'Carmichael Show' Writer Breaks Down Islamophobia Episode: "It's Opening Up a Discussion"

"We wanted to show that fear can sometimes drive people to do things that would normally be out of character for them, and that that's not OK," Emily V. Gordon tells THR about Sunday's episode.
Courtesy of NBC; Inset: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Sunday's episode of The Carmichael Show, "New Neighbors."]

Once again, The Carmichael Show proved it dares to go where many other modern-day sitcoms — and modern day TV series, period — will not. And the beloved family at the center of the half-hour NBC multicam didn't even have to travel far to break new ground.

Sunday's episode tackled Islamophobia head-on when a young Muslin couple moved in next door to Joe (David Alan Grier) and Cynthia (Loretta Devine). Overly fearful in a post-9/11 world, the Carmichaels had an awkward first meeting with their neighbors and then decided to steal a package — of what was later revealed to be a teddy bear — from their doorstep when they saw it was shipped from Pakistan.

Their treatment of their neighbors inspired a heated discussion with their son (Jerrod Carmichael) and his girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West) about bigger issues such as immigration and, yes, even brought up talk of a "wall" clearly inspired by Donald Trump's campaign rhetoric.

The episode was deftly written by Emily V. Gordon, a therapist-turned-writer who has witnessed such discrimination and prejudice first-hand as the wife of actor Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley). (The two are now working on a movie inspired by their real life that will be directed by Michael Showalter and produced by Judd Apatow.)

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Gordon about that wall talk, "Jerrod-isms" and the surprisingly personal question she was asked during her interview for the show.

How did the idea for this episode first come about in the room?

Everything's discussed endlessly and everything, ultimately, comes from what Jerrod is thinking about and what he wants to talk about it. He always says if we're in a room and we're arguing about something then you know we're in good territory. It was a discussion from the very beginning of, like, we want to do an episode addressing Islamophobia and addressing the way the culture is now and the fact that Muslims have been around for a long time, and Muslims are treated, in a lot of ways, the way black people have been treated in this country. It's just been an ongoing discussion that we've had since the beginning. I happen to be very married to a Muslim man, so half of my family is Muslim. I also grew up in North Carolina in the same town that Jerrod grew up in. I knew his sister-in-law but did not know him because he's much younger than me. (Laughs.) I grew up not really exposed to people of the Islam faith whatsoever until college, so I think I have quite a unique experience. As we kept talking about it, it fell into my lap to write this episode.

Having these personal experiences to pull from, did you feel more pressure when writing this?

I mean, like any sitcom, it always ends up being a group effort, and Jerrod is always there to add in his own Jerrod-isms. But I would say that what I really wanted to focus on is I've seen both sides of it. I kind of experienced frustration for my Muslin family members of the way people look at them and see a certain thing that's not actually accurate whatsoever. There was pressure but I also think, with our show, it's opening up a discussion and just about having an honest discussion.

As a writer on the show, what would you define a Jerrod-ism in an episode?

This is the thing that I've always loved about Jerrod is he has a voice and he has a point of view and he is very sure of himself and that point of view. It's something that when I met him five years ago, I was, like, how does this child have such a sense of himself and know exactly what he wants to do? I tried to, especially my first draft, channel him as much as I could. It always ends up being parts of his stand-up that’s informing parts of the show. … We always want to make room for that because, ultimately, it's his show and all the characters need to reflect something that he's interested in talking about it.

One of the parts of the episode that was really interesting was the talk about the wall. Because of Donald Trump, that's become a huge lightning rod. Can you talk about that scene and why that dialogue was important?

I think the main thing he really likes about that part, because we worked closely on that part, he really likes this idea that … for African-Americans in this country, they were very aggressively invited to this country. They weren’t coming here to make a better life. They were brought here. For him, that was ultimately the part of that conversation that he really jelled to the most. And also, I think he think it's quite funny to talk about building a wall in such a way. He's a provocative dude, and that's what I love about him and that's what I love about this show.

When you were writing the episode, how much did you talk to your husband about his experiences, if at all?

Not as much as talking to him, as we've been married eight years now and we used to live 30 minutes from his parents, so I've just learned a lot over the years. Because there's a lot of customs and a lot of things that practicing Muslims do that are just different, there's greetings that are interesting and a lot stuff that I very slowly learned. It's kind of a bummer to me that people don't really know about this interesting stuff, they only know certain things about Islam and not the amazing compassionate stuff that I've gotten to see. So I was hoping to bring some of that stuff into the episode as well.

How did you go about actually crafting what the episode would be about, particularly Jerrod's parents taking that package? What were you trying to convey?

We wanted to show, ultimately, that somebody in the Carmichael family crossed a line. And to us, stealing mail is absolutely crossing a line. I'm not going to say that the Carmichaels were wrong, but we wanted to show that fear can sometimes drive people to do things that would normally be out of character for them, and that that's not OK. We all need to take a breath and realize that people are people.

What else are you hoping people take away from this episode?

I grew up in a town where there were no Muslims whatsoever, and there was not a lot of exposure. There's a line in the episode, like, "You only see Muslims when they're the bad guys in the movies." We don't have a lot of exposure to normal, everyday Muslims. A lot of people in the country don't, but a lot of people in the country do. I wanted to address that it's not a great point of view to have and that we need to speak out and get to know people and visibility is important. That's the kind of thing people will come away with: We can't let fear take us into places that are out of character for us and remember that we're dealing with human beings on everyday basis, all the way around.

While you were writing the episode, were there any notes from the studio or the network?

There was a version where Joe Carmichael got a little more obsessed with the neighbors [and] spying on them. I don’t remember who had the note, but there was the note that it doesn’t feel like Joe. We had to really thread the needle of Joe gets caught up in stuff and Cynthia gets caught up in it, but they're not turning into completely insane people; I think that was very important.

Before you were a writer, you were a therapist. How do you think that has influenced your writing and helped you as a writer when you're taking on subjects like this? Do you ever play mediator in the writer's room during some of these heated debates?

We have such a blast in that room and we like debating things. Everyone likes to debate. In my interview, specifically, it was a conversation of, "Are you OK debating stuff?" I would say as a therapist, what I end up bringing is a sense of empathy and wanting to really connect with — even if you're incorrect or wrong or your opinions are completely nuts — I want to make sure that we understand where you're coming from. Not that we excuse your behavior whatsoever, but we get why you're feeling the way you're feeling and that's true to me as a therapist and that's true to me as a writer. I want every character to not be behaving completely outlandish, but to have some kind of deep-rooted understanding of why they're behaving the way they are, even if it's not OK.

We also have a therapist-in-training character, and I think that has helped tremendously because honestly they'll ask questions like, "Is this something you do when you're in grad school?" and I say yes or no.

Were there any particularly unusual or funny questions they asked when you were first talking about joining the show?

I think maybe Jerrod asked me when was the last time I cried, which is a question I often ask at parties because I like to really get in deep and don’t really love small talk. (Laughs.) I'm always like, "How many grandparents do you have left? When's the last time you cried?" Jerrod asked me that in my interview, which I thought it was such a lovely question and I liked the idea that he likes to really get in there. And his show likes to get in there.

I know you're working on another project now, but were there other topics you were hoping to tackle on the show or other topics you felt particularly passionate about in the writer's room?

They're doing this episode about depression that is coming up that I was really excited about that. I didn't write it, I just contributed to it, as we all do. I'm a mental-health advocate big time, so I think it's great when depression is a thing that's discussed out in the open because it's still way too stigmatized.

The Carmichael Show airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.

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