The moment Jerrod Carmichael tells an audience that he’s gay for the first time in his life stretches into an impossibly long silence, until someone finally lets out a tentative “whoo!” from a corner of the room. As director Bo Burnham stays close on Carmichael’s face, the comedian doesn’t exactly smile, nor heave some obvious sigh of relief. But he does absorb the reaction: tentatively, at first, until he shifts into an even slightly more comfortable position he can assume until leaving on his own terms.
In “Rothaniel,” which premiered April 1 on HBO, Carmichael walks an astonishingly difficult tightrope between the fraught past and present to, he hopes, a more hopeful future. The crowd doesn’t fully realize this until some 20 minutes into the special, which otherwise starts out with Carmichael retelling old family stories — or, more accurately, his family’s long held open secrets, which intertwined with his own before he even knew it. Though Carmichael hosted “Saturday Night Live” with a broad smile the day after “Rothaniel” debuted, the special itself was filmed in February at a moment when he was clearly still struggling to reconcile what he wanted to say onstage with how it might complicate everything once he walked off.
It’s hard to describe how well he does this without just writing out his set, which is pointed, quiet, hilarious, and heartbreaking all at once. The emotional crux has Carmichael describing his shame at staying in the closet and his pain from close family members expressing their “love, with an asterisk” in return. It’s vulnerable in a way that makes both himself and his audience uncomfortable, by both default and design.
“Rothaniel” opens with Carmichael walking into New York City’s Blue Note jazz club as if he’s just another patron until he walks past all the tables to take his seat onstage. The venue choice is small and shadowed, which makes it perfectly suited to the set Carmichael’s about to deliver and the way in which Burnham chooses to film it. Carmichael sits on a low stool, encircled by a bright spotlight on a stage otherwise awash in blue. Burnham, who also edited the special, alternates between shots from within the crowd, the edge of the stage, and just off to the side of his face, almost too close up for comfort. Many standups work hard sell a certain image of a comedian taking themselves more seriously (see: Aziz Ansari’s self-conscious special “Right Now,” directed by Spike Jonze with handheld cameras to enforce a down-to-earth vibe that Ansari’s set never truly sold). “Rothaniel,” however, actually achieves an intimacy that makes watching it feel like eavesdropping.
Carmichael admits early on that he can’t be sure how the hour will end or how those in the room might react along the way. He looks out into the darkness and invites people to ask him questions, which he answers thoughtfully even when they don’t exactly give him the benefit of the doubt. He reacts to sporadic surprise from his audience by mirroring it with his own, which ranges from devastated (“at many points I thought I’d rather die than confront the truth”) to hyperbolic (“I feel you! Sometimes I’ll be in the shower and just be like, ‘fuck, I’m really gay!’”). He accepts the initial shock after he says the words “I’m gay” just as much as he accepts “the love” of the applause afterward. And yet throughout the night, even when he takes moments to gather himself or decide whether to make a joke at all, Carmichael remains in control of himself and the material alike.
One of the hour’s best punchlines, for instance, comes out of Carmichael solemnly affirming his support for “the Black family” to the audience’s audible approval. “It’s important to say this,” he says, in a tight shot denoting sincerity. “I believe that Black men should marry Black women and have Black babies, and raise them to be smart, good citizens.” Then, after a whisper of a beat, he grins and the camera leaps backward to sit amongst the crowd as he continues: “I think gay Black men should be able to fuck anybody we want! What is the consequence?! There are no Black babies coming from the kind of sex I have.” In this moment, he’s serious, and he’s joking, and he has the crowd right where he wants them.
The most pivotal moments of “Rothaniel” come toward the end as Carmichael openly grapples with how his coming out made his relationship with his mother a newly painful one. Then, he chooses to stare directly down the lens, as if he can see her waiting on the other side. As he well knows, making eye contact with his audience at home is a startling choice that contradicts the conventions of standup specials — and, not for nothing, might not have even registered to the actual crowd who were waiting for his next words in that moment.
He also knows, however, that he’s inviting people far beyond that room to see him exactly as he is, whether or not they’re ready to accept it. After spending so much time in his personal life avoiding the truth, and after a career of pretending cameras aren’t in his face even as he plays to them, Carmichael makes a deliberate decision here to not just be direct, but to be himself for all to see. He might’ve started “Rothaniel” walking a tightrope, but he ends it by steering himself to solid ground.
“Rothaniel” is currently available to stream on HBO Max.