How 'The Carmichael Show' Is Tackling the New Political Climate in Season 3

Showrunner Danielle Sanchez-Witzel talks to THR about filming on Inauguration Day, the upcoming n-word episode and the NBC comedy's long hiatus.
Chris Haston/NBC
'The Carmichael Show'

When taping began on the second episode of The Carmichael Show’s third season on Friday, Jan. 20, it was already under slightly unusual circumstances. After all, the NBC multicamera comedy normally films new episodes Thursdays on the Fox lot. But on this particular Friday, taping also happened to fall on the same day as the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

“I just recall people, when we were shooting that episode, were just burying themselves in the episode so they didn’t have to deal with what was happening,” showrunner Danielle Sanchez-Witzel tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It was becoming real that day. It just created an odd kind of feeling in the air.”

Also contributing to that odd feeling was the fact that the comedy happened to be filming an episode about sexual consent — something that had become a big topic months earlier when Trump was heard talking about grabbing a woman by her private parts without consent on a 2005 leaked Access Hollywood tape.

“You would never know it watching it, but there was something about talking about this very important topic that has assaulting women as its subject matter,” she says. “There was something in the air shooting that that felt a little bit complicated.”

However, being timely and socially relevant has become old hat for the Jerrod Carmichael starrer, which has taken on everything from gun control and religion to upcoming subjects like euthanasia and gender roles. When the show was last on the air in May 2016, the series even did an episode about the presidential election titled "President Trump" that aired more than five months before the former Celebrity Apprentice host shockingly defeated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to become the 45th president of the United States.

"I think what our show does is allow you to laugh at the things that are hard, whether that's political or that's rape culture," Sanchez-Witzel says. "We like to try and find the funny thing on the hard topics, so that it's a way of emotional release."

Ahead of the comedy's long-awaited return Wednesday, Sanchez-Witzel talked to THR about how the election impacted season three, the upcoming n-word episode, the long hiatus between seasons and how it feels to have "called" the presidency.

What was the last month like going into Nov. 8 as you were starting the writers room and figuring out the episodes? How much were you paying attention to the news cycle?

One of our writers drew the map on the board and we were coloring in the states red and blue as things were happening. Most people were pretty interested in how things were going to play out so we got our work done, but I would say we were certainly distracted by the election overall.

What was the mood like in the room as those states were being colored in?

Everyone was sharing their opinions. We are a mostly liberal, democratic writers room and so I think that there was some concern. But there's also, because we have Jerrod, who had some interest in, "Huh, what's really going to happen? This is going to be interesting to see what's really going to happen if Trump wins," which has kind of been his attitude all along. We have a few writers, mostly the stand-ups, who were really interested in: "Is it going to be so bad? This is at least going to be an interesting discussion, no?" So our rainbow went from curious to just drop-dead panic.

How much do you think that that perspective bled into the subsequent scripts?

We did our Trump episode at the end of season two, and the thing that we were talking about was how divisive politics were and that was really before the country got so fractured. I think we were just seeing the beginning of it. So we did feel like we had already dealt with it. Anything that we had to say, we said it in that episode. But we're a show that talks about things that are socially relevant, so the political climate certainly affected some jokes that we did. We certainly had some jokes by our characters that were pro-Hillary and have commented throughout the season.

The second half-hour of our premiere is called “Support the Troops,” and of all the episodes we did, that's the one that deals with Trump being president the most although it is not the headline of the episode. We talk about the military and whether or not supporting the troops is something we say but is it something we truly do. That's an episode that we certainly were affected by Trump being president, in terms of the storytelling, but we didn’t go after that. I think whoever had been president may have affected where that episode went, but it certainly comments on Trump's presidency.

Were there other indirect ways that you touched on the mood of the country in the upcoming season or the side effects of this change in administration?

We have an episode that launches with all of the female characters coming back from a Women's March. That wouldn't have necessarily happened before. It's not about women's marches, it is about roles within a relationship and roles in society, of men and women. All our characters are in red, and the grandma is knitting pussy hats in that episode. We want our show always to be in the real world, and the real world is that Donald Trump is our president and that this Women's March happened. So in that way, our reality reflects the reality of the country.

The episode that we were shooting the week of the inauguration is the “Yes Means Yes” episode, which deals with rape culture in society. The idea that we need to move towards, not 'no means no' but a 'yes means yes' society and to also teach men that they need permission at all stages. We dissect what is that really doing to young people; where are we with the discussion about rape culture in society. The episode, you wouldn't necessarily see anything in the political climate about it, but shooting it that week of a woman losing the presidency, I certainly woke up feeling like asking myself, "Do we respect women in this country?" We felt the impact of that week on that episode.

Have you noticed any different in how the audience reacts to these episodes given what's going on in the country?

I can’t say that I have. I mean we've always done socially relevant things, and sometimes people laugh and sometimes people gasp. We certainly enjoy both reactions equally.

We replay past episodes for the live audience before we come out and shoot the new ones and we played "President Trump" a few weeks ago and I know there was a lot of reaction, like, "You called it! You saw it coming!"

What's your reaction when someone says you called it?

We were so split. That was an interesting episode to shoot last season because things were kind of starting to feel real but they weren’t totally real. Bernie [Sanders] was still a factor, because Maxine [played by Amber Stevens West] was a Bernie supporter and Cynthia [played by Loretta Devine] was a Hilary supporter, so we were early on in the whole process and our writers room had a lot of arguments about whether or nor to even give time to Donald Trump as a candidate in terms of just anger about how far he had gotten and how did we get here. And obviously he ended up getting much further than that. So there were a lot of heated discussions about whether or not that was even a topic that should be done. I’m actually glad we did it because I do think we had something to say about what was happening in the country when we all could see it back then. And those are the things that we like to talk about. It was really about a family being divided by candidates and it ended up being so much what people experienced once he became president. I’m glad we talked about it last year because it's harder to know what to do with it when it's already happened. It was easier to speculate about it.

One of the other big episodes you have coming up is the n-word episode. How and when did that idea first come up in the room?

We don’t see ourselves as a black show. We see ourselves as a family show and a socially relevant show and the fact that this is a black family just is what it is, that's how we've always approached it. That isn't always the first thing that we go to. But the n-word is such an explosive topic and continues to be for our country. Jerrod uses that word and has a real, I think, distinct attitude about it and about taking the power out of it and about why he uses it. We knew that we wanted to explore that and bring different perspectives to that. … There are some people where there's a zero-tolerance policy, but there are other people who think everyone should use it — that's a hard thing to get consensus of. It's a word that is so tethered to racism in our country's history. It's a hard thing to talk about, but it's worth talking about and we were really adamant that NBC let us say it. I don’t think we even really broke the story in earnest until we were positive that we could say it because we weren’t going to bleep it and we weren’t going to say, "the n-word." So once we got that OK, then the OK came with, "Well, you better have a really good story with good perspective on why to tell this." And so once they got the script, they said yes.

The real backbone of that story is if there are rules in general in any sort of group, be that your ethnic group or your gender or your neighborhood or whatever it is — and Jerrod has some jokes about this in his stand-up — it's very limiting to have rules. And it's upsetting when your own community puts those rules on you, and the episode explores not just the use of the n-word but the idea that if someone just says there's a blanket rule for everything, well, now you can't be you. Is it fair to put restrictions and then it's something as loaded as that, is it fair to not put restrictions on it? Our favorite episodes always end without an answer because it's just gray, there's no right or wrong. And that's certainly an episode that ends in that place.

How did you figure out with NBC how many times it would be said?

We certainly got on the phone several times with standards and had them go up the chain at the network and explain why this was important to us. And I think we used it thoughtfully. None of our goals were, "Let's see how many times we can say this word on network television." We felt strongly it was important to actually say it and we did have a discussion that it needs to be said more than once. It's used in a couple different ways to point out how hard it sounds if you say it this way, and how harsh it sounds if you say it that way, so we just needed to say it a few times. And we have a little warning on it before the episode.

Last season, the show was given an earlier return date in March. This season, you're back to premiering in the summer. How much do you take stock of when the show is airing?

It's something that we have no control over, which is an unfortunate reality of making TV. That is up to the networks to decide. We certainly would have liked to have been on the air sooner, but that's out of our hands. We can just control the content. We expect and hope our fans will find us and we would love to have new eyes on the show. The fact that we're on Netflix is huge for us. We're seeing people tweet about the show and we're hoping that that helps find a new audience. … We've always thought that we were a broad audience show and we would love for more people to find us and to see us on May 31. Hopefully that is a time when NBC will promote us and we'll get seen. But it can be frustrating to not have control over that stuff. We've now been off the air for more than a year.

You're not premiering until after the end of the regular TV season, and you don't know yet if you're coming back for a season four. How much does that impact you and the writers as you head into writing and shooting the season three finale?

It's hard to be on a show and not know what the fate is going to be. There are certainly some difficulties with that. But we've always approached each episode as we are dissecting something interesting for this week. We're not a show that tends to arc things out. Our approach has just always been to tell good stories and tell as many of them as we can. We told the stories we wanted to tell this season and certainly hope that we have more to tell and we hope that's what ends up happening for the show.

At the moment, how confident are you feeling about a season four? What interactions have you had with the network about the current season?

Jerrod and I are really proud of the season. Our partners are happy with the show. it's a matter of finding more people to see it.

What ideas do you and Carmichael know you want to talk about it in a potential season four? Is there anything that is at the top of your list?

We certainly have more stories on the board than what we've told. Jerrod's stand-up is always a fun source of inspiration. Sometimes when we were looking for stories, he says, “I’m going to go do a set tonight,” and then we'll go and see what he talks about. Certainly, he always has a notebook of thoughts, but there are interesting ideas in the room. We had a story about homelessness; it just feels like you can't effect change in that area. It’s such a hard thing to talk about knowing what's happening in our own country, in our own city. I can only imagine what the next four years are going to bring. I think it's just going to be a wealth of topics to explore.

The Carmichael Show premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.

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