Jerrod Carmichael is hilarious and heartbreaking in his new stand-up special Rothaniel
We think secrets protect us, and sometimes they do. Is it worth it, if they simultaneously devour us from within? It’s the heart of Jerrod Carmichael’s mighty stand-up special Rothaniel, his third for HBO and his third overall. It’s a hilarious, courageous and heartbreaking work about Carmichael coming out in his thirties and how his Southern family reacts to his newly revealed homosexuality. It’s also a depressing real-life example of how the people who love us the most can find it hard to love the person they see us once we’ve revealed our secrets.
Carmichael’s comedy has always been defined by contrasts. He’s a quiet, soft-spoken, conversational comic whose soft tone and drawling voice grabs the audience’s attention, but he also has a contrarian streak. In his last HBO special, 2017 8it’s understated and confrontational, challenging the presumed respectable beliefs of a liberal audience and underscoring how politics often lose out to comfort and convenience.
In Rothaniel, Carmichael doesn’t try to provoke his audience, but he always focuses on conflict. This time, however, it’s his own internal conflict as he learns to accept and open up about his homosexuality, while responding to his family’s lack of support and understanding of who he is. Along the way, he not only delves into his own secrets, but also those of his father and grandfathers, exploring sex’s unique ability to completely blow a family apart.
Compared to his really sad second half, the first 30 minutes of Rothaniel point out the fucked up way our society views sexuality. For half an hour, Carmichael discusses the infidelities of his grandfathers and father, the many children the two grandfathers had out of wedlock, to his father’s affair with his childhood friend’s aunt. Carmichael’s stories of womanizing grandfathers, 90s porn hideouts, fatherly infidelities and his parents’ own sex tape are absolutely hilarious, and the kind of unrestrained courage that comedians who just want to be from little assholes about politics and so- called “cancel culture” can only hope one day to match. Carmichael sorts through generations of dirty laundry both to better understand himself and to entertain his audience, and the result is the funniest stand-up I’ve seen this year.
And then he shifts the spotlight from his family to himself, telling the crowd crammed into the Blue Note on a snowy night that he’s gay. Carmichael and the audience together sort out what that means, how his dad and macho brother don’t know how to react, and how his mom just refuses to acknowledge it or engage with her son about the man he’s East.
The second half of Rothaniel is a therapy session. He’s a man who solves his most personal problems on stage in front of a supportive audience – and on HBO Max in front of anything. Saturday Night Live fans decide to broadcast the new special by the latest host of this show. It’s an intimate, almost uncomfortable conversation about how Carmichael’s mother essentially broke his heart with her reaction (or lack thereof) to his revelation. Carmichael bares his soul as his audience asks him about his mother and tries to talk to him about some kind of hope, only for the comic to grow more visibly crestfallen the more they discuss it. He even admits that he’d rather she be mad about it, because at least that would be a legitimate response, than completely refuse to engage with the situation. Despite Carmichael trying to force his way into a positive attitude, despite his fans trying to cheer him on, and despite ending on a big laugh he put together with the very first line of the special, Rothaniel is ultimately one of the saddest comedy specials you’ve ever seen and one of the most moving and masterful performances by a comedian ever committed to tape.
Carmichael lays bare the trauma he’s been through telling his family who he really is, while brilliantly exposing how society — and, most importantly, his own mother — is more accepting of a straight man who serially cheats on his wife than he is. a gay man merely existing. It’s both a refutation of the male environment Carmichael was raised in and a brutally honest depiction of the difficulty of escaping the culture that shaped you. It’s another reminder that the best comedy makes you experience something more than laughter and makes you feel something other than the anger, confusion, contempt, or superiority that so many stand-up comedies rely on. Rothaniel a surprising work of confidence and bravery, and so far the best comedy special of the year.
Editor Garrett Martin writes about video games, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything that gets in his way. He is also on Twitter @grmartin.