Jerrod Carmichael: Why I Wanted to Say the N-Word on Broadcast TV (Guest Column)

Just weeks after Bill Maher ignited controversy by saying the word, the stand-up comedian, actor and writer talks to THR about why he wanted to tackle it on his NBC sitcom.
Chris Haston/NBC
'The Carmichael Show'

Six. That's the number of times NBC will air the n-word unedited on Wednesday during an episode of The Carmichael Show. When series co-creator/star Jerrod Carmichael first announced his sitcom would tackle the word in March, it raised eyebrows and drew headlines. And then Bill Maher happened. When the late-night host and fellow stand-up comedian uttered the word on the June 1 edition of his show Real Time With Bill Maher, HBO called it "inexcusable and tasteless" and Maher was forced to apologize. In the wake of that controversy, and ahead of the scripted comedy episode's premiere, Carmichael looks back on his family's early dealings with the word, how he convinced NBC to let him air the word six times and his take on where Maher went wrong.

I grew up hearing it constantly but you don't learn about the meaning behind it until there is some type of clash over it. You learn about it in conflict.

We actually have had this conversation in my family a bunch. My mother is just against everybody using the word. She doesn't want white people to use it, she doesn’t want black people to use it, she doesn't like hearing it. She associates it with pain and thinks that the removal of the word is the removal of pain. And my grandmother, who lived through Jim Crow '60s, thought the word was fun. She would say it and we would joke and she would laugh. It was fun watching my mom get really angry while my grandma and I just said "n—er."

My grandmother's way of thinking breaks a certain unspoken rule of society and that's inspiring — realizing that sometimes your thoughts aren't in line with the majority. That inspired me to find my truth and not be afraid to express truly how I feel about the word. My family being in conflict showed me different people can think different things even on such a heavy topic.

My perspective is that I just don't want us to be controlled by a word. I don't want it to be used as a weapon. We have the power to dilute words and a lot of times, we use that in the wrong way. Donald Trump was called a racist and that should have been a strong accusation, but we use the word "racist" so much. Can you imagine [President] Jimmy Carter being called a racist? That would have been a crazy New York Times cover story with every journalist trying to get to the bottom of what happened. Now that we use it so much it doesn’t mean what it did. That's a negative way of doing that. I think a positive way is how my friends and I grew up saying [the n-word]. So I don't associate it with pain if I'm being truthful.

That's the thing I just wanted reflected. More than anything, it's saying that even black people, who have been both victims of and beneficiaries of the fun and ubiquitous use of it, we don't all have the exact same opinion on it. It's a discussion that has just evolved over time, from having earlier conversations with my family: my mom, my dad and grandparents, and even going on to having life experience with the word and saying it and having people upset with me over it. I am a product of that discussion. There's just so much experience around it, it was kind of hard not to do the episode.

Having the word itself said on the show came out of a deeper conversation about do you feel beholden to these unspoken rules for being a black person, or being a woman or being gay or being whatever you are? It just naturally went to the n-word and the rules around it and that's where it came from. Then we said to the network, "We want to say it, but it has to go on air."

[NBC president of entertainment] Jen Salke and I had a great conversation about it. She called and she was like, "Jerrod, what are doing to me?" She approached it with a lot of heart and understanding and I'm thankful for that. It's just that caution because if you don't use it correctly, you risk losing sponsors, you risk the foundation of why we're here in the first place.

The network came back and they approved one. Before we were going off to write the script, our showrunner Danielle Sanchez-Witzel said, "At most write two," because Danielle knew I wasn't just going to write one. We wrote four and then we somehow ended taping and will air six. It was that snowball effect of, "Alright, we said it once, what are we going to do? Not say it again? They already heard it, we've already breached it, let's use it a couple more times. That's kind of the point of the episode, too: We're adults, and saying it once versus six times ... we can grow up and have a conversation.

The intention is to genuinely explore and do it with as much integrity as we can so it's never just buzzwords, it's never us just saying it for the shock value. Bill Maher really took a hit because the intention was an easy joke, a cheap joke that's dismissive and belittling. If you're going to say it, you better have an intention behind saying it. People know the difference between you just saying something to get a rise of them and when you really just want to explore something. His intention is what brought this on. People read that intention.

These things just come out of the blue and become topics in the news every now and then and we have a brief conversation about it, but I hadn’t heard a lot of new perspectives portrayed on television about it. I hope viewers realize there's a spectrum of perspectives on this. Like anything else, every voice on it is worth hearing, every voice on it is worth sharing and saying out loud and having discourse. If people talk to their families and friends about it, it lends itself to people having thoughts on it that they've never had before. That's what we all want. 

Watch THR's exclusive sneak peek at Wednesday's episode of The Carmichael Show below.

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