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The Carmichael Show’s David Alan Grier on How Fast the World Is Changing and Playing the Cowardly Lion in The Wiz

Photo: Joe Scarnici/WireImage

People keep asking comedian David Alan Grier for tickets to The Wiz, NBC’s third live musical, airing this December. “The ticket is the flat-screen in your house!” Grier said during a phone interview with Vulture. “There is no audience! They don’t get it.” Grier will play the Cowardly Lion, but the repeat ticket encounters would serve as a terrific bit on The Carmichael Show, NBC’s summer sleeper hit comedy based on the life of stand-up comic Jerrod Carmichael. Grier plays Jerrod’s conservative and opinionated father. “That could be a whole episode — how do I get tickets? That would literally be a half-hour conversation with myself and Cynthia [Loretta Devine, who plays his wife] trying to explain that.”

In Wednesday night’s “Gender” episode, Grier’s character, Joe, has come to accept gay people (“the Supreme Court has told me I need to accept these people, so I always do what the Supreme Court says”), but hits a wall when his son mentors a transgender child. If that sounds like unusually heavy material for a multi-camera sitcom, it’s standard fare for Carmichael: The show has also dealt with the death of an unarmed black man and will take on religion and gun control when it concludes its six-episode test-run on Wednesday. Vulture caught up with Grier between lion fittings to discuss how the show captures political discussions among families, why it speaks to his generation, and playing the Cowardly Lion for his daughter.

The Carmichael Show is tackling tough and timely topics in the sitcom format. How do you successfully strike that balance in an otherwise light and fluffy sitcom universe?
It’s difficult because the time is limited, but I know that Jerrod loves Norman Lear and shows like Maude that talked about abortion at a time when abortion was considered obscene. There are so many sitcoms or comedies that have no relationship to the real world. It’s like they live in this bubble, almost on a different planet, so they don’t touch any type of topical news. He wanted to get away from that. I know when I go home, we sit and we talk and we argue and we opinionate about everything. My family members have thoughts about the Iran nuclear deal. Some know all about it. Some don’t. But in a family setting around the dinner table, nobody cares. They’re going to say what they want to say. Our show’s trying to catch that in an intelligent, organic, and entertaining way. I think that’s familiar to people all over. It’s really exasperating when your uncle, your mother, or your cousin is trying to tell you about rape culture, Black Lives Matter, or the Chinese stock market. Sometimes it’s enlightening, and sometimes it’s maddening.

Like Joe points out in the show, things are changing fast when it comes to LGBT issues in this country. It was fascinating to see the topic emerge in a sitcom setting. Were you surprised by that?
I love that! It has been blistering, the change and enlightenment around transgender issues. It’s almost every day, I read an essay — a teaching moment, how you’re supposed to address transgender people, what is correct, what isn’t. With this family, we’re old-school. We’re trying to get it together. It’s summed up in Loretta’s line: “We went from not having a phone to having a phone with a long cord to having a cordless phone to having a cell phone. Now we don’t even call people, we text ’em. I just can’t go through all these changes.’’

How did you approach Joe’s response to the boy’s revelation that he’s a transgender girl?
It’s really in the writing. When you look at the episode, there is no hatred. There is no bigotry to the humor. It’s about these people who are just trying to understand. It taps into what a lot of us are going through right now in real time because it’s happening that fast. I’m 59. Until I got to graduate school, I can’t think of anyone who came out as transgender and was dealing with it. Joe and Cynthia are trying to understand, but for them, it’s something else every week. Last week, it was a drone — somebody was like, “Well, what’s a drone?” This week, it’s transgender! We are trying. We are trying! We just figured out how to turn the cable box on. Which happened last week at my house — why are there so many remotes?

Jerrod is definitely throwing a lot at this family and his viewers. Next week, it’s religion and gun control. Do you worry you’re tackling too many issues too fast?
Jerrod said he didn’t know how many shows he had, so he wants to go out guns blazing. He didn’t want to hold back. Don’t keep your best jokes in your pocket! Give it all to them. The best problem we’ll have is getting picked up for more shows and be like, “Now what do we talk about?” That would be a great problem.

Why did you want to play Joe?
I know him. I have friends and people in my family like him. My brother is like that a lot of times. I was playing a song the other day and he said,  “Who’s that dude?”  And I said, “That’s the Weeknd.” [The rest of the conversation went like this:]

Brother: That’s when you bought the music?
Grier: No, it’s the Weeknd.
Grier’s brother: I know. But this is Monday. Why do you keep talking about the weekend? That’s when you heard it?
Grier: No, his name is the Weeknd.
Grier’s brother: What kind of name is that? Play it again.

[Grier plays it again.]
Grier’s brother: Yeah, okay. I wanna get that. What’s his name again?
Grier: The Weeknd!
Grier’s brother: That’s the album, but what is the name?

This is the conversation! And it’s real and it’s funny.

Your brother might need to be on the show.
The story line may make it!

I heard you were fitting for the Cowardly Lion today.
Yes, an elaborate fitting! I made them take pictures for my 7-year-old daughter, Lulu. These are top-secret pictures. I gotta show her the development because it is very involved. She wants to know what kind of lion I’m going to be — am I going look like a lion-lion? Am I gonna look like Daddy? She needs to know.

So, what’s the answer?
I’m going to look like a lion. Daddy’s in there, but the makeup and stuff is going to be very heavy. This was the second phase. They just fitted me with the body armor and the padding, and to change my body to make it look more lionlike, and just testing fabric and how the fur is going to look. They showed me the headpiece, the wig. I know there’s going to be some prosthetics. I know from all the costumes, I’ll probably be the most heavily done.

Did you think, What did I get myself into?
No! I am an actor, I can’t wait. But I did think, Will people know it’s me? Just my luck, they’re gonna go, “Man, the lion was amazing. Dave, why didn’t you do that?” I’ll be like, “That was me!” And they’ll say, “You’re so funny, you’re always kidding around.”

You’ve done other musicals. Have you always wanted to be in The Wiz?
It was the first Broadway show I ever saw. We drove from the University of Michigan, some friends and I. This was in ’76, so it was all the original cast. I always loved the music. There have been many attempts to bring it back to Broadway, and they have failed for one reason or another. I’ve been wanting to do the live broadcast, too. And also, my daughter’s 7. If she were 22 and I were doing the lion, that wouldn’t be too cool. Right now is when I need to do it so I can impress my daughter so she thinks I’m really cool.

Did you watch NBC’s The Sound of Music or Peter Pan?
Oh yeah, I saw Peter Pan. I was in Chicago performing, so I live-tweeted until they informed me I had to go on. I saw The Sound of Music. But that’s what I’m saying! On Peter Pan, I guess I could have played a pirate or something. But this is perfect! On The Sound of Music, I don’t know if I could have pulled off one of them nuns or a black Nazi! This couldn’t be better, and look at that cast. I posted I was sitting between Mary J. Blige and Ne-Yo. I couldn’t be a happier man.

What will you bring to the Lion?
I hope my own thing. We’re just starting. The thing I like in a real bully and braggadocio person is someone who scares the pants off of you. Then, when you get to know him, he’s the softest one of the whole bunch. He will cry at the drop of the hat. It’s a timeless story. Every time I hear “Be a Lion,” it makes me cry because it’s so sweet and moving. So I love my songs. They’re better than all the other characters’ songs. Don’t let them bullshit you.

David Alan Grier on the World Changing So Fast