Jerrod Carmichael Searches For the Truth In His New Comedy Special ‘Rothaniel’


Jerrod Carmichael in “Rothaniel” (Courtesy HBOMax)

By Megan Fisher, Arts Writer


Jerrod Carmichael‘s “Rothaniel,” one of the greatest comedy specials ever filmed, begins with a shot of Greenwich Village’s legendary Blue Note Jazz Club on a snowy night. Carmichael enters the venue through the front door and walks through the crowd in a nondescript manner.

As if a patron, his shoulders are hunched over and his hands stuffed in the pockets of his coat. Shrugging off the coat, Carmichael takes to the stage, only just barely raised above the level of the audience. He sits down on a folding chair, leaning forward and resting his left hand under his chin like a modern-day version of “The Thinker.”

“Man, I’m happy all of you are here, ” Carmichael tells the audience. “I’m really happy you’re here. I’m happy all of you are here. I have so much to tell you. You’re comfortable? You can talk back to me. I want you guys to feel that. This only works if we feel like family, you see?”

Secrets, Family History and Coming Out

A palpable sense of intimacy is created through an accumulation of a hundred little details within the sequence I just described. That same intimacy carries all the way to the end of the fifty-five minute special. It’s a necessary intimacy because “Rothaniel” is about secrets. Carmichael’s storytelling is edge-of-your-seat compelling, poetic, melancholy and raw as he talks about the history of his family and things that have caused him shame.

Spending most of his life being embarrassed by his first name, a combination of his paternal and maternal grandfathers’ names, Carmichael chooses to go by Jerrod, his middle name. Each of his family’s patriarchs have had extramarital affairs and Carmichael attempts to dissect the many ways the lies have impacted generations.

Eventually, Carmichael divulges his own secret: “I’m gay.” With a stammering, stumbling stream-of-conscious manner, like sitting on a therapist’s couch, Carmichael attempts to work through his feelings on his homosexuality and his family’s attitude. Carmichael reveals that his mother, whom he earlier referred to as a friend, has had a hard time accepting that he’s gay because “she can’t go against God.” While the subject matter is heavy, Carmichael masterfully diffuses the mood by joking that every time he doesn’t match with a guy on a dating app its because his mom has been “trying to pray the gay away.” He discusses how he feels that his brother’s love is conditional and that his father’s acceptance only came because Carmichael’s coming out distracted from his father’s affair.

To watch “Rothaniel” is to watch a man trying to unravel his most personal problems and generations of trauma that have been passed down to him. It’s honest and so intensely vulnerable that often one feels that they need to look away from Carmichael, yet are unable to do so because he is such a spellbinding performer. That is not to say that “Rothaniel” is not funny — far from it — but the jokes are ornamental: wrapped up inside of a larger thought and used to punctuate a particular point.

Expands What a Comedy Special Can Be

“Rothaniel” violates many of the rules of stand-up comedy, not least is that Carmichael is seated for its duration. Most of “Rothaniel” is told through silences, the unnaturally long pauses between words and the quiet moments as Carmichael collects his thoughts to start another story or decide what to say. The silences allow the audience time to feel and reckon with what Carmichael has said.

The director of the special, Bo Burnham, himself a stand-up comedian, and cinematographer Sam Levy ( “Lady Bird,” “Frances Ha,” “Wendy and Lucy“) utilize intense close-ups of Carmichael, drawing attention to facial micro-expressions that say more than words ever could. These aspects provide a whole new dimension missed by the live audience. At one moment towards the end, Carmichael looks directly at the camera, evoking powerful and intense feelings solely for the folks at home.

Breathtakingly Beautiful Filmmaking

“Rothaniel” is breathtakingly beautiful, using lighting and camera angles in a way that few comedy specials have done before. Every filmmaking choice is in service to the emotion and Carmichael’s voice.

Part comedy show, part memoir, part jazz improv, Carmichael’s “Rothaniel” expands what can constitute comedy, all while searching for truth and understanding. It’s a captivating piece of humanity, one that future comedians and directors of comedy specials will cite as inspiration for years to come.

“Rothaniel” is available to stream on HBOMax.


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