Jerrod Carmichael told me back in May that filming his first stand-up hour would be special to him, not only because Spike Lee would direct him but also because the location, The Comedy Store, was sentimental to him. Where Carmichael first broke through in Hollywood. Where he feels most at home in Hollywood.
“There’s an energy in that room, you can feel Richard Pryor in that room. You can feel Eddie Murphy, and all these things,” Carmichael told The Comic’s Comic. “There’s a special energy there; a special vibe. So it’s just like here. Here. It’ll be the first special, hopefully shot there. It just felt right. A natural circle, for my special to be there.”
In Jerrod Carmichael: Love at the Store, which premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on HBO, you see Carmichael in the darkened space of the Store’s “Original Room,” illuminated only by two bright fluorescent white lights from the ceiling, and the cursive pink neon names of comedians from the Store’s first glory days, the comedy boom of the 1970s and 1980s. Pryor and Robin Williams to one side of the stage. David Letterman, Garry Shandling and Andrew Dice Clay to the other. Where does Carmichael fit in among these stand-up stars? Where will he fit in?
But first, here are a couple of short clips to whet your appetite and give you a sense of Carmichael’s comedy:
These two bits are more innocuous than much of what Carmichael digs into for premises and punchlines over the course of 52 minutes.
While Katt Williams worked up a sweat with his frenetic kinetic energy in his 2014 HBO special, Priceless: Afterlife (also directed by Lee), Carmichael remained so at ease in this shining moment for his career that he could open with a crack about trying out new jokes, then late in the hour break open his notebook from his back pocket to prompt a couple of additional one-liners and thoughts.
Along the way, Carmichael retained a sense of joy and amusement at his own explorations of somewhat off-putting ideas — whether it’s how much money is “enough to beat the case” (and what that case might be), how he chastises his apartment building’s security guard for not stopping him when he wears a hoodie, or how artistic talent can compensate for moral failings in that artist. He since expanded on much of this in the hour I saw him performing later this summer at Montreal’s Just For Laughs.
The truth is, he explains, that we’re much more selfish than we’d like to have everyone else believe.
He illustrates that by asking you how you’d think about the Sandy Hook massacre of 2012 if, that day, you’d also been diagnosed with herpes? He turns the question on himself with a joke about how Sept. 11, 2001, also was the day Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint” album dropped. “Events happen. Tragedies happen. Every day. And we all pretend to be mad. All pretend to be mad. You know why we pretend to be mad? Because we don’t want to appear like monsters in front of our friends. But these things don’t affect us. A lot of times, things don’t affect us,” Carmichael says.
Success at a young age certainly may have changed Carmichael.
He’s quick to joke about that reality himself. But he also already has thought about what it now means to be poor in America. Eating McDonald’s because you’re poor, he understands, even if his suggested slogans for McD’s aren’t quite as marketable to families as “I’m lovin’ it.” Voting Republican because you’re poor? That Carmichael just can’t quite understand. “Poor Republicans? That’s stupid as shit!”
His onstage hate for poor people who vote for the rich, or his “15 reasons why niggers won’t overcome” don’t pound the audience over the head as dramatically as Chris Rock’s “Niggas vs. Black People” routine from Rock’s iconic 1996 HBO special, Bring The Pain.
But Carmichael isn’t trying to reintroduce himself to audiences, as Rock was in his post-SNL career. Nor is he trying to provoke you, no matter that he tells The Comedy Store’s audience that “”your groans will only make me go deeper.”
No, Carmichael’s aim when he imagines a discussion between Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr., when he then imagines an elderly MLK as a commercial TV pitchman, when he suggests that Beyonce’s listeners are not the girls who run the world, or even when he alleges that “Middle America’s” problem with gay marriage would be eased if they saw less flamboyant gay parades and more “Tom Hanks in Philadelphia” — even in that joke, he tags it with a disclaimer, “That’s not me, that’s America.”
No. Carmichael’s aim, his hope, is to tell that same America that there’s a new young black voice in comedy. That he’s going to be a star. And that you can rest assured, as easily as he’s assured of himself onstage, that he’ll be welcomed into your living rooms for years to come.
“Because the specials that I loved and remembered. My mother introduced me to Bill Cosby: Himself. My father introduced me to Richard Pryor: Live in Concert. And these things had these beautiful shots. They looked great. And you knew that you were watching an artist. You knew you were watching someone who commanded the room and deserved the respect of an audience. And I wanted that. It was important for me – presentation is everything. Look. I’ve seen great comics have specials that don’t serve them well. …It’s just like, I don’t want to sound like I’m just rebelling. It’s these brilliant minds. And I was more frustrated with the outlet. The comics were fine. They were great. It was just the outlet didn’t serve them well. I think it’s important for us as stand-ups to take control and have a vision behind what we do and the outlet.”
Look again at the names in neon along the walls inside The Comedy Store. And stick around after the credits of Carmichael’s HBO special to see his name added to those walls.
Will Carmichael’s career take the paths of Williams and Pryor? Or will he be another Jimmy Walker or Yakov Smirnoff? Or an Argus Hamilton? Michael Keaton?
The Comedy Store’s Original Room walls bear the signatures of those who made us laugh most in that room, or of those who meant the most to the comedy club’s history and longevity itself.
Certainly, Carmichael already can add his name to that list. Where he goes from here is up to him and his ambitions.