A Conversation With Friends Norman Lear and Jerrod Carmichael on Race, Guns and Even Bill Cosby
Forty years after Lear used his acclaimed comedies to tackle controversial issues, Carmichael has picked up the torch, addressing taboo topics on his NBC sitcom that’s quickly become a Lear favorite: "This is just another version of me," says the TV legend.
This story first appeared in the April 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Mondays typically are a quiet day on Stage 20 on the Fox lot, but the set of The Carmichael Show is anything but on this late February afternoon, thanks to the presence of Norman Lear. The writers of the family sitcom form an impromptu receiving line to greet the TV legend; then, Lear and series co-creator, executive producer and star Jerrod Carmichael break into song, belting out a string of duets that include Frank Sinatra's "The Way You Look Tonight" and Paul McCartney's "My Valentine." In between, the pair share stories, laughs and even pose for selfies during their hourlong Hollywood Reporter photo shoot. Though the two — one a 93-year-old married father of six from Connecticut and the other a single 28-year-old from North Carolina — have several decades between them, they share a desire to use humor to tackle taboo topics. Forty years after Lear brought subjects such as abortion and race into American living rooms with socially conscious comedies like All in the Family and The Jeffersons, Carmichael is using his first sitcom to explore issues ranging from guns to gender. Season two, which premiered March 9 on NBC, already made headlines for an episode centered on Bill Cosby. The stand-up comic and Neighbors breakout and Lear talked at length about why it took so long for someone to pick up Lear's torch and the challenges that Carmichael faces.
How did you get to know each other?
CARMICHAEL You just kind of put it out there, "I'd love to meet him." So I got to go to his office, and we had this great conversation.
LEAR My bumper sticker reads, "Just another version of you." This is just another version of me.
CARMICHAEL Wow, that means a lot.
Norman Lear and Jerrod Carmichael were photographed Feb. 29 on the Fox lot in Los Angeles.
Norman, having spent your career tackling controversial issues, what advice did you give Jerrod?
LEAR "Go with your gut." And here's the reason: The 200th episode of All in the Family was a special. They asked me to host it, and I decided I wanted to use a few clips from the first show, the third show and the fifth show. And I present a couple of clips, and they were like, "He can't say that!" He's already said it!
CARMICHAEL We talked about likability, too. It's a thing you hear from every executive: "But [he's] not likable." And it's like, have you met people? First of all, if I saw the way a lot of characters are portrayed as this guy who smiles too much and is too friendly, I'd think he's hiding something, and I wouldn't like that guy. What Norman said to me was, "Don't worry about whether or not this opinion or this view was likable. It just has to be real and honest, and then you build around that."
What are the toughest conversations you've had to have with executives?
LEAR With Maude, in her 50th year, we decided she's pregnant, and then, whether she should carry that child to term, became a big conversation. It wasn't, "You can't," "I will," "You can't." We had real conversations. … We ended up rewriting the script and gave her a close friend who was pregnant with her fifth child and she couldn't afford to raise the four she had. She was in deep financial trouble, but she would no more have thought about an abortion and losing that child in any kind of world. We made it a two-parter so that we could tell that story, too. So their problem with the show actually helped us make a better one.
CARMICHAEL For me, it's really just trying to push true perspective and emotional arcs. Not just putting a ribbon on things at the end of the half-hour. It's getting people to go beyond that fear. It's the most difficult thing because everyone wants to make a hit, everyone wants the show to be profitable. But in that process, a lot of times you overlook the things that will make people genuinely connect to what you're doing. So any time it's like, "Well, we don't think Jerrod's so likable in this scene" or "Joe's not likable in that scene," I'm like, "All right. Is that a note?" (Laughs.)
LEAR Have they said, "You can't do that?"
CARMICHAEL If they have, I haven't listened yet. (Laughs.) We did our first episode [of season two] on Bill Cosby, and even from within my office, a lot of people didn't think we would be able to do it. But there was never a doubt in my mind. It's a thing that we're all talking about, and it wouldn't be our show if we didn't talk about it.
The network had hesitations. What persuaded them to move forward?
CARMICHAEL We both understood that this could be an important episode of TV. Important for both the topic and the genre doing it. I think this show should live in the real world and it should treat audiences like adults, and topics like these do both. It's a real-world conversation that adults are having, and I don't want to miss out on that ever. And we've earned a certain amount of trust with the network, so they let us go handle it the way we wanted to.
Were there times when your castmembers were uncomfortable with what the show was tackling? And if so, how did you talk them through it?
LEAR You can't make an actor do what the actor simply won't do. But what the actor simply won't do requires testing. (Laughs.) I had difficult times with Carroll O'Connor's [Archie Bunker] personality. We did a show where he was in an elevator on a high floor, and in the elevator was a black dude [and] a Hispanic couple. She was pregnant. The elevator stalls, and she gets frightened and goes into labor. Carroll read the script and went crazy. It went to the lawyers, and then something would miraculously occur with him where he'd get to a place where we'd have to do it or we were never going to be able to shoot the show. And he would slip or metamorphosize, or I don't know how he'd do it, but he'd become Archie Bunker. He gave himself to it.
CARMICHAEL I've been watching that with having David Alan Grier and Loretta Devine [who play Carmichael's parents], and they're just consumed in the characters. Loretta will grab me and say, "She would not do this." Sometimes it comes from my personal life, and it's like, "But she did. This is real."
How often are you defending your perspective in your writers room?
CARMICHAEL I have this benefit of being a stand-up comic. They've seen me perform, and so my perspective is probably so jarring that by the time all of the writers come into the room, they realize that nothing is off-limits. A lot of the show is just really arguments I'll have with myself. Growing up the way I did…
LEAR Where did you grow up?
CARMICHAEL North Carolina. You grow up feeling like all of the world doesn't belong to you and then some people in life give you license to ask questions and then you see all sides of it. I was onstage the other night, and I was like, "But Trump does make some good points." And the entire room turns against me. It's fun. "I like the idea of the wall, the wall's a good idea." People were like, "What are you talking about?" But to be free enough to explore even the thought is fun …
LEAR Who gave you your earliest license?
CARMICHAEL My brother's girlfriend, who's his wife now. We went to a restaurant that was outside of our usual restaurants in the 'hood. It was in the fancier part of town, and she ordered some food and it wasn't right, and she just sent it back. I was a kid and I was like, "You can just do that? You don't have to [accept it]?"
Jerrod, why do you think it's taken so long to have a show that tackles these subjects in the way Norman once did?
CARMICHAEL Fear. There are people who probably want to talk about more, but you're very aware that TV is an advertisers' medium and we're all here to move Charmin. But in between that, if I could give them a dose of honesty and if I could be as fearless as Norman Lear, then I think we'll be all right.
LEAR I didn't think I was breaking ground. It takes a good deal to make me laugh, and the more serious the discussion, the greater the joke. But it isn't a question of fearless, it's of knowing what you want to do and knowing it makes sense to you.
Can you do more or less now than you could 40 years ago?
CARMICHAEL I think [TV is] getting watered down. Look, it's much less dangerous to not have Joe Carmichael talking about voting for Bush for the second term. In the pilot, he says, "I voted for Bush because he sent me $1,600. You can bomb whoever you want as long as you're gonna send me $1,600 [in tax savings]." If I'm an advertiser, I'm sure it's much safer to just go with the show where the guy just can't seem to get the girl.