“There has to be a company that frames tweets, right?” Jerrod Carmichael asked Vulture during a phone interview. “I didn’t save my first paycheck from my first job. But I would like to frame my first tweet from Norman Lear. He really liked the show. It’s such an honor that I haven’t fully processed it yet.”
The Carmichael Show was a late-summer surprise: a throwback to family sitcoms that manages to feel fresh and relevant with its focus on topical debates among passionate — and sometimes unreasonable — family members. Based loosely on Carmichael’s family, it stars David Alan Grier and Loretta Devine as Jerrod’s parents, Amber Stevens West as his girlfriend, and Lil Rel Howery and Tiffany Haddish as his brother and sister-in-law.
The 27-year-old stand-up comedian created the sitcom alongside Nicholas Stoller, who directed him in Neighbors, Ari Katcher, and Willie Hunter. Now that NBC has renewed the show, Carmichael spoke with Vulture about his vision for the future of The Carmichael Show, cracking up with Loretta Devine, and why diversity on set isn’t the ultimate goal.
Have you always dreamed of having a TV show?
That was one of my first dreams, before I even knew I wanted to be a stand-up comedian. I knew I wanted to do a show on NBC — it’s rooted in its history, it’s part rooted in nostalgia, and part rooted in the potential of it. For me there was no other choice. Being honest, I wouldn’t have done this type of show for any other network. It’s a personal thing. I’m also excited to jump into NBC at a time when they are rebuilding. It’s their time to find a new identity, and a time to strengthen, and to rediscover how great NBC comedies were. I wanted to be part of that process.
When you pictured your show, did you envision it as classic multi-camera format?
We kind of found it. We first developed it as a single-cam. I really wanted to do the style of The Office and Modern Family. We started developing it like that. But then we started realizing that, me being a stand-up comedian, this format could work really well. And it was more of a challenge, too, because it can easily feel like the most outdated format, but I think the format can be used for good. At its best, it’s the most effective comedy. It’s All in the Family. So it seemed like more of a challenge to do that. The vision came together as we were working on it.
It’s because it has that traditional format that a fresh feel makes it stand out.
We stay true to what the format is and can become. As we grow, I think we’ll develop our own distinct style of how we want to do multi-cam, but the basic principles of it are to embrace it. It’s a stage play. That’s what Norman Lear did in the simplest form: a great stage play for television. And I want to try to do a great stage play for television. It’s a very clean, fun way of connecting with an audience. It’s in your face, and the audience is right there and they’re reacting. You learn how people feel in real time.
Do you idolize Norman Lear?
He is a trailblazer in the truest sense, a person who unapologetically followed his vision. I admire and respect anyone who does that. That’s what I like about Lena Dunham, what I like about Louis C.K., and what I like about Chuck Lorre. All these people that have a distinct vision for what they think a show is, and follow it through. So Norman Lear is just a trailblazer of clear vision on television.
What did you learn while producing these six episodes? Is there anything you want to change?
It’s like music in the sense that with any band, you start off writing songs, you see a spark, and you hear something. I think we’re pretty good. I think we play well together. But knowing what the potential is, I’m excited to just keep honing the rhythm. When you see U2 or the Rolling Stones after years of knowing each other, they don’t have to look at each other to connect. I’m excited to hopefully get to that place with this cast that I love so much.
You hit the jackpot with your cast. Loretta Devine and David Alan Grier are so funny in this.
They’re amazing. Listen, the show is well aware that we hit the lottery with them. I am very aware.
How many takes does it take? I think I’d be laughing all day with Loretta Devine.
Yes! That happens! There’s a tag in the episode “Prayer” where we are all trying to meditate. And Loretta has this line, basically about how stupid it is to clear your mind. And every time she did her line, I laughed hysterically. And the take that we used is the best version of me just losing it. There wasn’t a single take where I’m not literally biting my lip to try and not laugh. I’m biting the inside of my cheek. Those moments are the best.
The show is based on your family, right? How close is the depiction?
It’s inspired by the principles of my real family — meaning all of the stories aren’t autobiographical. There are certain things that are plucked from real life, and certain lines that are legitimately things my mother or father said. But it’s more the principle that our family is very argumentative. We like to discuss things. We like to talk about everything, we like to get to the bottom of things, and we like to try figure things out. That’s what I take the most from.
Are Cynthia and Joe really like your parents?
They are. On the show, David nails my dad really well. Loretta is the core of who my mom is, the spirit of my mom. My parents love it. They love watching it.
You covered so many politically dense topics: gun control, Black Lives Matter, LGBT issues. Will the show continue to be focused on topics like those?
With the six episodes, a lot of them were very topical. But it was based on conversations that I was having at the time. More than anything, if I’m having conversations about things happening in the news, the show will reflect that. I was having a lot of conversations with my parents about health, and that episode is rooted in that. I’m just honest to the conversations I’m having, and all the writers are, too. It’s still very early for us, so there’s no true formula. It’s just instinct. Gender, as we know, is such an American discussion that’s being had right now.
That episode was so of-the-moment. It was hilarious, but striking, too. There are a lot of people who feel like they’re just getting their minds wrapped around gay marriage and don’t have the bandwidth to understand gender issues as well.
Yes! And we didn’t want to be afraid of putting that on television. That’s a very honest perspective. It’s politically not the most popular perspective, but that’s what makes it better to me. Let’s hear these arguments out. We want to treat America like adults. You know what I mean? And I think that’s what NBC comedies at their best do. We want to treat America and our audience like the intelligent people they are. What I like is anything that sparks the most discussion. That’s the fun part. To challenge your own beliefs and not have it be one-sided.
You kept the show’s cast all black for the six episodes. Will it stay that way?
Okay. How do you answer this question and not be Matt Damon?
Is that the barometer now?
[Laughs.] That’s the new barometer. I am giving him a hard time, and I don’t even know what he said. And I’m honestly sure it wasn’t as bad as people are making it out to be. But I like for worlds to reflect real-life worlds, right? So just to throw in a character for their skin tone would do a disservice to that actor. On any set, no one should be there to fit a demographic. It just doesn’t work. Don’t do it for the sake of diversity. This is art. And it’s our obligation to stay true to our world. The black cast was a reality more than anything. There are amazing characters of every ethnicity that I’m dying to work with. One of my dreams is to bring Dianne Wiest into the show. I think she’s one of the greatest actresses ever. I don’t even know if she would do it, but I’ll be damned if I don’t try. I just want to work with talented people. The whole show is open.
Six episodes in, and the audience doesn’t know what Jerrod does for a living. What’s up with that?
It was rooted in a lot of indecisiveness on my part. We didn’t talk about it because I didn’t want to talk about it — because I needed to be sure. Now it’s been such a buildup that I’m just gonna have some fun with it when we actually talk about it. I fully take the blame!