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Jerrod Carmichael Was Terrified of Being Seen, So He Made a Reality Show: ‘This May Be Unhealthy. It Is a Little Dangerous’

“Can we go someplace even more remote?”

I’m standing with Jerrod Carmichael in Austin, Texas, the morning of the SXSW premiere for the comedian and actor’s new HBO reality show, titled, appropriately, “Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show.” I’d chosen a quiet spot for the interview on the terrace outside his hotel, but when Carmichael clocks a few people within earshot, he starts to lead me as far away from prying eyes and ears as he can.

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“I’m always just looking for corners to hang out in,” he says, as he scans his surroundings. “I live for a little corner.”

Carmichael is swimming inside a billowing black hoodie and equally roomy sweatpants, dazed enough after flying in from London the day before that he’s surprised to learn Daylight Saving Time started overnight. Eventually, he homes in on a lone table and chairs situated on a patio space so blindingly bright in the Texas morning sun that no other human would ever want to sit there.

As seems to happen with Carmichael, it is an uncanny choice. In the eight-episode docuseries, which premieres on HBO and Max on March 29, Carmichael presents a self-portrait so relentlessly candid that it can at times feel lacerating — for Carmichael and many of those closest to him. Working with his friend and collaborator Ari Katcher (“Ramy”) and documentarian Eli B. Despres (“Couples Therapy,” “Weiner”), Carmichael spent roughly 18 months documenting his life following his decision in 2022 to come out as gay on his Emmy-winning standup special “Rothaniel.”

For the 36-year-old, that meant filming blistering confrontations with his father (about the family he started with another woman) and mother (about her unshakable refusal to accept his sexuality), as well as extravagantly awkward conversations with friends, like when he forces Tyler, the Creator to talk about the feelings Carmichael has for him. Most striking is how Carmichael uses the show to pry apart his own flaws, including his pathological inability to remain monogamous with his new boyfriend. Much like his semi-autobiographical sitcom “The Carmichael Show,” which ran on NBC from 2015-2017, Carmichael also uses “Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show” to interrogate the concept of reality television itself, making the presence of the cameras an ongoing feature of the series.

When Carmichael speaks with me in Austin, it’s the first time he’s ever talked about the show with a journalist, and he starts by apologizing for how often he sits in silence — at one point, for 30 seconds — as he thinks through how he wants to answer. “Forgive the warmup,” he says. “I get hit with a bunch of thoughts at once.”

In the unrelenting sunlight, Carmichael vacillates from quiet contemplation to surprising candor, as we talk about his vision for the series, why he struggles with the morality of including his parents on the show, why “Network” was a crucial inspiration, and how making the series as an out gay man has changed how he thinks about himself as an artist.

Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show
Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show

How did you get started doing this show?

I wanted to make something that got my attention. Reality has my attention. Twitter has my attention. Instagram has my attention. My life has my full attention. My last special was a message to my mom. I felt like parts of my life could play out like a sitcom and actually have real stakes and a lot of tension. So I figured, let’s just combine everything that has my focus anyway.

Did you know right away that you wanted the show to be about making a reality show?

Well, it’s real. The cameras aren’t hidden. We’re aware of the camera’s effect. So it would be false to not acknowledge it. I kind of got obsessed with the idea of making a real reality show. Like, what happens on “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” in between takes? What are those conversations?

Over what timeframe did you shoot?

We started around the time of the 2022 Emmys, until very recently. I keep a camera on me, so it’s been a lot of like personal moments with me in the camera, my relationship in the camera.

What has that relationship been like?

I was very afraid of cameras, even as an entertainer. I recognize that they’re powerful and I’ve always been afraid of being seen. Even this [points to voice recorder] — I’m thinking about this device. The audio of my voice is being captured. I’m obviously concerned with, all right, is there any manipulation that could happen with this? You can’t hear my tone in the piece that you’ll write. Sarcasm doesn’t play in print. I learned that the hard way.

So there is a certain mindfulness. You’re getting a version of me that’s, like — I’m able to be honest, but like, there is a step [removed]. The more we talk, the more comfortable I’ll get, and the more I’ll be able to forget about it. I know it’ll capture the truth. That’s the thing about cameras, and anything you record. It does capture the truth and that’s so scary if you’re afraid of being seen. I spent so much my life hiding, and anything I’m afraid of, I want to do it. Like, I’m afraid of heights, so I went skydiving. I’m afraid of being seen, so I made a reality show.

You had a camera on you, so was this a 24/7 experience?

It had goals. There are things in my life that I needed to do, and those things play out like stories. So it is structured. It doesn’t wander. We could have done that, where it’s just me in deep contemplation. But no, it’s always me moving towards something, dealing with an issue in my family or my relationship. I got used to the cameras being there. You can see it as the show progresses. You see my reservations start to go away. But definitely, it took some time.

How did you convince your parents to participate?

I’m trying to think of how to answer that without sounding immoral, because I do kind of question the morality of the show, in some ways. At least that’s been a question brought up by close friends who’ve seen it and some who’ve been involved in it. With my parents, there’s two ways of looking at it, right? I’ve written them — had a sitcom where I wrote, from my perspective, what my parents would say. “Rothaniel” is love letter to my mom — or at least a plea.

And I look at it as allowing them to speak for themselves. “What do you have to say about me? What do you have to say about any of this?” Convincing them? It’s hard and it’s easy. The better answer would be to say they did it because they love me. They’re also on payroll, and [laughs] they owe me this. That’s a colder way to look at it.

My father said no, and took a lot of convincing from my brother to do it, because he was afraid of what I wanted to talk about. My mom’s actually one of the only people in my life in the show who is exactly who she says she is. That’s caused me a lot of pain, but there’s also this weird admiration that I have for that, that she’s the only one that doesn’t second guess it. Like, she doesn’t like the attention. She doesn’t want to be on television. But she’s willing to show up as herself and say her actual beliefs directly to the lens, directly to me.

Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show
Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show

There’s a person in the show wearing a mask over his head that the internet is convinced is Bo Burnham, who directed “Rothaniel.” Is it?

The figure with the mask over his head is a friend of mine whose identity I’ll protect. I won’t say who it is ever.

Have you worked with this person before?

It’s just a friend of mine. All questions asked about them, I’ll not answer. It’s the amount of protection that I want to provide for this person.

Totally fair. On the show, you talk about how you don’t know how to have certain intense conversations with your friends and family if they’re not on camera. Why is that? Is having the camera a kind of safety net?

[Long pause] The camera sees all and knows all. I am afraid of being lied to. I’m afraid of people telling me things that they think I want to hear. Having conversations on camera just guarantees that some truth will be captured, and something will be taken from it. It gives it purpose.

When I’m home in North Carolina, my mom makes me dinner, and we’re sitting with the TV trays and the television’s on and we’re commenting on the local news. And it’s a lot of, “Oh, you just got in from New York? How’s New York going?” “Yeah I was in L.A. for a couple of weeks.” “OK, yeah, that’s pretty good.” “Whatchu been up to?” It’s like that, the immediate surface-level conversation. I’m terrified to go any place deeper. It just feels like the world could end if say the wrong thing or ask the wrong question. Or if I bring up something about my life, like my boyfriend, and it’s not received the right way. I said to my mom when I first came out, “Be careful what you say, because whatever you say, I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

Like, I’m always recording anyway, and something about the camera being there for those moments and for those conversations, it gives what I’m recording [in my head] meaning and purpose.

In “Rothaniel,” you talk about how you still can’t quite believe that you’re gay, that you’re still integrating it into your sense of who you are.

Yeah.

Is part of having cameras there allowing you to have some separation from the intensity of that feeling?

I never thought of it like that. I’d have to stop and think about that. [Very long pause] There could be something to that. A lot of it has to do with my performance of myself. Day to day life is a performance of self anyway. Coming out made me have to contend with how I viewed the performance and how I saw myself. Capturing a lot of these really deeply private and personal moments has allowed me to see myself.

Yeah, I can’t tell if the camera is offering me more protection, or doing the opposite — like, if it’s so unsafe, and that’s what I like about it.

That there’s no escape?

There’s no escape. It’s the most dangerous level. It’s so permanent and inescapable. That’s what I’m struggling with. I can’t tell which. I haven’t thought about it from that angle. I wish I had a better answer for you, or an answer.

I mean, whatever answer you have is valid.

Yeah, that’s why I used the analogy of skydiving. Like, “Rothaniel” — my biggest fear was telling people I was gay. That was my biggest fear. And I did that on camera. That was in many ways the wildest way to deal with your biggest fear. I do find purpose in trying to make art out of that, trying to create something out of my biggest fears. That is the premise of “Rothaniel”: “Man Afraid of Heights Skydives on Camera.”

You referenced the Kardashians earlier — how much reality TV in general did you consume before doing this show?

It’s come up. I brought up the Kardashians because my mom really likes them. She loves the Kardashians, and a show like “The Chrisleys.” She really, really loved “The Chrisleys.” That show stopped because he went to jail. And I’m like, man, the roads leading to jail would have been the more interesting version to me.

Is this a part of why you want to include the cameras in the show?

A lot of what I like about it is how do we challenge the form? The people that I work with made the Anthony Weiner documentary. My favorite movie character is Howard Beale [from 1976’s “Network”]. He’s snapped. He’s going to say these things regardless. He just so happens to be on television, saying these things. Faye Dunaway’s character is just like, “Look, this man’s crazy, and he doesn’t even realize what he’s doing. We might as well make good television out of it.”

The “Weiner” doc felt like that to me. I aspire to do that. I have enough of a desire for chaos that, if I’m going to do it anyway, then let’s bring in the cameras. This probably is horrible for me. This may be unhealthy. It is a little dangerous.

Listen, this [show] is edited and manipulated in some ways. So is this truthful? I don’t know. I tried. I’m trying to be Howard Beale. I’m not in the editing room. I’m just trying to give all of myself, just trying to try to really challenge the form, challenge the real in reality.

Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show
Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show

Is there anyone you can look to who has walked this particular path this publicly? Is there another Black comedian or Black writer who has come out that you can at least see some of your own story there?

I guess there’s two parts to that. I’ve been really obsessed with RuPaul lately, especially after coming out, because RuPaul’s just so interesting and done so much. I remember as a kid seeing RuPaul on Arsenio and being interested — and also needing to hide that interest, trying to react the way the other men in my life would react to RuPaul. Now I’m realizing all the stones that have been thrown at RuPaul, it’s kind of how I feel now.

I feel like I’m making something I would have wanted to see as a child, that I hadn’t seen before. It does feel new. There’s a Jay-Z quote I’ve been obsessed with about being “the first one over the hill.” I do feel like I’m in a battle, and I’m the first one to run over the hill. I’m going to get hit really hard. Even some of the response to the trailer, it’s been like, oh, yeah, I forgot. (Laughs) I made it earnestly, but I’ve been hit with some arrows. It’s exciting, but it also doesn’t feel good. I think I’m up for the challenge. There are people who’ve done dangerous things before that I really admired. But it feels like new territory in some ways.

Is documenting this process of self-discovery you’re going through perhaps so anybody else who comes out after you has something to look for?

Yeah. It’s the first time I’ve felt any sense of responsibility in art. I’ve actively rebelled against that, because I always felt like it seemed to make too much broccoli. But I feel a responsibility to a young gay person who might have had this experience. I know I’m not the first gay Black man with a Christian mom who’s contending with how he sees himself. But I haven’t seen this process play out. It’s difficult. It’s very uncomfortable. But yeah, I hope it does some good.

That’s where me and my mom actually agree. I had a conversation with her the other day about the trailer. I like to ask questions I know the answer to. My parents, when “The Carmichael Show” was on, if a plumber came over, they would tell him, like, “You know, our son has a show on NBC.” With this trailer, I’m making out with boys. I asked if she shared it with any of her friends. And of course not. But where my mother and I aligned — the only spark of light in that conversation — was that we both hope that it does some good. We might have competing definitions of good, but we both hope that the show does good. We have that common ground.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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