“I want that Sinatra type of fame,” says Jerrod Carmichael, gangly and beaming. “It’s not the ‘Whoever’s the hot pop star at the moment’ fame. It’s the ‘Walk into a room and everybody just kind of politely nods their heads’ fame. Sinatra fame.” He stops. “Which means this is the new ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.’ Which makes you Gay Talese.”
Do you, um, have a cold?
“I coughed a little! Hey, you’re controlling the narrative. You tell ’em I got a cold, I got a cold. You just gotta hang out with me for like two weeks. It’s me and you, man.” He pauses, deadpan, and looks around the airy Italian restaurant we’re dining in. “It’s a historic moment. I didn’t know I was the new Sinatra. A lot’s changed since this morning.”
A lot has changed since this summer, too. That’s when the 27-year-old stand-up comedian stole scenes from Seth Rogen and Zac Efron in the surprise hit Neighbors. This fall, he’ll continue working on the Untitled Jerrod Carmichael Pilot for NBC. And in a few days, his first special, Love at the Store, directed by Spike Lee — the director’s first such work since The Original Kings of Comedy, 14 years ago — airs on HBO.
For such a young performer, Carmichael is supremely loose in Love at the Store. He coaxes conversations out of hesitant audience members, routinely reaches for his notes, and holds an extra beat to let jokes simmer — some of which he’d never said onstage before. At one point he delivers a pretty good joke about a still-alive Martin Luther King Jr. selling mattresses: “”I had a dream … and you can too, on Tempur-Pedic’s new queen-sized …” — then dismisses it in real time. He will possibly never tell it again.
Filmed at the Comedy Store’s Original Room (capacity: 142) in Los Angeles, Love at the Store was Lee and Carmichael’s attempt to authentically capture the feeling of a real stand-up set. “A lot of comics, for their first [special], would do a theater,” Carmichael says. “Why? Well, because you should have it in a theater! But for me, look: I’m at the Original Room every week. I wanted it honest.”
Which doesn’t mean unambitious. Carmichael landed the hallowed HBO comedy special by bringing the project to the network directly (“the thing about them is they don’t have to do anything”), then solicited cinematographer Matthew Libatique (an Oscar nominee for Black Swan) to work the camera and producer DJ Premier (a rap heaven nominee for Biggie’s “Kick in the Door”) to do the music. As for Spike? A cold call.
“I was listening to a jazz song that his dad made, in my apartment,” Carmichael explains. “And I reached out. And within 24 hours I get a phone call from a Brooklyn number.”
“People treat specials like it’s a factory product,” he says. “We’re gonna churn out this many. It’s like meeting a quota. And what’s special about that?”
“Do you know how many teachers I’ve had whisper in my ear, You’re not like the others?” Carmichael jokes in Love at the Store. “That was really the setting,” he says now, of his childhood in the public schools of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “I grew up in what my mom will always dispute as ‘the hood.’ She just doesn’t like the name. But it had its similarities to any neighborhood like that. The all-black neighbors and the all-black problems and the all-black happiness. And I really loved it.”
Carmichael has a bit about his dad. “You know what ruined my rap career? My father just wouldn’t leave,” he says. “I remember turning 16 and being like, ‘Dad, look, I’m starting to write these rhymes. Maybe you can just get the fuck out?’” And truthfully, his father, a truck driver, and mother, a secretary, were always there and supportive. He didn’t write papers in high school, always turning in video assignments instead, like a re-creation of The Old Man and the Sea with a boat made out of couch cushions. His parents, along with his brother and sister-in-law and guys from the neighborhood, would all help shoot his little sketches: “We were like a more functioning Jacksons.”
In the proud basketball state of North Carolina, Carmichael was an anomaly. “I played basketball for one quarter in eighth grade and then I faked a knee injury. Someone once called me ‘tall for no reason.’” So it was up to the teachers, not the coaches, to push him. In fifth grade, one gave him the reins to the school’s morning news program, letting him produce and anchor the whole thing practically by himself: “That changed everything for me.” In eighth grade, another teacher encouraged fierce debates, helping Carmichael realize for the first time that he could use comedy, as his own “superpower,” to win a room.
His first time in front of a proper audience came at his family’s local Baptist church, where he read the announcements and sang in the choir. His uncle, a minister, was an inspiration. “I loved watching him speak.” Carmichael says. “He’s great and dynamic and engaging, and it feels like a conversation.”
But when he moved to L.A., at age 20, to pursue stand-up, he’d never actually performed before. The West Coast was a calculated move: He had extended family in New York and wanted to walk the tightrope without a safety net. “It was deflated air mattresses,” Carmichael recalls. “Studio apartment with four people in it, just, like, in respective corners. But you go through the phases, you scrounge up money from where you can, you make a couple dollars for a gig, and it just builds.”
When he was growing up, Carmichael had a nightly routine: He’d bake cookies and watch The Daily Show. Dead broke, he couldn’t afford cookies in L.A. “You be surprised how many elements are needed to bake cookies,” he says. “You need an oven. You need eggs. Or even just a plate. All things I didn’t have.” Things are going well now, and so: “I’m eating cookies again!”
Carmichael orders a salad, quickly picking out and eating all the arugula. “I’m always trying to please the metaphorical mom that’s yelling at me about this,” he says. “Eat your vegetables! Fine. Fine. I’ll eat the arugula.” He doesn’t do drugs, and he barely touches alcohol. “I drink like a divorced woman. Every now and then I’ll have a glass of wine at lunch. Completely changes your day.” It’s of a piece with his ambition. “You wanna stay productive. You wanna stay in the zone. I love the clear mind.”
As a writer on Loiter Squad, Odd Future’s Adult Swim sketch show, Carmichael got to know Tyler, the Creator, another young man whose commitment and vision are obfuscated by his general slacker aesthetic. “That’s the thing we both respect about one another,” he says. “Working very, very hard. And knowing exactly who you are as an artist.”
Carmichael has carefully developed what he proudly calls his “art.” “Being very, very honest,” he says, “I’ve watched more Bill Clinton speeches than stand-up specials. Steve Jobs commencements. They’re just great orators. I love people who boldly share their point of view.” Over the years he’s gone from writing complete jokes to notes that “look like grocery lists”; one word per topic, off which he’ll say whatever comes to mind.
“I used to have more reservations onstage,” he says. “I remember having this feeling that there’s something more I should be saying. I prayed about it. I really tried to figure it out. And one night at the Brea Improv I was talking about how bad I didn’t want children. And then I’m thinking, I don’t know if the audience wants to hear this next thing. I don’t know if they can handle it. And a guy in the audience, he just yelled, ‘Keep going!’ Really, it was like a gift from God.”
Later that night I catch a set from Carmichael at a cramped basement club in Manhattan. He seems almost allergic to using his established material. Instead, he weaves and feints with the crowd, goading them by defending adultery and praising the above-all greatness of money. “If you’re rich, you don’t think it’s OK if you cheat?”
Some of his jokes directly contradict what he’s told me over lunch, and I wonder if the joy is in the uneasiness; as long as he’s sweating, there’s value in it. But Carmichael’s antagonism, if that’s what it is, never goes angry or loud. His whole set is hushed, forcing the audience to lean in close. It’s uneven and evidently brilliant by the time he gets around to imagining bouncing his little grandchildren on his lap and telling them of his greatest achievement: the time he fucked Will Smith.
In the past few years, as Carmichael has bounced between comedy clubs and writers’ rooms and cartoon recording booths, there’s been another steady pursuit: walking out of auditions. “There’s the famous story about Larry David,” he says. “He gets onstage, he looks at the audience, and he’s like, ‘Nah. This isn’t gonna work.’ And he walks off. He just knew. And I feel that way in auditions. I walk in, I see a bunch of versions of me, and then I go and mark my name off the list. I think about the role — is this just to be on television? Just to have my face up there? Because if that’s it — nah, I’m cool.”
But Carmichael says that doesn’t contradict his ambition.
“To me the ambitious part is how do you get out your art,” he says. “Eddie Murphy did 48 Hrs. because that was the only movie offered to him. And he killed it. Bill Cosby did I Spy because that was the TV show he was offered. But now, there are networks dedicated to comedy, and the Internet … it’s so easy for comedians to not do things that aren’t true to them. To do it just to get on TV? To me, that’s misguided ambition. You’re just throwing spaghetti at the wall, hoping maybe something’ll stick.” He waits a beat, looks down at our carb-filled plates. “By the way, it’s gonna be all pasta puns from now on.”
Neighbors was one of the few auditions Carmichael opted not to walk out on. Good thing he didn’t. In his first movie, as a happy-go-lucky frat dude with penis-mold problems, Carmichael was a natural; he says people are already shouting quotes at him on the street. It’s still in negotiations, but if things work out, Neighbors director Nicholas Stoller will be involved with Carmichael’s NBC project.
“Jerrod exudes niceness,” Stoller says. “And that niceness disguises a dark center. He’s the perfect vessel for a hard comedy. He’s interested in hypocrisy in America, and he’s trying to get at the truth. And honestly, the more truthful you are, the harder people laugh.” Ask Carmichael the specific plot details of the show, though, and he demurs, offering little more than “I’m a huge fan of Norman Lear.”
As an ascendant comic, Carmichael can’t avoid being lumped in with a few other rising names — guys like Ron Funches, Michael Che, and Hannibal Buress, guys who provide a viewpoint at least similar in its newness or obliqueness. And guys who are, oh, right, also black. “Here’s the thing,” Carmichael says about that. “As far as lumping me in with Hannibal and Michael — with all due respect — I mean, it’s kind of the laziest thing you can do.” That Carmichael is friends with many of them — Buress even pops up in a crowd scene during Love at the Store — doesn’t really matter. “Of course someone’s gonna say, ‘Oh, it’s like Chappelle … ’ But I just wanna be so authentically myself where you can’t make the most immediate comparison. I just wanna be so authentically myself that you’ll stay with me.”
As we prepare to pay the bill, the waiter informs us that HBO has already taken care of the meal. Carmichael’s disappointed. “That cuts out my whole thing,” he says, his voice rising. “I was gonna have a Sinatra moment! Just slam a wad of cash down, go out and kiss a girl on the way out. You’d be like, ‘Who is she?’ ‘I just met her!’ Just the coolest shit ever. That’s how we were gonna do it. Now it’s just, ‘I can’t right now.’” He smirks again. “All right, come on, I’ll walk you to the subway.”
Illustration by Gluekit.