Being reel: Jerrod Carmichael’s new special captures cultural confusion with brutal honesty

A performer sings into the microphone.
Directed by Bo Burnham, “Rothaniel” is Jerrod Carmichael’s newest special, released on HBO in 2022. (Courtesy: HBO)

CW: This article contains mentions of sexual violence

“This only works if we feel like family.” These precisely chosen words are among the opening statements of Jerrod Carmichael’s new special on HBO, “Rothaniel.” This is Carmichael’s first comedy special since the beginning of the pandemic and he doesn’t seem completely comfortable up there. He keeps repeating “I have so much to tell you,” and yet the viewer knows that this special is only 50 minutes long. Despite its short length, Carmichael dedicates his time to a thoughtful confession about his life and its connection to contemporary issues.

Even though it is explicitly advertised as a comedy special, it did not seem like Carmichael was trying to make jokes. Regardless, his natural humor peeked through, which made him feel human, and beautifully illustrated how even when the subject matter is serious, humor can be an effective tool for drawing empathy from an audience. This special was funny at its best and confusing at its worst, but it was a confusion that many people have related to over the past two years — a confusion of feeling disconnected from the world due to mass isolation. This confusion of self-discovery is something that lasts and something that Carmichael confronts head-on.

What seemed most interesting to me was how this confusion leaked into the contradictory feelings he has about family, trust and what it means to find your own identity. His initial plea to the audience to help him make the special feel like it’s among family suggests that he should feel a level of comfort with them and that the audience should feel a level of comfort back. This is manifested later in the special with audience members asking him questions during his special and challenging his beliefs. Even so, much of the special concerns his struggle with secrets in his family (mostly regarding infidelity) and his own secrets that he kept from his family for a long time (mostly regarding his own identity). 

In many ways, trust is something emphasized in this special as something that has been particularly lacking in Carmichael’s life. His own insecurities and questioning of his insecurities felt in some ways like the struggles of a teenage boy. I think the extent to which I could relate to Carmichael was mapped onto the extent to which I related to struggling to be honest about my own identity too. There are some differences between us, though — Carmichael is in his 30s, while I am 18.

This is not to say that Carmichael’s lamentations are a weakness of the special. In fact, it is what kept me watching. Carmichael’s honesty is something that I admired. His complaints about his family history were things I sympathized with and his struggles with his own identity and how to present them related to my experiences of finding out more about myself over the past year.

The special, directed and edited masterfully by Bo Burnham, really focuses on Carmichael’s face. For the majority of the special, Carmichael pontificates through a labored smile. He claims that he is not a “nice guy,” but you can tell that his labored smile is labored because he wants to please. I found myself glued to the screen because his face revealed so many more words than he could have spoken. 

The aesthetics of the special immediately felt familiar to me; the grainy and focused lighting, the close-ups, the somber music and views of New York City are all reminiscent of Aziz Ansari’s 2019 special “Right Now,” and I braced myself when I first watched. Ansari’s special came in the wake of his response to sexual misconduct allegations, and he used the special as a way to say his side of the story. 

Nothing like those headlines surrounded Carmichael, and his reasoning for being away from the microphone was about other projects, but something about this confessional comedy setting made me nervous. Previous confessional comedy specials never boded well for the comedians that gave them, and yet this special proved me wrong. It was actually honest — something lacking from the performative nature of other comedy specials I had seen recently

In some ways it might be corny or even exhausting to keep watching men share their vulnerabilities through comedy specials, but Carmichael’s special is different. He is not making grand claims about where society has “gone wrong,” nor is he reflecting on some recently passed political era and how it made him feel — leading to him telling us that we should feel how he feels about it. Instead, the special is personal and looks inward, and because it is personal to him, we start to feel like it is personal to us.

Especially in our generation, the loneliness of the pandemic has brought out resurgences in baking, journaling or practicing whatever kind of “self-care” is popular that week (whipped coffee people, I am looking at you). But in the down time between these acts of respite — or perhaps because of them — many of us experienced constant confusion: confusion about politics, about identity, about the future. 

Carmichael’s special reflects on confusions he has felt for decades. But the exploration of such confusion is meant as a refuge, a place where we can feel less alone. Confessional comedy should not be some diagnosis of the world’s issues. Instead, it should be a discussion of where we should go from here; it is the difference between a critique and a complaint, and Carmichael’s special performs the former and not the latter.

Adam Osman-Krinsky PO ’25 is from New York City. He loves movies and logs all his most recent watches on his letterboxd @Adam0k and is currently looking for a new alter ego.

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