Last month, the comedian Jerrod Carmichael released one of the best stand-up specials of the year: Rothaniel, in which he delved deeply into his family’s history of secret-keeping before revealing a couple long-held secrets of his own. This weekend, he will follow that up with the national release of his directorial film debut, On the Count of Three, in which his character Val and his best friend (played by Girls‘ Christopher Abbott) make a suicide pact. In a TIME interview, Carmichael reflected on his turbulent few months, joking about suicide, and sulking like Jackie Kennedy. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
You reveal a lot of uncomfortable secrets about yourself and your family in Rothaniel. How are you feeling?
I feel pretty sturdy, and I feel very adult. In the special, I am honest about things I thought I’d never say out loud. I’ve started feeling more responsibility, which is not a word I would have ever used to describe any of my work. But I definitely started feeling it after coming out.
An idea you explore in Rothaniel is “things that exist but don’t exist; things hiding in plain sight.” Do you think that phenomenon is unique to America?
It happens a lot. I feel like Rothaniel probably played well in London because it’s such a polite society.
But here, I think about homelessness sometimes: how we’re on sidewalks, you see someone suffering, sometimes you feel unsafe. And we may not be willing to take the steps necessary to do something meaningful. So you just ignore and walk by, because it’s inconvenient. The principle is probably the same everywhere.
Acknowledging the fact I’m gay undoes a lot of things for my mom. She has to cross reference that against religion. It’s easier to ignore. Let’s keep the party going, smile, take the photo. Don’t acknowledge the thing that could cause the rupture.
I’m enamored with the saying “don’t rock the boat.” It sounds sweet, but the implications are so dark and huge. Don’t rock the boat or what? You’ll fall into the ocean and drown. But it sounds so cute. So when you feel like you might rock the boat, there’s a lot of danger in that and you just don’t do it.
Tell me when I get too far off. I do free associative therapy. So I blame that for my tendency to get so far away from the questions.
How did you get into free associative theory and what have you learned about yourself?
I tried regular therapy—I’m sure there’s a technical name for it—and I didn’t really like it. I don’t like people giving me advice. I don’t even like nudges.
I got the idea for free associative therapy from watching Annie Hall, in which he [Woody Allen] is always talking about his analyst. I was like, ‘I live in NY, I should have an analyst.’ And looking into it, it seemed like the form I was looking for: something that allows me to question everything, where you can kind of trust fall. I’ll start talking about one thing, go on a million tangents, and then realize at the end of the session I’ve been talking about the same thing the whole time—that I never really left the subject.
You told Howard Stern that you and your mom have a “god-sized wall” between you. Has it come down at all over the last month?
No. Wise people tell me these things take time, and I choose to believe them. It makes sense. She’s gotta cross-reference that against everything she’s ever known and been taught by her mother. That ain’t easy. I had to do it for myself, so I get it.
It’s odd, because it’s created a certain amount of empathy that I think has probably informed a lot of my material, subconsciously. Finding empathy in weird places. Oddly connecting with my mother’s steadfastness and her strong belief system, even though it can be used against me.
I was listening to gospel music in the shower a week ago. I was listening to a woman sing passionately about Jesus, and it was so beautiful. But then I start thinking about my mom’s relationship to Jesus, and started imagining the singer being my mom. And realizing that religion is the wall that separates us, I started thinking of Jesus as the other man in my mom’s life. I started feeling jealous of Jesus, like, “Wow, she really does love this guy. It’s beautiful. I could never have what they have.”
You’ve called masculinity a “grand performance.” How have you been reckoning with your own performance of masculinity?
I told a friend recently that I take better pictures after coming out because I’m not scared of looking gay. I think I move better, move freer. Little things. I don’t worry about being a man anymore. I accept that I am. I don’t have to perform it.
I was doing a double performance, as you’re inclined to perform in certain environments. I’m from the hood, and there’s a lot of performance for protection or self-esteem. I know guys who have guns, but who do not want to shoot them: the gun is a performance, with consequences.
Sometimes stand-up can bring that performance out of me: it’s such a masculine sport. I did a show last night, and I’m sulking in my hotel room because I’m not happy with the set. I gotta stop doing shows with other people. It brings out a competitive side, which makes me go off course. It probably sounded more aggressive. It was true to how I was feeling, but it brought out a level of ego that I don’t need right now.
Does sulking help bring down that ego?
Yeah, it’s just me trying to forgive myself, pacing around. I remember reading about Tiger Woods after the first scandal, and how it made him aware of himself and what distracted or ruined his game. He didn’t forgive himself for mistakes, and you could still see him thinking about the mistakes of his previous hole. Accepting and forgiving and moving on is important.
I’m really hard on myself; I always have been. It’s nice sulking, though. It’s a lofty sulking. I love the movie Jackie. There’s a moment after John dies, she’s in the White House, just smoking and popping pills, pacing around in a daze. This glamorous haze of dresses and gowns, textures, and she’s sad. I go through that a lot: sulking in a cardigan and some silk shorts.
In your directorial film debut On the Count of Three, you play Val, who makes a suicide pact with his best friend. How do you and Val relate?
Existing with a cloud over our heads. I felt kind of at the end of my rope when making this film. I had grown tired of performing, and a lot of that pain motivated the film and my decision to do it.
What would you say to people who are turned off by the concept of a suicide comedy?
I get it. I’ve definitely written and performed a lot of subject matter that people say shouldn’t be done. But I believe the power of art is to explore interesting and rich subject matter, like suicide. It just has to be done with integrity.
You’ve cultivated a lot of really strong creative partnerships, including with Bo Burnham, who’s directed a couple of your stand-up sets (including Rothaniel) and Lil Rel Howery. What are the seeds of a really strong creative partnership?
Removing ego. Sometimes I have to fight the urge to get a thing in because it’s mine; because I’m so precious with the thought. You can get to that place where you’re boxing out people that have the same goal as you. You can’t get in the way of the thing.
Another one of your collaborators is Tyler, the Creator, who you interviewed about his album Flower Boy in 2018. Have you had any conversations with him about your coming out process?
I talked to T most days, probably. We talk about those things all the time: he’s a supportive, beautiful friend.
You move pretty fluidly between film, TV, and stand-up; mainstream fare and more experimental works. Has your success with Rothaniel impacted how you want to invest your time and energy?
When I’m doing stand-up, I’m doing stand-up. I think people can see how much care you put into things. It’s a lesson learned from Beyoncé: I always look at her performances and am like, “Wow, these look like time well spent. You actually worked for this!”
When I was in Budapest shooting with Yorgos [Lanthimos on the upcoming movie Poor Things], I wasn’t taking any calls; it was just that. Whatever I’m doing, I’m doing that thing. Sometimes it shakes out as “writer,” sometimes “director” from time to time. But it’s all just idea-first.
My colleague Judy Berman recently wrote an essay about famous stand-up comics too often using their platform to fight their haters, including Dave Chappelle, Bill Maher, and Hannah Gadsby. She writes that his approach “leaves little space left for introspection or humility or self-doubt.” Do you have any thoughts on that?
That’s a list of talented comedians. I simplify the argument to just, they have to be happy with their work. If what they find most interesting is speaking on their “haters”—and I’m using air quotes—then they should do that. There’s been some really good art directed at haters. I don’t think there are any rules.
I just hope every performer has urgency. I want the art form to thrive; I want it to feel exciting. I would always say, even starting at open mics, that everything I say has to be the most important thing in the world, whether it’s about me or someone else. The urgency is resonant. So, whether it’s toward haters or in the mirror or whatever you choose to explore, I hope you care very, very, deeply about it.
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