There is a building consensus that The Carmichael Show has become not just entertaining, but important television. It’s a case being built week by week as the show examines the most controversial issues of our time within the recognizable bounds of a living room conversation in a hilarious and thought-provoking way. Recently renewed for a third season, the show wraps up its sophomore year by taking a look at the American enigma that is Donald Trump and his startling success in the rush for the Republican nomination that is now all but certainly his. But while a focus on Trump would cause most shows/comics to roll up their sleeves and ready their most punishing jokes, The Carmichael Show looks inward at the Carmichael family, and in doing so, looks at the people who have been both demonized and deified Trump — the American voters.
We spoke to series star and co-creator Jerrod Carmichael about the “Trump episode” approach, whether a Donald Trump presidency would be good for his show, slowing down to let the world give him material, and what he learned from season two and the show’s last minute renewal.
Do you ever look at someone else’s career and say, “I’d like to try to echo that”?
There are things that, obviously, are pretty impressive that you see in other people’s careers, and you may think, “Oh, that may also work for me, as well,” but you have to tailor it, because the landscape has changed so much. It always has. Throughout people’s various careers, different things mean different things from different times and different comics. You have to tailor it. I think anyone establishing a career now… me and after… has to be conscious of the burden of options. There was a time when HBO was the only place really playing stand-up specials, and there was a time when there weren’t so many networks, and the internet wasn’t a thing, so comics were doing the only opportunities that they had. As glorious as those opportunities are and were, it was kind of also it. Now, we have so many options that you have to make your targets really specific.
When you go into the writers’ room at the end of the summer and start on season three, what are you taking away from the season two experience that you want to try to learn from?
I think you just get stronger with your specific way of storytelling. I think, more than anything, you learn which roles you can take, where it leads. You learn where you can take more risks and where you can take more chances. I think just kind of knowing parameters is what you learn when you progress within a specific project, so taking everything. Taking a memory of being in the room at 4 a.m. and realizing now what is a dead-end, and not going down that road again. It’s those really specific moments.
We have such a narrow target as to what we get excited about with the show. A very specific target. I think it takes a lot to hone and be able to hit it. We try and break everything and stay as honest as possible. It’s this really narrow target, but it’s worth it. It’s fun. Hopefully, we’ll leave at 2 a.m. instead of 3. That’s what I’m taking.
It seems like the season three renewal came down to the wire. How does that affect your perspective? Does it make you want to try and figure out how to reach more viewers, or is it more of a thing where you want to double-down to say what you want to say because you know you can’t take the show for granted?
You can’t do that in the pilot process. You know? Hopefully you’re saying everything you want to say in your pilot, and then you play it by ear, so you always have to look at it like that in television because it’s such a fickle industry. With the renewal, look, I think it came down to a decision of where to place the show.
When you’re this intertwined with the re-branding process for a major network, it’s an overhaul. It’s a lot of decisions. It’s figuring out direction. I think that we contribute very well to the direction that NBC should go with, with comedy, and I think they’re figuring out exactly what that brand is now. As we figure it out, it just causes some delays and some bumps, but ultimately, I think that they respect the show, they’re excited about it. Continuing on the path that we’ve been on, we want to make the show better and stronger and hopefully as many people come to it as possible. So, it’s the same mentality.
One of the things that was rumored to be a sticking point was the episode count; you wound up with 13. Is this the kind of show you’d want to do 22 episodes with, or is 13 a good number for you?
I think 13 is really, really solid. That’s where I’m probably happiest, just with 13. You wanna maintain a certain quality and certain — by the way, the studio’s going to kill me for saying that. “13 is where I’m happiest,” says the star. The studio is like, “What are you talking about?” [Laughs.] But it maintains quality. I think our show comes from such a specific and authentic place that that’s not a thing you want to mass produce for the sake of it. You want to make sure that we have time to invest as much energy and focus into every episode as we possibly can.
I imagine it also helps because of what you’re talking about on the show; that it helps to have a breath every once in a while and let the world give you some more material, essentially.
[Laughs.] Thank you very much! Thank you very much. I appreciate you even acknowledging that. You’re the first one who has.
Speaking of that, obviously, the finale is a Donald Trump episode. We spoke about the prospect of that last time. What’s the take-away that you want people to have from this episode? It’s not a super one-sided episode. There’s some balance there, in typical fashion for your show.
We hold up mirrors in a lot of things we’ve done. I think the same thing holds true for the finale, because it’s more about your reaction to a voter than it is who you’re voting for. I think if there is any take-away, it’s just people being conscious of their reactions to voters, and what that means, and the lines of democracy even when you disagree — that’s where we really focused our energy on the episode.
Is it fair to say that it’s a somewhat cynical take on politics, considering… I don’t want to give too much away… the turn that the episode takes before the end, after you go to the rally, and the general level of discourse between Maxine and Joe.
Yeah, I think that, again, it’s a reflection. I wouldn’t say it’s cynical as much as I’d say it’s what is true to, I think, a lot of people when arguing about these things, and, I think, a true perspective that a lot of people take. If it dips into cynicism, it’s that that’s what I hear when I hear these arguments. You know what I mean? I think that’s how we react to someone who disagrees with us.
Definitely. Was Joe [David Alan Grier] always the one who was going to be in favor of Trump? Was that always the plan, or did it move around?
It was him. We had played with Bobby, as well. We wanted it to come from a real place, and we wanted to find the perspective of a person who would, and… give justification to the reason for voting for Trump. Joe, being the classic epitome of the classic middle-class, blue-collar worker, I think that that’s a lot of Trump’s base. It’s people who do feel fed up, and you wanted to give that perspective to a character who could earn that. Earn being fed up and earn wanting a drastic change.
Is a Trump presidency better for the show, in terms of the issues that would come out of that?
[Laughs.] I think it could go either way. I think extremes happen regardless of who’s in power. I think we saw years of extremes now. I think Obama, as far as overall demeanor and decision-making process, is the opposite of a Trump presidency, and there’s still so many extremes happening that we can comment on and talk about. I think it will happen either way
That is a diplomatic answer. You can’t say that a Trump presidency would give you more material to work with?
I think it’s all in your lens. I’m being honest. I wasn’t doing comedy during the Bush presidency, but I saw the birth of a lot of great comedy. You even look at the Stephen Colberts of the world. You saw a lot of great comedy birthed during that, but also, you saw a lot of great comedy birthed during the Obama years. I think it depends on where you can look and see… again, where you can see extremes, and where you can see these gaps, and I think that can happen with anybody in office.
I would counter, though, that a lot of the great comedy we’ve seen during the Obama administration has been about the Republican response.
But they have to have something to respond to, so even if it is still the Republican response… You know what I mean?
This is true.
If Hillary’s in office and the Republican response is strong and funny, then you still get material, or if the Democratic response to a Trump presidency… It is very, kind of, mirror-y. You look at how Republicans reacted when Obama was en route to becoming president, and everyone starts crying foul, and Democrats do that with Trump almost becoming the president. [Laughs] People start crying foul and start talking about how we can’t have this. Everyone goes to extremes, so I really think it works either way.
I don’t know. It feels like a Trump presidency would be a special kind of… just special.
Again, it’s just that caution, because things can get really hacky really fast. It’s like, “Alright, Trump did a thing,” and now every late-night host is talking about it. I think it’s easy to just do, “Trump did a thing,” and now everybody’s talking about it. That’s not a thing that I’m interested in talking about at all.
That’s a good point, too. There’s no subtlety with his actions, either. That’s not something anybody’s going to be able to ignore.
Exactly. What made Stephen Colbert unique was that… he stood out amongst all late-night hosts as a guy with a unique take on the Bush administration. I think what made that show pop was how specific and unique his take was. It’s easy to bash Trump. That’s the easiest thing to do. “Oh, this crazy dude that’s not doing what we’ve seen presidents before him do,” so anything that he does that’s slightly different stands out, and you want to comment on it, and that’s easy. You know what I mean? That’s the easy thing to comment on.
I think this episode shows that you’re not taking the easiest punches. I think you guys really did a good job with it.
Thank you very much for saying that. When we first talked, that was part of my caution. It’s the same caution I have as a comic, where when somebody’s like, “Are you going to do a Trump episode?” I need to be able to find an authentic in, otherwise I’m just throwing monologue jokes at a board. And I don’t want to do that. I think we found a way in, so that was the biggest thing we did.