung up on petty issues and pride to fully engage. Home Videos originally aired on Mother’s Day, but scenes like these make it easy to understand why Sermon on the Mount was held until after Father’s Day weekend. Watching a father struggle to discuss his past transgressions with his son is anxiety-inducing, but seeing the same situation from the perspective of his mother makes it all the more effective. The two parts of this documentary could easily have been combined into one project, but splitting them up helps to emphasize the different aspects of black life and the ways in which black men and women are affected.
One of the best things about Jerrod Carmichael’s projects are their ability to show tense and uncomfortable situations between black people without crossing into the realm of fetishization or manipulation. His contrarian disposition can be felt throughout the project as he pushes the people around him to open up, but he never dominates the conversation or forces topics where they aren’t natural. Carmichael himself has joked that the project is comparable to a “prestige reality show,” but nothing shown ever feels contrived or dramatized for television. The pain and conflicting viewpoints within the family are real, but they still remain grounded in a feeling of love and acceptance. In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Jerrod Carmichael described misrepresentation as “representation for the sake of representation.” With Home Videos and Sermon on the Mount, viewers are given refreshingly real and honest looks at life through the lens of black men and women. Jerrod Carmichael’s family isn’t meant to represent all black people, but by welcoming viewers into his life, he adds another instance of unique black perspective to the cultural landscape and teaches some life lessons along the way.
About the author: Michael Miller is a Seattle Pacific University undergraduate student studying communication and political science. Outside of the classroom, you can find him watching and writing about music, sports, and culture.