sundance 2021

‘What Would These Two Do on Their Last Day Alive?’ Jerrod Carmichael on His Sundance Debut

Photo: Valparaiso Pictures

Ever since his debut HBO stand-up special, 2014’s Love at the Store, Jerrod Carmichael has been known as one of the most sneakily confrontational minds in comedy. His affect is soft, honeyed, and chucklingly disarming as he lures audiences into deeply uncomfortable territory, full of blunt diagnoses about race, class, and gender relations. That same dynamic was at work in his critically adored but underseen NBC sitcom, The Carmichael Show, and in his second special, 2017’s 8, which was directed by Carmichael’s friend Bo Burnham. The last joke in that special was about discovering that your dad has “a secret family,” which, it emerged, was autobiographical: In 2019 HBO released two fascinating documentary shorts that Carmichael directed, Sermon on the Mount and Home Videos, in which he interviewed his relatives and hometown friends about a variety of intimate topics — foremost among them the discovery that Jerrod’s dad had fathered four children in a long-running extramarital affair.

Behind the scenes, Carmichael has been busy with high-profile jobs like writing on a 48 Hours reboot with the Safdie brothers, and on a Django Unchained follow-up project with Quentin Tarantino. And this weekend, Carmichael’s feature-length directorial debut, On the Count of Three, will make its premiere at Sundance. It co-stars Carmichael and Christopher Abbott (Girls, James White) as two severely depressed friends who enter into a suicide pact and figure out how they want to spend their last day of life. (To call it a “dark comedy” is an understatement.) Tiffany Haddish, J.B. Smoove, and Henry Winkler show up in supporting roles, with a script written by Carmichael’s longtime friends and collaborators Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch. Last week, we called Carmichael to talk about it.

The tone-juggling in this movie is wild — on one level it’s a buddy comedy, but the story hinges on a suicide pact, and involves clinical depression, domestic abuse, and child molestation. It was fun to watch, and it also harshed me out. Talk about how you balanced moments of humor with these themes of intense bleakness.
I’m so glad you called it “fun” — that makes me really happy. That was our No. 1 hope: Let’s make something that’s not fucking boring. Something that feels true, that can keep people’s attention and keep them engaged.

That balancing act is inherent in everything I do. This movie might surprise someone who just thinks of me as a “comedian,” but my whole career has been about that. Not that I necessarily seek out subject matter that’s heavy or dark, but those are the most interesting parts of life to me. If everything is honest and you play it as real as you can, the humor will come.

In your first stand-up special you tell a very dark joke about the killing of Trayvon Martin, and your sitcom devoted whole episodes to topics like the Cosby sexual-assault scandal and black MAGA support. You’re not afraid of creating extreme discomfort and unease in your comedy, even at the risk of “losing the audience.”
I’m always searching for my more complicated thoughts, the things I wanna bring up for exploration, the things that are really on your mind. We tend to want to distract ourselves, and I get it — people want, like, uplifting poems. But my instinct is always to go to a layer of complication. The art feels more alive that way.

How did the script for On the Count of Three get into your hands?
Ari Katcher and I have such a close working relationship that there are ideas and things we’ve been kicking around for years. This one is from — I’d have to go check my email to see what year it was, but it was an idea he talked about: What would these two guys do on their last day alive? And I remember talking about that movie with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, The Bucket List, riffing on that premise, but thinking of the truer, more abrasive version of what you’d actually do with your last day.

I met Ryan Welch through Ari. They grew up together in Alaska. Ryan’s someone I used to bring with me to stand-up gigs, to tell me what he thought, because I love and trust his mind. He helped me and Ari out when we were writing the Django script for Tarantino. So, yeah, when we were finished with The Carmichael Show, we finally had time to focus on a film. Ari and Ryan wrote this funny and thoughtful script, and we said, “Let’s take this out.”

Watching these two friends who love each other and hate their lives so much they vow to kill themselves, it seemed to connect to a broader strain of depression and fatalism in American life: This palpable sense among a lot of people, particularly younger people, that there is no future to be hopeful about. You and I are both fans of rap music, which in the past few years has gotten so anhedonic, all about numbing the senses and self-obliteration.
Rap is the last art form allowed to be honest. I really do look to it as an example of purity in creating — it’s a very literary art form, and the people who are best at it paint vivid pictures of the time they live in.

Was it hard to sell backers on a script this bleak?
It was turned down by everybody. People would get very excited and be enticed by the story, but there was always a fear of it. Not just a fear of public response but a fear of, like, the balance — it really is a high-wire act, where it’s about everything coming together, landing in a specific spot. That response actually made us that much more excited about the script. Eventually we found good financial partners, myself included. I wound up putting my own money in. I won’t get gross and talk numbers, but let’s just say I can look my co-financiers in the eye!

You’re friends with Josh and Benny Safdie, who are masterful at mixing violence, darkness, and humor while keeping things in a realist register — did you look to them for any guidance when it came to making this?
We didn’t actually talk about this film. But I worked with them and Ronald Bronstein on the 48 Hours script, and I love them so much. What I love is that they’re specific. They make their shit; it’s their obsessions, their loves, their repulsions, all projected into their work. So whether it’s working with the Safdies, working with Quentin, Bo Burnham’s my best friend, Tyler, the Creator’s my other best friend — I see all these people make stuff that Tyler refers to as “bedroom thoughts,” meaning thoughts that are so personal to you, you wake up with them. But you can actually execute them on a large scale, and you protect them from being touched and bastardized and influenced by public opinion. That’s the same way I feel about my work: You have to pour yourself into it completely.

That’s why I struggle with the moviemaking process when it comes to something like test screenings — I don’t care what 100 people at a screening think. I will care what they think, eventually, but when I’m making it, I don’t need a million opinions. You can’t crowdsource art. I show close friends earlier cuts, and we talk about it, and I bounce ideas off trusted ears. But you’re trying to make something personal. The other side of the coin is, I do think this movie could have a bigger reach than people might expect. So I’m not talking about a disdain for the audience, but a respect for them — where you trust your sense that if you found something interesting, they will, too.

You shot this a few months before the coronavirus lockdown — how did the pandemic affect finishing the film?
Well, we had a 15-day shoot, up in Canada, but then we actually had a week of reshoots during lockdown.

What! How did you pull that off?
We just did it very quietly — kept it safe and got it done. I personally loved it. I think all sets should keep COVID protocol far beyond the pandemic. Like, the amount of quiet and focus on set? It was what I hear Coen brothers’ sets are like. It was peaceful! It eliminates 80 percent of small talk; people have gloves on so they can’t be on their phones — all these little things that are incredible for the creative process, where we’re all focused on the thing. Also, I think every set should be required to play the Tom Cruise rant at the start of every production. That would be very inspiring.

You’re in New York right now. What’s life like there for you?
I’m on a full vampire schedule. I go to bed at 5 a.m., 6 a.m., and I wake up in the afternoon when the landline rings. I prefer keeping these hours because in the middle of the night there’s nothing to do, no demands on my time, so I can walk around with no mask on, roam the streets for an hour or two in the cold. It’s a good time to be up and think about shit and not be bothered.

I’ve heard you talk onstage and in interviews about your suspicion that NASA faked the moon landing. Have you heard any compelling coronavirus conspiracy theories?
Hahaha! You know, this is a thought I had the other day: I think everybody’s right. However you view this, you’re 100 percent right. If you think it’s a deadly virus that could hurt your family, you’re correct. If you think it’s a hoax and everyone’s fine, you’re probably right, too. No matter how you think about it, you’re right.

There is that mind-fuck aspect to the virus, where it seems to behave so unpredictably and inconsistently.
Yeah, so I haven’t gone down any specific rabbit holes; it’s more to me that everyone’s right. I find myself agreeing with everyone, for the first time since Beyoncé. That’s the last thing I agreed on with everyone: Beyoncé’s great, and everyone’s correct about COVID.

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‘What Would These Two Do on Their Last Day Alive?’