Jerrod Carmichael on coming out, his movie about depression and pandemic survival

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A man with headphones around his neck and a red solo cup in his right hand and a fleece blanket draped over his shoulder
Comedian, actor and filmmaker Jerrod Carmichael makes his directorial debut with “On The Count Of Three.”
(Kayla James / For The Times)

Here’s a partial list of the purchases Jerrod Carmichael made over the course of the pandemic:

A keyboard.
A subscription to Duolingo.
A chess set.
Video games for the PlayStation 4.
Later, after it was released, a console and video games for the PlayStation 5.
And a virtual reality gaming system.

“All of these lasted about a week,” he said over lunch at Santa Monica’s Proper Hotel. “Just think sixth-grader hobby and attention span. At some point I go, ‘Hey, am I going to be the greatest of all time at this? Then I’m good bro.’ I play [“Grand Theft Auto”] because at evading the cops with five stars, I think I could realistically be a top contender.”

The comedian, who wrapped the third and final season of his beloved NBC sitcom “The Carmichael Show” in 2017, split his time in lockdown between his home in New York, hotels in Santa Monica, various family members’ houses in North Carolina and the L.A. home Bo Burnham shares with his girlfriend, “Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria.

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“Bo’s my best friend,” said Carmichael. “In the past couple years, I’ve lived with Bo and Lorene probably almost like half of [the time]. I talk to Bo every day, multiple times. It’s a very true friendship.”

In fact, Burnham directed Carmichael’s critically lauded HBO special “Jerrod Carmichael: Rothaniel,” which was released in late April. In it, the comedian comes out as gay and reveals that his name isn’t actually Jerrod at all but the amalgamation of his grandfathers’ names that the special is named after. (For the record, those names are Robert and Nathaniel.)

Just before the pandemic, Carmichael had completed filming his directorial debut — the 2021 Sundance selection “On the Count of Three,” a dark comedy about suicide in which he co-stars opposite “Girls” alum Christopher Abbott and Tiffany Haddish. That project is now hitting theaters nationwide on Friday.

"[We filmed] in the Before Times, but I did reshoots in the During Time — the biblical transition period that is March 2020 until, I guess, a couple of months ago,” he said. “I wonder when they knew to start A.D. They were mourning or whatever and someone was like, ‘Is anybody keeping count?’”

The Times caught up with Carmichael to discuss the current climate of comedy, coming out before a crowd of strangers and making a movie about suicide that balances gallows humor with emotional truth.

Two men, the one on the left holding a gun, outside a convenience store
From left, Christopher Abbott as Kevin and Jerrod Carmichael as Val in the 2021 film “On the Count of Three,” Carmichael’s directorial debut.
(Albert Camicioli / Annapurna Pictures / Orion Pictures)
A man in a red shirt sits on a spot-lit stage
Jerrod Carmichael onstage during his “Rothaniel” comedy special for HBO.
(HBO)

“On the Count of Three” is a dark comedy about the serious subjects of depression and suicide. What made you choose it for your directorial debut?

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It felt true to where I was at that time. We had a decision to make; me, Ari [Katcher] and Ryan [Welch], the writers. Like, “Alright, what’s the first film?” We had done television together and were trying to figure that out. Tonally, emotionally, it just felt right. It felt accurate. And so this was a story that they had written that I really connected with and fell in love with.

How did you connect to the story?

After the fact, it’s funny to talk about it with distance and reflect on it. I think my answer then would have been different than what it is now. Because now I see that period of my life as ... sometimes hard. I had reached my limit, I had kind of maxed out on my potential, I feel. And not as related to money or anything, just my way of being. I was closeted, just going through other personal things. I didn’t feel like I belonged in the environment that I was in.

And I know probably the big question would be, “Was I suicidal?” And I wasn’t. I wasn’t, thankfully. I’ve been with friends who’ve gone through that, and I’ve been with them in these moments that they let me into. I’m speaking cautiously about even the writers and their own personal inspiration for the material. But there was this kind of nagging sense of hopelessness that I was dealing with that the script just felt like, “Yeah, this is Val.” I actually named the character after my sister who dealt with depression.

Did she see it? What was her reaction?

She liked it. Her daughter’s in it. Her daughter plays my daughter at the end. Spoiler alert [laughs].

What made Chris Abbott the right choice to play opposite you?

Well, a few things. He connected with the script, which was the most important thing. But also we connected as friends during that time, and I’m thankful for that because I think he’s this incredibly talented actor. He’ll kill me if he reads this, but it was like him or Shia [LaBeouf]. Someone that could have this rage. I refer to [Abbott’s character] Kevin in the movie as “suburban Joker.” Like I can see this guy coming from the Valley and he’s of this era and it comes out in his music and certain little sparks in his lifestyle. He dyes his hair and he’s, like, searching. And Chris, I think, connected with that.

And having him there, both as an actor and as a friend, was good because he really ... not to sound too tender, but he held me in moments just as an actor and as a performer. He was there and very generous. I can’t imagine it being anyone else. He’s very funny in the film, he makes me laugh a lot.

A man is seen against the blue sky wearing headphones
“I was closeted, just going through other personal things. I didn’t feel like I belonged in the environment that I was in,” Carmichael said. “And I know probably the big question would be, ‘Was I suicidal?’ And I wasn’t. I wasn’t, thankfully.”
(Kayla James / For The Times)

Did you work with mental health professionals considering the film’s sensitive nature?

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Yeah the writers did, especially. They consulted with psychiatrists and that was important to get right. To take mental health seriously and to take suicide and depression seriously and the treatment for depression and suicid[al ideation] seriously and not have it be flippant. These aren’t rash decisions, it’s taking it seriously. So often you really only hear about it from the survival side of it. Very few things, I think, live in that moment.

Do you feel like it’s a hard time to be a comedian right now?

No.

Really?

Yeah, it’s an exciting time. It’s a profitable time. People are touring, people are doing great.

What are your thoughts, though, on the safety of performing stand-up right now in light of the Oscars slap and the recent Chappelle attack?

I think a lot of people are making the decision to perform their anger, which is dangerous and unfortunate. Because, to me, that’s no different than the assassinations of the ‘60s. Not to be overdramatic, but it leads to such things, and those thought patterns are dangerous. I don’t like those thoughts, I don’t like the thoughts that beget those thoughts.

For the Dave thing, it was a rapper that wanted some attention. But that’s what I’m saying about the danger of that thought process, right? Because we mock the ass-whooping, but it’s about the intention. John Wayne Gacy or the Vegas shooter, people who are on these crazy suicide missions, don’t mind the attention.

I don’t reward the dude that did that to Dave, I don’t reward Will Smith for that. If you’re mad and you want to box, go box.

To what extent do you think the violence of the moment is informed by the climate of extreme political correctness in the wake of cancel culture?

People instinctively will rebel. We create team sports. One thing contributes to the other. It’s just performing. It’s performing loyalty for your team. If you tell me I can’t say this, I’ll say it. Tell me I shouldn’t do this...

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For myself, I’m trying to move past that. My consequences and my stakes are all personal now. So it’s like, my high-wire act is me working through my own s—.

A man stands on a staircase looking at his phone
Carmichael pauses to have a FaceTime call with comedian and singer Bo Burnham during a Target run.
(Kayla James / For The Times)

Did you expect the conversation about the slap to continue for so long?

[Laughs] Were you tired? I got into real arguments. My friend Avery, she felt strongly about [Will] defending Black women. I’m arguing from the perspective of a performer. It was spirited for a few days like Monday, Tuesday, even Wednesday. It was exciting — and then at some point, it was like, I’m not f—ing straining a friendship over this, it’s not that deep. So ultimately, like a lot of things that aren’t Ukraine or whatever the f— is actually pressing, it’s like, who cares?

How do you feel the news of your coming out has been received?

I felt a lot of love in the room, in the special. And I’m happy the friends that I have ... they’ve meant a lot to me. I’m not the first gay man with a chosen family, but yeah, I get it.

How did you feel after filming the show? Was it cathartic?

Me and Bo and Lorene and Eli had Prince Street Pizza. There’s one in L.A. and one in New York. And we tried the Little Prince and it’s this square pizza: thick crust, sauce, cheese, more sauce. So good, so thick and rich. It was the best pizza I’ve ever had in my whole life. That’s how I felt immediately after taping that night. It was beautiful.

And then Bo got COVID and we just had an “Odd Couple” [situation] the whole week.

What made Bo right to direct the special?

There’s two ways to talk about Bo. As a comedian or writer or director, he’s incredibly thoughtful. He’s one of the few artists of our time that I believe is of our time, that embraces modernity and embraces the current feeling in such a truthful way. I think he looks for truth in his work and within himself and it can’t be said enough that he’s a genius. I truly believe that to the fullest extent of the word. That’s kind of why he directed, but it’s really because he was there for me as a friend.

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I needed him a lot over the past couple years and he has been there and he’s listened to me go through all of it. And it is not easy when a man in his early 30s is going through puberty. A man who works in words for living and has got a lot to say and has a lot of feelings. He’s been an amazing friend and just held my hand through a lot of it.

And taping was very easy because we’ve obviously had a lot of creative conversations leading up to it and during it — but while doing it, while performing, my best friend is there, you know what I mean? That gave me [the space to have a] no-think trust fall, which I think can make some great art. The director doesn’t have to be your best friend, but I think that symbiotic trust just breeds creative work. You can tell when an actor trusts the director or when they’re fighting it. You can see it. Fear shows on camera. I was just with someone that made me feel fearless, even just for a couple moments in New York. [Laughs].

How did you come to the decision to come out in this moment in time? Was it a response to reflecting on the men in your family or did that come after?

I felt tired of lying. It just became too much lies. Lies beget lies. Secrets feel gross and once you’re aware of it, it’s just a burden. Sin is its own punishment. The punishment for lying is that you’re a liar. It’s its own hell and I just grew tired of it.

And I’m very thankful that I was in an environment and a place where I felt safe, because I don’t know if I would have come out in North Carolina. I don’t see the route to that. Perhaps I would have, and things are changing, but I don’t know if I could have been that close to my family and this close to myself. I don’t know if those two things could exist. I mean, I wonder.

A man stands in front of a building holding a cup and a blanket.
Carmichael imitates a statue that once stood in this exact spot in Santa Monica. The statue, titled “In the Image,” by Ed Massey, is of a bearded homeless man wearing baggy clothes with a red blanket draped on his shoulders. The statue was toppled in 2021.
(Kayla James / For The Times)

Do you have a pre-show ritual?

A lot of this hour came together free associatively. I was very into clear thoughts, so staying clear. I listened to Harold Budd’s “Rosetti Noise/Chrystal Garden and a Coda” over and over. It’s all I listened to. Airplane mode probably for hours before the show. Sometimes coffee. No weed. No one backstage.

I don’t like people backstage because it makes me angry because I then become accommodating. I have to become fake and my voice changes and then I have to undo that before I go on stage. And it’s no one’s fault but I just need to be left alone. I have one agent who’s a f—ing lunatic, he only knows how to hit me [up] and to stop by at the wrong time. Love him, well-intentioned guy, but I truly want to kill him.

You never drink or smoke onstage or before a show?

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I may have, on the day, a little bit to drink. Even backstage some shows, maybe a little bit to loosen up. I don’t think it necessarily makes me better. A lot of shows — and especially those in which I am determined to work through something — no. But everything should have a purpose, you know what I mean? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. You just shouldn’t lose yourself in it. I’ve definitely gone too far before and I’ve been on stage slurring and embarrassing myself and I would like to never do that again.

What was it like living in New York when the pandemic hit?

I had just moved to New York. February 2020, just in time. I actually kind of miss dystopian New York. I think that’s when I really fell in love with it. It was just empty, cold, Gotham, desolate. A trash bag blows in the wind in an alleyway — kind of like really cool, cinematic. That was nice. If you think you love Times Square, I highly recommend Times Square empty. Times Square empty, I dare say, is the only way to see it.

What borough do you live in?

Manhattan, like a privileged f—. I’m in the West Village. Harlem has some incredible places, actually, but then I don’t know if I’m contributing to the problem or not. Like is it gentrification if I’m from the hood and made it? I don’t know. What are the rules? Who knows what the rules of gentrification are? So I live in lower Manhattan, that only gentrified the Irish in like the early 1900s [laughs]. That’s some gentrification we can live with.

Did you pick up any pandemic hobbies?

You know, it’s funny. I’m thinking of what was the pandemic to me? It was deliveries from the Polo Bar, Ralph Lauren had this beautiful green packaging. It was hookups. It was me playing “Dragonball Durag” by Thundercat for hookups. It was popcorn. It was long walks in the cold, cold city. That’s pretty much it.