comedy review

In Rothaniel, Jerrod Carmichael Tells Us Who He Is

Jerrod Carmichael in Rothaniel. Photo: Courtesy of HBO

Early in Jerrod Carmichael’s new special, Rothaniel, he tells his audience that he’s happy they’re here. They are gathered in the Blue Note jazz club, an intimate space where Carmichael sits on a folding chair close to the crowd. “I’m comfortable!” a woman shouts out from somewhere in the room. “You’re comfortable?” he asks her. “You can talk back to me! I want you guys to feel that. This only works if we feel like family, you see.” “I’m happy you’re here,” he says a moment later. “I need you.”

This exchange is played like casual opening patter, but Carmichael means it. He needs them, and not just in the usual way that a comedian needs an audience. He needs them because Rothaniel is a comedy special designed to include multiple voices — Carmichael’s, but also voices from within the audience. Throughout, as Carmichael weaves together stories about secrets, his family history, and the idea of things hidden in plain sight, his crowd become interlocutors. They push back at times, ask him questions, and react in ways that Carmichael incorporates into his material. They become as much a part of the performance as Carmichael himself, and the pleasure of Rothaniel depends heavily on whether you read his vulnerability and openness as generosity or selfishness. It’s possible to find pleasure in either mode, and Rothaniel is an incredible artistic achievement regardless. It is a remarkable piece of conceit, craft, performance, and vision, and it’s a truly astonishing way to probe so many ideas that have been bubbling up over the past several years about the role of comedy and how we value authenticity. It’s the kind of special that basically demands you label it “important,” and it is not wrong. Even after recognizing all of that, though, it’s still fair to step back from Rothaniel and ask: Who is it for?

The most notable thing about Rothaniel on the level of its text, the biggest and most obvious takeaway headline, is that it is a coming-out special. Carmichael spends roughly the first half-hour telling stories about his family and his childhood, all of them variations on the theme of secrets, lies, and that uncomfortable sense that everyone knows something but no one’s saying it. They are stories primarily about infidelity. Carmichael’s grandfathers and his father all slept around and had children outside of their marriages, and Carmichael paints a picture of all the ways this shaped him as a person. He grew up knowing this and wanting to shield his mother from the knowledge. He also grew up with a sense that this is what masculinity looked like and that he was born into that line of men, so much so that his actual first name is a combination of his grandfathers’ first names. The name is not elegant like William Edward, Carmichael tells the room. “It’s more like … Toyotathon.” This is something he has kept hidden throughout his life, and it’s tied together with all of his familial patterns and gendered expectations. It’s an apt organizing idea for the kernel that Carmichael is building toward: He is gay, and although he’s known that for a long time, he never thought he would come out.

Rothaniel builds this revelation into the special as a turning point for both Carmichael’s performance and for the way this plays for the audience. Until this moment, his material is delivered as material — he is a master at the naturalistic performance of crafted storytelling, but even given his persuasive ability to play it as casual and off the cuff, it’s clear that in the opening portions of Rothaniel he is delivering stand-up. It’s stand-up even though he is sitting down for the hour, a choice that levels the playing field between Carmichael and his audience. (It also evokes and rebukes Bill Cosby, the most famous Black comedian who talked about fatherhood and performed while seated.) After this, though, the roles of comedian and audience begin to break down. He starts leaving space between his thoughts, and the audience starts to fill it, interjecting and commenting on what he says and eventually asking him direct questions, which Carmichael then answers. They applaud him and shout their support. “I need it,” Carmichael says. “I need to feel that.”

From this point, Rothaniel becomes something else, though what exactly is left intentionally uncertain. As Carmichael puts his finger on the most painful part of it — his mother’s inability to accept him — the show plays like a therapy session, with voices from the crowd gently offering ideas and questions. He rubs his head, often obscuring his face, and shifts constantly in his seat as he considers his responses. This performance is a proxy for something, but it’s difficult to say for what. Is Carmichael using the audience to stand in for his mother, asking for and receiving their love because he cannot get it from her? Or is this exploration of his mother’s equivocal love itself the proxy, standing in for a more abstract conversation about a comedian’s relationship with his audience? Regardless, what is happening in the room at that moment is a deliberate breakdown of performance, a set that begins with a comedian offering something to the audience and then shifts, reversing the burden of giving and receiving. If Rothaniel were just a performance taking place inside that room, who it was for would be fairly clear. In that portion, at least, the audience is the means to Carmichael’s end.

It is not just a performance in a room, though. It’s a filmed special, directed by Carmichael’s friend and frequent collaborator Bo Burnham, with what is by now unmistakably Burnham’s tropes and tools. At times, particularly early in the special, Carmichael is shot in almost beatific lighting and framing, with the camera pointed up at his face and reflecting a beautiful range of tones including the warmth of his skin as well as blues and purples from the surrounding lights. As the burden shifts toward the audience, the lighting changes in the opposite direction: The spotlight on Carmichael grows harsh with flattened yellows and whites, and the surrounding space goes dark. He is under a microscope, highlighted as the performer at precisely the moment he allows the performance to fall apart. It’s here, on the level of Rothaniel’s exquisitely, almost flagrantly controlled direction and cinematography, that the question of who this is for may shift back in the other direction. Are the audience members asking questions real? Are they plants? Are they a part of the performance, prompted by Burnham but not fully disclosed to Carmichael? Is it a combination of those things or something else entirely?

The answer is ultimately beside the point, because Rothaniel is not intended to be a documentary that captures a live performance. Whether they are staged or not, the audience interventions are included in the final piece because Carmichael wants them to be there. So if Rothaniel is not made for the people in that room, it can still be intended for an audience watching it at home. In this and the question of whether the audience interjections are real, Rothaniel is an elegant continuation of Carmichael’s previous work. There are echoes of it in his sitcom, The Carmichael Show, where family arguments play out among several people but each of their perspectives feels like a thinly disguised puppet for Carmichael’s own voice. This special is even more clearly a successor to his 2017 special, 8, which also pushed the boundaries of what a live audience will accept in the service of creating a filmed special with artistic aims beyond just recording a set. And Rothaniel is unabashed about its artistic designs. As Carmichael exits the stage at the end of the show, he walks off and out the door into the night, and the camera shows us an image of the Blue Note’s front window, shot from the outside and lit in such a way that the audience is visible through the glass. It’s almost too beautiful, too directly reminiscent of Hopper’s Nighthawks, except that it’s also lovely enough to feel worth it.

Whether Rothaniel’s gambit works, whether it is pleasurable or poignant or alienating, will shift depending on who watches and what they want out of it. Is it too naked? Too selfish? Too loose, or too choreographed? That it can be all of those is its own kind of accomplishment. What it is, most clearly, is a comedy special, even though during some stretches the laughs are few and far between. Yes, it plays with the form, and yes, it is a piece of stand-up that then dismantles its own performance of stand-up. But at the end, it reasserts itself. For a brief moment, Carmichael looks directly at the camera, and then lands on one fell swoop of a joke, turning himself into a punchline while also reclaiming his performative authority. He may be cold, as he says, and selfish, and angry, and sad. He’s also masterful, and hilarious, and more thoughtful about what comedy is and what we ask it to be than anyone else working right now.

In Rothaniel, Jerrod Carmichael Tells Us Who He Is