Jerrod Carmichael on His NBC Series, TV Comedies' "Empty Calories" and Networks' "Growing Pains"

"It's easy to fall into the trap of just telling jokes. But for me, it's just about keeping the tone as honest as possible," 'The Carmichael Show' co-creator and star tells THR.
Chris Haston/NBC

Thanks to a breakout role in Neighbors and an HBO stand-up special directed by Spike Lee, Jerrod Carmichael's life has changed dramatically since he first started work on a series for NBC in December 2013.

But a year and a half later, the up-and-coming talent is finally making his network debut with the half-hour multicam comedy The Carmichael Show.

"It's like an engagement," he tells The Hollywood Reporter with a laugh, "but one that's gone on for so long that marriage is obviously the next step. Nobody's surprised. It's like it's about time. We finally did it."

Ahead of the semi-autobiographical series' Wednesday premiere, THR caught up with Carmichael to discuss translating his stand-up into a series, putting "honest conversations" back into comedy and whether he'd ever do a live episode.

Where do you think The Carmichael Show fits into the rest of your career? Why did you want to do a TV series?

It was a thing I wanted to do before even stand-up, to be honest with you. My dream, even as a kid, was Thursday nights on NBC. I really, really wanted that just growing up on that and appreciating that. It's all just an extension of my perspective. So my stand-up is my side of an argument, and the show is the other side that you didn't get to hear while I was on stage. So it's a fuller argument, a more layered argument. The show's intention is that it's a conversation so it sits pretty neatly into it. I'm aware of how almost outdated the format seems, right? So many of my friends who definitely don't lean towards multi-camera sitcoms, but it's such a great format. It's a stage play and it's such a great space for perspective and for arguments, and these great conversations and so it fits very well with the stand-up portion of my brain that thinks in arguments.

Comedy at NBC has changed a lot in recent years. They only have two comedies on the schedule this fall. Did that give you any hesitation?

If we're being honest, it's like buying Apple stock in between the Macintosh and the iPod. It's not necessarily what it was and it's still trying to find this new identity, and find its place in this space and definitely going through some growing pains. I think all of the networks are. … It's this fight to find perspectives because a lot of comedies are just these empty calories and I'm just trying really hard not to do that.

At NBC's summer press day, you discussed how you wanted to touch on Ferguson and Obama, and issues like that. On a half-hour comedy, how difficult was it inserting those topics into the conversation?

It was very natural. Once you remove fear from the equation – and what I mean by that is, "Well, we're going to offend this section of the audience" – I think the American television audience is more intelligent than ever. They're very intelligent and I think that people are able to handle an argument, they're able to handle a point of view that's different from their's, but a lot of comedies – not just comedies but a lot of shows are still created in the space of keeping a demo. I'm aware that our primary goal here is to sell more Charmin, (Laughs) but at the same time while doing that, I think you still can have things with perspective. So when we're writing it, removing the fear of that is fun. Don't get me wrong, it's a hard process, but it's very easy, it comes out very naturally because it's conversations that we've had. And that's what I wanted to bring to it. Just going throughout your day, the things that you're talking about with your friends and with your colleagues are what's happening and involve real emotions and it's almost criminal that no comedy reflects that, that no comedy has these honest conversations that we're all having every single day. If our conversations sounded like what most comedy is, we would all be very depressed. It would just be surface things with no real intention behind them and that's not how real people talk.

A lot of TV dramas like Scandal and The Good Wife tackled Ferguson, but why do you think comedies were more reticent to do that?

I think with drama, because these are heavy subjects, it's easier to maintain the integrity of what you're talking about when everyone is supposed to be serious about it. What's interesting is a lot of times, even through pain and even through conflict, we still laugh. It's not that we stop laughing so my job is to find those moments even in the tensest situations where we still laugh. That moment where, even at a funeral, something just catches your attention and you laugh at it. That happens. My job is just to find those moments and mine those moments and put it in the show while still protecting the integrity of the topic. … It doesn’t mean we're going to make light of it. I think it's quite the opposite. You treat it with the respect that it deserves. It's a topic that deserves a lot of respect, but it also doesn't mean that within those moments between family and between couples that you still don't have a point where you smile. I don't think anybody truly wants to live in a world where that doesn't happen.

As you were writing the first season, how was it finding the tone of the show?

It's just trying to keep it as honest as possible. You're doing a stage play every week and it's easy to fall into the trap of just telling jokes. But for me, it's just about keeping the tone as honest as possible, keeping it as real as possible and living in the moments of tension – that's what we look for. Just to always be on top of yourself and on top of the project and making sure you aren't just crawling into jokeville. We're still finding it. It's still so early in the show, I don’t want to make it sound like, "Oh, we cracked it!" But it is something that I feel really optimistic about.

The show had a very quick turnaround from a series order in March to series premiere. How challenging was that?

It was such a blessing. I prefer it because you don’t have time to overthink it. You don't have time to be too precious with anything. You have a vision for something and there's no time to question that vision, you just have to try and get it out there. I prefer it. I hope if we do more that our shooting and airdate is as close together as possible, just shy of live.

NBC is now doing a whole season of live episodes of Undateable and that show boasts a lot of stand-up comedians. Would you ever consider doing a live episode?

Yes, as long as it serves a purpose. On election night, if there's a way to do a live show and time it and get real-time election updates throughout the show, something like that I would go crazy for. For the sake of doing it live, it seems fun but I like having two tapings.

You're starring on the show, you're writing, you're executive producing. How has it been juggling all of those duties, especially because this is your first show?

It's easy when you have zero social life. (Laughs). … With stand-up, I look at myself as a writer/director/performer, so it's just a constant thing. It's really fun. I genuinely care about the project so there's nothing I'd rather be doing right now.

You talked about how the show offers a more layered argument of what you discuss in your stand-up. How else would you say the material on the show differs from your stand-up routine?

I don't say 'f–' nearly as often. … It's like anything I'm going to talk about on stage, I'm willing to talk about in the show with standards allowing. I think that is its own natural filter. You simply can't say that on television. It's not that I don’t want to or that I haven’t tried. Believe me, I try. (Laughs). But there are just certain things, you legally can't. So that's more for the lawyers to decide. I try to say all of it. On the show, although it's me, it's still a character, so it's an exaggerated point of view.

Seeing as this is semi-autobiographical, what did your family think of the show?

They're literally in my dressing room right now after a run-through. They saw the last episode that we taped before they fly back home. They see it, they like it, they're supportive of it and excited about it. The best thing is I think it makes them genuinely laugh – not just the "you're my son" laugh, but the genuine laugh so that's great.

The Carmichael Show premieres with back-to-back episodes Wednesday at 9 p.m. on NBC.