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Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show Makes Reality TV—Hilariously, Painfully—Real Again

3 minute read

Jerrod Carmichael had been a famous comedian for almost a decade, with an eponymous NBC sitcom and a couple of stand-up specials under his belt, when he dropped his average-dude persona and started telling the truth about himself. In his Emmy-winning 2022 special, Rothaniel, Carmichael came out as gay, speaking openly, with plenty of rueful humor, about internalized homophobia and his fractured relationship with his devoutly Christian mother. It was a creative turning point as well as a personal one. In place of polished jokes, he offered earnest reflection, expressed genuine confusion, and had spontaneous conversations with the audience.

As its utilitarian title suggests, Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show continues his experiment in radical honesty. Framed—and deepened as much as it’s leavened—by co-creator Carmichael’s onstage monologues, the perceptive eight-part HBO series, which premieres March 29, is disarmingly frank about not only his personal life, but also about its own constructedness. We watch the comedian produce as the camera rolls, persuading family and friends to discuss hard topics on camera as crew members swarm. By making us privy to these contrivances, he establishes authenticity within a notoriously artificial genre.

Jerrod Carmichael Reality ShowHBO

Reality Show teems with uncomfortable exchanges that couldn’t be more different from the table-flipping theatrics of docusoaps like The Real Housewives. In the premiere, Carmichael confronts his best friend, rapper Tyler, the Creator, about how Tyler has been avoiding him since Carmichael confessed to being in love with him. It doesn’t go well. Neither does Carmichael’s attempt to talk with his father about the older man’s infidelity—a pattern of betrayal he sees mirrored in his own cheating on his first serious boyfriend. Or a conversation in which his mom says “I love you just the way you are” but also implies that being gay is like being a murderer. 

Yet Carmichael is hardest on himself, constantly questioning whether he can become a good friend, a faithful boyfriend, a person who doesn’t need cameras in the room to hold himself accountable. Which is not to say that Reality Show is a self-serious slog; the half-hour episodes are funny, if often darkly so, because their protagonist and the people around him are funny. At a moment when most comedians brand themselves as either iconoclastic truth tellers or righteous arbiters of virtue, it’s refreshing to see Carmichael take such pains to be perceived precisely as he is.

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