Laughing Matters — Jerrod Carmichael, “Rothaniel”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

First of all, the space feels so small. That’s important. In fact, it might be crucial. Rothaniel, the new special from comic Jerrod Carmichael, begins with him walking into the front door of New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club from the snowy streets, moving past the bar, handing over his coat, and taking the stage after a few strong strides past an audience settled in the dark. And then he starts telling the truth.

Rothaniel is a stand-up comedy special. Like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, and vanishingly few other examples, it is so much more. With devastating intimacy, Carmichael lays himself emotionally bare. The special is already famous as an act of coming out, because Carmichael identifies himself as a gay man for the first time in a public setting. As opposed to the usual stage-managed act of celebrity revelation, carefully framed in celebration, Carmichael grapples with his immediate family’s resistance and the occasional umbrage of friends. It is complicated choosing to outwardly be the person that he was previously only inwardly, and, Carmichael heavily implies, not always there. The honesty of self took some time, too.

There are few months that can be identified as jokes in any traditional sense. Setup and punchline. Observation as a shared, conspiratorial assessment of the culture. The humor is solidly tethered to experience, emotion, and expression. More than any filmed performance I’ve even seen, the humor — and really every bit of it — is also dependent on interaction with the audience, and not in any traditional sort of comedy club crowd work. Early on, he urges the audience to be in the moment with him, a gentle urging to be participants. As the performance proceeds, Carmichael’s moments of silence are often punctured by comments and questions from people in the crowd, mostly structured with the care of an especially sensitive friend. The last ten minutes are so resonant with fragile spontaneity that it seems impossible that most of it could have been planned, at least up until the final statement, which is absolutely, exquisitely perfect.

Rothaniel confers a feeling quite unlike any other comedy special I’ve seen. Carmichael’s special is so personal that it feels like he has performed a trust fall towards the viewers. I’m proud to be one of those who reaches out to catch him.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

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