Less than five minutes into his new HBO stand-up special, Jerrod Carmichael: 8, the 29-year-old comic makes a darkly hilarious and somewhat sympathetic joke about Donald Trump. A strained hush falls on the room, punctuated by the occasional laugh. “That too dark? That too much?” The Carmichael Show‘s creator asks with a smile. As their timidity breaks, the comedian admits “It’s gonna get way heavier than that.” Sure enough, he peppers the rest of the hour’s prepared routines with conversational exchanges between stage and audience. Some of these connections may qualify as “uncomfortable,” though considering the room’s theatre-in-the-round design, they’re utterly unavoidable. And it’s a wonderful scene to behold.
8 feels less like a traditional stand-up hour and more like a conversation one eavesdrops on while sitting at the bar. “That’s well put, what you eavesdrop on at a bar. I like that,” Carmichael tells us. “That was the intention.” Bo Burnham, a friend and fellow comic who directed the new special, agrees. “A lot of these are made by the same people, the same production companies, and create the same results. But I think specials should be as unique as the comedians are. Just because you’re big enough, or lucky enough, to get a one-hour special doesn’t mean you should be in a 1300-seat theater with bright footlights and a screaming crowd. That might not be the best, clearest or most creative vehicle for whatever your stand-up is.”
While the director found influence in Jonathan Demme’s concert films, Carmichael’s approach drew inspiration from Whoopi Goldberg’s HBO specials. “Jerrod referenced Whoopi a lot,” says Burnham. “She did them in the three-quarter round, I think, in a little place in New York on Broadway. People sat on all three sides of her, on floor. That was a really great reference for us, and Jerrod said, ‘This is what I want it to feel like.’ I totally understood what he meant. It was beautiful. In every shot of Whoopi, there’s the audience in the foreground and in the background. They were the backdrop in every angle. We wanted to try to do that with Jerrod’s special. Usually, with speaker-oriented stages, the audience is on one side. But with this, Jerrod is in the middle of all these people.”
Hence why they situated 8 in the New York Masonic Hall’s Grand Lodge Room — making them, according to a venue spokesperson, the first comedians ever to film a stand-up special there. 8 also excludes the boisterous audience, introductory announcement, and concluding bow of typical specials. Instead, it begins simply with a series of paced, artful shots of the hall’s interior and a slow pan on Carmichael, sitting alone in a dark room and fidgeting with his smartphone. Suddenly, everyone watching at home finds themselves in the first routine.
“We were trying to make something as unique as watching Jerrod on stage,” says Burnham. “Watching Jerrod, for me, is such a unique experience. It doesn’t feel like anything else. So we really wanted to try to make the special not feel like anything else. Because trying to put the round peg of him into a square hole would just be boring. It just doesn’t work for his comedy.”
In the stand-up comedy world, touring and top-billed performers generally get to know one another after frequent meetings on the road. Often these acquaintances remain professional, but for Carmichael and Burnham, who’s three years younger, it transformed into a friendly camaraderie that doesn’t always revolve around work. “We’ve been friends for a few years,” says Carmichael. “He’s one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. I genuinely think he’s a genius. And truthfully, he’s just an amazing friend to have.” Throughout this admission he can’t stop giggling. Burnham laughs just as much when asked why. “Yeah, we’re laughing at the idea of each other having to describe our friendship. I think that’s what we’re laughing at.”
Friendly banter notwithstanding, their admiration for each other is very real. “We ran into each other in a movie theater, I think,” recalls Burnham. “We’d seen each other’s stuff mutually and just really hit it off. When I was coming up in comedy, a lot of the people around weren’t my age, but Jerrod was. He became my first really close friend in the stand-up world. My first peer, really. He’s the best.” Not only does Carmichael agree, but he also maintains their friendship and mutual respect for one another paved the way for what would eventually become 8 — especially when Burnham, who co-directed his previous special Make Happy, came onto the project officially.
“We talked a lot about making this special, about trying to do something different with,” notes Carmichael. “I was trying to do something personal, and we just kept thinking and talking about how to do that. Me and Bo had really specific conversations about art, film and stand-up. We talked about creating a specific look and tone and feel for what I wanted to do, and with Bo, it just made sense. He was my first and only real choice to do it, and I’m glad we got to work together. It was amazing. Bo and Chris Storer, who co-directed his special, are genuinely brilliant.”
Clearly, the hour that results demonstrates their intention. “It was created with the intention of speaking to people in their homes, or wherever they decide watch it,” explains Carmichael. “It’s speaking directly to you, so we only wanted what was necessary. Only those things we felt were absolutely necessary. We kept it as close to the words, the art and the intention as possible, and anything else we just got rid of. But all that extra stuff wasn’t needed. I hope, and I think, it captures what we hoped it would do. What all stand-up should do, really — form a genuine connection with whoever or whatever the comedian is speaking to.”
Carmichael and Burnham spent a lot of time whittling 8 down in the editing room. This means much of the comedian’s arsenal — crowd work, recoveries, rebuttals for hecklers — didn’t make the final cut. Unless, of course, Carmichael and Burnham thought it was relevant to the moment. “It’s easy to be precious with your material, but we found it necessary to make sure all of the material used was more personal that not. That it had the most perspective,” says Carmichael, who credits producer Ravi Nandan’s guidance on the matter. “Anything else just falls away, so it was easy to keep it cohesive. It’s never just about the laughs. It’s perspective. I deferred to Bo for a lot of these things. I trust his taste, and as a result I think it came together really well.”
As influential as Burnham’s direction and Nandan’s producing were, however, the key components of 8‘s look and feel come from Carmichael himself. Take his penchant for interrupting himself. As in his previous HBO special Love at the Store, directed by Spike Lee, Carmichael will stop mid-sentence and ask himself whether or not he wants to tell a joke or make a comment. These displays are always out loud, within range of the microphone in his hand, and they elicit laughter and audible discomfort from the audience in equal measures.
“Sometimes I’m just going on feeling,” he says. “Even in the special, I like to treat things very honestly as to how I feel in the moment. The two sets we recorded were completely different, and I experienced different feelings and impulses in each one. But every time I though, ‘Am I gonna say this? How are they gonna respond to this thought? Should I say this thought next?’ It’s just like any conversation, in which you’re constantly reevaluating what you’re going to say, and what you’re not. You’re thinking to yourself, ‘How can I effectively articulate how I’m feeling to you right now, in this moment?’ There is a genuine hesitation sometimes.”
As if to illustrate the point, Carmichael pauses before finishing his answer. “I’m just feeling out the audience, so it’s a very real thing in those moments. And sometimes it’s something I hadn’t planned on using that night, that I just remembered because of something else I just said, and I say it. I did new shit like that on Love at the Store. I know it seems like I’m exaggerating, but I’d never said some of those things before I said them the night of the taping.”
As evidenced by his schedule, Carmichael isn’t prone to taking vacations, small breaks or even enough time for a decent night’s sleep. In fact, his conversation with Uproxx was delayed 20 minutes when an idea for The Carmichael Show struck without warning. “I’m so sorry to keep you waiting,” he apologizes between laughs. “I was in my writers room and someone had an idea. You can’t just walk out. That’s the hard thing about this job, you can’t walk out in the middle of an idea.” When asked, the comedian admits the last vacation he took was most likely a family beach trip at age 16. “Every now and then, I get six or seven hours of sleep. When that happens I get so excited, I talk about it for weeks.”
It’s a trait Carmichael shares with many other working stand-ups in the business, especially those who’ve expanded their careers into television and elsewhere. Like Louis C.K., whom the younger comic thanks by name in the special’s end credits. “I had a great conversation with him, and he was very complimentary. We had one or two fantastic conversations in the weeks leading up to the taping, and I don’t think he knows about this. I didn’t tell him I was doing it. I just thanked him.” Carmichael doesn’t get into specifics, but when it comes to their shared qualities as performers and creators, he admits C.K.’s influence — especially when it comes to mixing things up.
“I occasionally have a night or two off, or if I leave the office early I can get away for a bit. Sometimes I’ll go and pop in here or there to try out new material. Though last night I actually went out to just watch comedy. I thought about going up, but I just watched others perform at the Improv instead. It was nice to just sit back and watch someone else work for a change,” he says. Yet unlike C.K., whose Louie hiatus continues despite FX’s hopes for more seasons, Carmichael doesn’t think he’ll run out of steam for The Carmichael Show anytime soon. After all, he finally found enough time to prepare, practice and film a new special — something he told us he wanted to do back in 2015.
“It’s been on my mind,” says Carmichael. “Whenever I can — and the scheduling doesn’t usually allow for it — I’ll squeeze some stand-up in. Whenever I have something to say, I’ll try to go and make it happen. Besides, a lot of the show comes from stand-up, and that perspective is king. It’s what drives it all. So I always try and go on stage and see how I feel about certain things before taking it anywhere else.”
Jerrod Carmichael: 8 premieres Saturday, March 11 at 10pm ET on HBO.