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Jerrod Carmichael’s new comedy special is everything Louis C.K.’s Sincerely is not

Grammy or no Grammy.

Comedian Jerrod Carmichael.
Courtesy HBO
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Jerrod Carmichael’s new HBO special Rothaniel, directed by Bo Burnham and filmed on a recent wintry night at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York, is a quiet comedy revelation. Carmichael first delves into the skeletons in his family’s closet (in short, prolific cheating from the men in his family), then reveals his own big secret: He’s gay. He takes viewers through a gentle coming-out narrative, interspersed with occasional questions and reassurances from the audience.

“I’m trying to be very honest because my whole life was shrouded in secrets,” Carmichael says at the end of the evening, “and I figured the only route I hadn’t tried was the truth.”

Carmichael’s approach to his coming-out is to turn his comedy stage into a place of healing and acceptance, in which the audience becomes his confessors. If Hannah Gadsby’s 2018 special Nanette has pushed comedians to balance serious themes with the need to make people laugh, Rothaniel is a new mediated space altogether — half comedy, half interactive therapy session. The jazz club setting lends an even more intensely improvisational feeling to Carmichael’s monologuing. It’s comedy as melisma, maybe, complete with stammers, pauses, and his admission that he’s still working some things out — both the comedy bits and the emotional bits.

The name of the special refers to a layered metaphor for that process — it’s the given name he’s tried to erase for years but has finally accepted as a messy part of himself. It’s perhaps lighter on laughs than Carmichael’s previous specials, but his particular, unhurried power has always come from a lack of neuroses about audience reaction, coupled with a willingness to deliver what he sincerely has to give. Here, he performs the mental and emotional toll of trying to repress something so huge until it comes spilling out — until honesty is the only thing you have left.

Two days after Rothaniel’s release, Louis C.K. won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album, for Sincerely, Louis CK, filmed in Washington, DC, in March 2020 and released to fans on his personal website a month later. The Grammy win comes four and a half years after multiple women in comedy made allegations of sexual misconduct against C.K., causing him to issue a demonstrative apology in which he vowed to “step back and take a long time to listen.”

The title of C.K.’s special might lead you to believe that it, like Rothaniel, contains a key to its contents — that C.K. is perhaps ready to level with audiences about his conduct and open up about what’s changed since the scandal. Instead, he seems to armor himself against a world he’s decided to battle. In conversation with Rothaniel, Sincerely offers us a striking glimpse of how “confessional” comedy means very different things depending on who’s doing the confessing.

The hugely delayed nature of the Grammys, delayed even more thanks to Covid-19, means watching Sincerely now, two years after its release, feels like an anachronism: C.K.’s performance was just days prior to the beginning of the 2020 lockdown, for an audience that perhaps understood the concept of an enclosed confessional space very differently than Carmichael’s intimate nightclub audience did two years later. The contrast between the two shows couldn’t be more striking: Carmichael softly working through his coming-out process to a small venue of often utterly silent listeners; C.K. greeting a crowd of 1,500 people who gleefully applaud his every dictum on pedophilia, disability, gay sex, and his sexual misconduct.

Throughout his decades of standup, and especially during the run of his once-influential TV show, Louis, C.K. favored material that tended toward observational empathy, with self-deprecation always tempered by a basic layer of goodness. Jokes about dating, for instance, looked honestly at women’s reasonable fear of men; jokes about plane wifi were fundamentally about how good we all have it. C.K. could be honest about his worst impulses because they were always tempered by his, and humanity’s, best.

Following his disgrace, numerous critics discussed how C.K. had built up a level of trust that allowed his audience to accept his darker material as part of the struggle of a man who shared their basic sense of morality. C.K. then destroyed that trust, at least for some, when he admitted to years of masturbating openly in front of many women in comedy. C.K. did this without their enthusiastic consent (or, in at least some cases, without any apparent consent), nor any regard to the huge power imbalance between them. After at least one incident, his manager allegedly attempted to silence some of the women.

Once the less-than-empathetic nature of his in-person interactions was revealed, it seemed that his performance of empathy was over too. Instead, something uglier snuck in: Nine months after his promise to listen, he resumed performing, with his comedy taking a pronounced turn toward the reactionary. During leaked club appearances from late 2018, he mocked Parkland survivors, nonbinary teens, and the loss of the “r” word. (That last one made it into the Grammy-winning special.)

Sincerely seems to be primarily about insincerity — his, ours, and how foolish we’d have to be to expect anything else. He talks about wishing he could be meaner. He calls his audiences hypocrites for pretending to be morally horrified by some tasteless jokes but not others. He says he hates New York, where he lived from at least 2006 until the implosion of his career. He makes fun of Orthodox Jews, Islam, and Japanese restaurant workers; he fantasizes about crushing the illusions of modest shopkeepers. Where once he might have pulled out a heartwarming humanist kicker, Sincerely seems to be about establishing C.K., and his audience’s, lack of empathy as the default. There’s no longer a collective wish for something higher. There seems to be nothing higher left to aim for.

At one point during the special, C.K. wonders if gay people might not prefer the days when gay sexuality was more of a taboo. Is there not, somehow, an illicit thrill in the deviance of queerness? he wonders — or if you want to look at it through another lens, from knowing people think you’re less human as a result of your sexual orientation? As a joke in isolation, it’s thoroughly whatever. But taken in the context of Sincerely as a whole, it’s a dick joke masquerading as an indictment, as a suggestion that queerness is a clever joke being played on the rest of us and that queer people are somehow in on it. For Louis C.K., sincerity now involves reconfiguring the world as complicit in his dishonesty — and ultimately as complicit in his misconduct.

“You don’t want to know ... who your real friends are,” C.K. says early in the special. “It’s never who you want it to be.” The obvious probing point about why some of C.K.’s better friends left him, and what kind of atonement might be necessary to restore their esteem, goes unmade.

Meanwhile, in Carmichael’s soliloquy, one of his closest friends tells him he felt “tricked” into having a gay best friend — because despite C.K.’s best efforts, the world he’s tried to reframe still threatens the most vulnerable people in it. Carmichael’s reckoning with his queerness — his family’s mixed reactions, the distance he feels from his mother, his internalized homophobia and fear, and the idea that secrecy and shame can become generational trauma — makes that abundantly clear.

While both men are angry, stinging from private betrayals, Carmichael doesn’t externalize his discomfort in the same way. Perhaps that’s because much of this is new and raw, but perhaps it’s also because externalized anger is costlier, riskier for Black, queer men in America than it is for the average disgruntled white guy.

Carmichael’s comedic honesty is born, in other words, from the kind of desperate need for freedom and self-expression that C.K.’s revamped comedy now seems to denigrate. Having lost the favor of his original audience but still amassing a huge amount of patronage, wealth, and power, C.K. chose to rewrite the world that disowned him rather than rewrite himself. Had he truly made good on his promise to “step back and take a long time to listen,” it’s hard to fathom him re-emerging with a worldview this cynical. But a byproduct of his weak analysis is that it makes a truly sincere inner reckoning like Carmichael’s seem that much more profound in comparison.

C.K.’s Grammy win — not just on its face but for this particular, aggrieved album — underscores the entertainment industry’s unwillingness to internalize many of the lessons of Me Too. C.K.’s moment of “realness,” when he finally talks about his behavior near the end of his special, stays unsettlingly superficial, framing his behavior as an unfortunate miscommunication about a weird sexual kink.

He segues into this from his “maybe gay people wish they were still taboo” bit — that fantasy of illicit kink was merely projection, of course. His ability to look honestly at human relationships, to see them through anything but his own lens, is shot. He gets a trophy anyway, sealing his absolute privilege over the women who were brave enough to name what he did. For those women, seeing their stories reappropriated by the man who assaulted them, and then stamped with approval by the Recording Academy, no less, must be the ultimate confirmation that nothing really changes.

His win suggests that men of great privilege, like C.K., can afford to be disingenuous about what confessional comedy really is. C.K.’s moment of so-called honesty costs him nothing. He risks nothing, and he learns nothing. Rothaniel, on the other hand, suggests that perhaps there’s a connection between the kind of comic who makes themselves vulnerable and open to profound interpersonal connection through their chosen medium and the kind of life experience that pushes a person toward a need for safety and acceptance in a society that marginalizes them. It suggests that there’s something higher to be gained.

C.K. might think he still needs safety and acceptance from the comedy community, but the type of worldview he evinces these days makes comedy a little bit less safe for the rest of us. The Academy might be eager to welcome C.K. back into the fold, but that just underscores the pernicious subtext of Sincerely: The sincerest thing about it may be its reflection of a societal structure that rewards unkindness, inequality, and denial.

That might be true, but Rothaniel shows us that those at society’s edges still seek truth, compassion, and healing, turning to increasingly unconventional spaces as more traditional avenues for community and acceptance remain closed. Carmichael finds that healing onstage on a snowy night at the Blue Note, performing comedy as something like a new, hybrid form of slow jazz improv. That achievement, ultimately, feels far more significant to comedy than the miserable laughs of Sincerely. One may have won a Grammy; the other feels like a far more meaningful reward.

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