'Carmichael Show' Boss Talks Season 2, Bill Cosby: "We Weren’t Going to Take No"

"Our goal was to really do an episode that we felt like Bill Cosby could sit down and watch and we felt like his accusers could sit down and watch," EP Danielle Sanchez-Witzel tells THR.
Courtesy of NBC; Getty Images

The Carmichael Show has been in the news for several weeks thanks to the buzz surrounding the NBC sitcom's Bill Cosby-centered episode. But fans of the series, which quietly launched last summer, know the topic of the TV star turned alleged rapist is just the latest in a long line of touchy issues the show has addressed head-on, including guns, gender, religion and the Black Lives Matter movement, just to name a few.

The show's Norman Lear-esque approach is a big part of what has the series a hit with viewers as well as critics and helped earn the series a second season. As The Hollywood Reporter TV critic Daniel Fienberg wrote in September before the show was picked up, "NBC should renew The Carmichael Show — and renew it with haste because this is the business the network should want to be in."

Ahead of Sunday's premiere, THR spoke with series showrunner Danielle Sanchez-Witzel about the biggest writer's room debates (so far), the network and studio's biggest concern (it's not what you think) and how they turned NBC's no on Cosby into a yes.

Going into season two, what were some of the new challenges that you faced in the writer's room that you didn't during season one?

We have twice as many episodes so just that alone is difficult. But I think it's interesting because we really did what we set out to do in those first six [episodes] and part of the challenge is just continuing with that pattern. We didn't want to change what we were doing, we just wanted to do 13 more. We do really small stories, which I think present their own challenges; trying to keep up with this concept of just doing kind of interesting discussions and debates with the family. Our biggest challenge is not veer from that, to just keep on track with what worked for us in the first six. It is hard to keep things small, but it's been a fun challenge.

You tackled guns, gender and religion in season one. How did you go about figuring out what you wanted to talk about in season two, and how you wanted to address it? Did Jerrod come in on on day one saying, "I want to talk about Cosby"?

We knew we wanted to do Cosby in the first six, but we knew that was going to be too difficult. We hadn't earned the right to do it. So we definitely came into this second season knowing that we wanted to do Cosby. There were a few topics that were interesting to us, but mostly our topics come from, if something provides a heated discussion in the writer's room, then we know we're in interesting territory. Not just heated, but any sort of interesting discussion. Like our first episode is about cheating and that certainly got people going. The second episode of our premiere night is about Joe's father dying and him having a difficult relationship with him and I think we were all connecting with what happens when somebody dies and you didn't get to resolve things before they pass on and how people deal with that. We have a great group of writers here and when they really start to open up and share personal stories or things that are coming up in real life, that's how we know we're in the right territory. We don't really start with plot, which there are other shows I've worked on that do and that can be really funny and very successful to look at episodes that way. But we're really looking for what's underneath and then building around that. The [episode] we just shot this week was about a young Muslim couple that move next door to Joe and Cynthia and I think we're all interested in what's happening in our country right now with the government saying, "If you see something, say something," but also don't be racist and discriminatory. It's a tough message to send to people. So anytime there's something where we feel like we don't have the answer individually or as a society, those stories interest us the most.

For you particularly as a writer, how it is to adjust going to a topical show like this whereas before, like you said, you were writing episodes based on plot? How did you make that adjustment?

Someone asked me today, "How many scenes do you have an episode?" I said, "I don’t know like four, maybe," which is crazy in a half-hour. I've been on single-camera shows where you have like 20 scenes. So you can't dig into topics like this unless it's the multi-camera format because you can't have 15-page scenes on single-camera, it's just not built to do it. … It allows you to get into a little bit more of what is the discussion, how much tension can you hold in one room.

How has it been collaborating with Jerrod and bringing his life to the screen but also finding ways to bring your perspective to the screen?

That's the fun thing about comedy is that it's so collaborative, not just between us but with the other writers in the room as well. I think I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn't get what they were trying to do. I ultimately have a very loud, multi-camera-type family that I grew up with. I think I've been training to do this my whole life and I didn’t know. I had three older sisters and very funny parents. Hopefully, there's a lot that people in the audience can relate to in terms of this family being full of love, but being in each other's business and all having an opinion on whatever's going on. We're taking episodes from our real lives and putting them into this show and building on the characters that Jerrod started out with.

For example, Jerrod and I, both of our dads had had heart attacks and in the first season we did an episode on the socioeconomics of health and what that means. It was so personal to both of us and it really struck a chord and hopefully that translates in striking a chord with a lot of people. I think we just see eye to eye creatively quite a bit, which is nice.

Are there any topics that generated particularly heated discussions?

I think Cosby certainly was. There are varying opinions about what we try to tackle in that episode, which is how do you separate the persona from the person and what's happening in real life and that certainly provided some lively discussion.

We had fun with one episode called "Perfect Storm," which we just shot. Jerrod and Maxine have a pregnancy scare and its about taking the Plan B pill and having that discussion locked in the basement with your family while there's a storm going on. People opened up and were very honest about their experiences and I think there was a feminist perspective to sum up what we were saying. It was really good, but it went past gender to where there should be shame and where there shouldn’t be shame and what is it OK to talk about and why are we feeling as a society still that we haven’t come far enough along in terms of reproductive rights and abortion. It just feels like its 2016 and we should be past it. That were days of a lot of yelling but in a loving way, in a fun way. [People had] very strong points of view and that episode turned out great. We know when people are really digging in and not seeing eye to eye that those are the best episodes to do.

How has it been dealing with 20th Television and NBC as you're taking these controversial topics on? What do those conversations look like?

We're really lucky that both 20th and NBC get what we want to do and let us do it in the first six. The biggest thing that we encountered in that first season was more about how small the stories were and how was this going to work and why weren’t we building outside sets? Are people interested in just seeing a family sit in the living room and talk? So I think that we earned some amount of trust there that these characters are interesting enough and their points of view are interesting enough that this could work. … There's been a lot of discussion about how do you handle something like Plan B but we were never told that we couldn't do it. The only episode we were told that we couldn't do is Cosby and then ultimately they still let us do it. The more episodes we do together, the more trust we're building and so we've been lucky. I've been on a lot of shows and I can't say that it always goes like this where there's the support for what you want to do, but we certainly are feeling it. We have a story about gentrification where Jerrod and Bobby really get into what it means to be successful in life and they're just letting our characters live in this world and talk about these hard things. Its really been very collaborative and one of the best creative experiences I've certainly had as far as studio and network go.

With NBC, what was it that changed their no to a yes?

We weren’t going to take no. At least we weren’t going to take the first no for an answer. You've got to at least get past the first no. Of course, you understand where the no is coming from. Cosby was prolific for NBC and I grew up watching and so did Jerrod. So we hung up, but then we said, "OK, we can't just take no," because our goal was to really do an episode that we felt like Bill Cosby could sit down and watch and we felt like his accusers could sit down and watch. We weren't trying to solve it or come out on one side. We always want to land it in, this is difficult and life presents difficult challenges and what do you do when your morals are feeling compromised in a situation like this?

Jerrod and I talked, and I said, "Let's just call NBC back and ask them what happens if we write it? Would someone read it? You're telling us not to write it. We hear you telling us not to write it. What happens if we do? A couple weeks from now, will someone read it with an open mind?" And to their credit, they said yes. Mike Scully, who's an excellent writer, and Jerrod co-wrote it and we spent a lot of time working on it in the room just to make sure it was absolutely the best representation of what we wanted to do. We sent it to them right before Thanksgiving, feeling like wouldn’t the holidays be a lovely time for everyone to just sit and think about giving back and giving thanks and letting us do this episode. So we were patient and, I think, proactive. Ultimately, much to NBC's credit, they sent it up the chain and trusted us, and we made what I hope people will find to be a really good episode. We're very proud of it here and very happy we go to do it.

Now you're halfway through season two and you were able to change the network's mind about Cosby, what topics are at the top of your wish list?

We're working on an episode right now about social media, and real life versus the social media life that we put out there for ourselves. We think its an interesting topic and it now affects so many millions of people. You know when your parents are on Facebook that it has crossed over and you can't escape it. So the episode we're working on right now has to do with Joe and Cynthia getting on Facebook and having to navigate it for the first time. We're kicking around the idea of depression and therapy and why is that so taboo in our society when so many people who suffer from it and it shouldn’t be something that we're afraid to talk about? We also want to do character-driven episodes. We're talking about meeting Maxine's dad at some point.

I wouldn’t want people to think every episode is just an issue of the week. We try to find something where we have something to say, where our characters have something to say and tackle that. The fun thing is that there is no issue that we wouldn’t take on if we thought we had something to say.

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