But It's Comedy, So Laugh

The agony and the apathy of Jerrod Carmichael in ‘8’

Jerrod Carmichael starts the trickery in his new HBO special with the title, 8. I’ve spun into obsession trying to decode the meaning of this single symbol. 8 is Carmichael’s second stand-up special. As far as I know, he doesn’t have a vault somewhere with six more hiding, which rules out reading the title as a Zeppelinesque chronological milepost. It’s also not a pull from his material, in the mode of so many stand-up specials. None of his set-ups, punchlines, premises, tags or ad libs even casually reference the number. So what is “8?” Why is 8? I’m embarrassed to admit how much I care.

“Eight is a really personal and recurring number in my life” is the only public explanation I’ve found, and I’m sorry, but that’s just not enough for the reader-response critic in me.

Maybe the title is a play on the ridiculousness of naming specials at all, the way the Replacements called their fourth album Tim as if it were just some guy. I like this theory, but I don’t love it. For one thing, the number doesn’t make that joke as well as a person’s name. For another, that would mean the title is technically the first joke of the special, which would be clever, but that sort of jokes-to-the-gills maximalism isn’t Carmichael’s style. Instead, the title seems less a joke than an inscrutable fact marking the special as a monolith to behold and ponder.

All of this is to say I’m close-reading a stand-up comedy special like it’s Ulysses. As a comedian, I get what a bad look this is. It stinks of jealousy. It’s also stand-up comic code not to talk comedy-as-art for long, if at all, without cracking a joke. It screams pretension. But I can’t help the truth: watching 8 gets me jealous and pretentious. I’m leaning into it.

Throughout 8, Carmichael takes the opposite approach. He pulls away to tell the audience the myriad things about which he doesn’t care: the environment, the lives of tigers, all the work it takes to maintain a relationship. His biggest care over the course of the hour seems to be impressing upon us just how little he cares. Here is a sample of the ways he emphasizes his apathy:

  • I want to care about things. I really do.
  • I want to feel.
  • I wish I felt things.
  • I’m trying to care and feel things and feel strongly about things.
  • I tried to care. I really did. It means a lot to me that you know that I tried.

These are transitions — his equivalents to “So what else is in the news?” — not his jokes. There are plenty of other pieces about 8 that can vouch for the quality of Carmichael’s punchlines, thanks to the press’s willingness to engage in the point-missing exercise of printing a comedian’s jokes without context in black and white. But my favorite review of the special comes from an IMDB post, written by French user Ersbel Oraph, with the subject line “Did not laugh once:”

I did not laugh once. The whole hour. Yet he is good. I would go as far as compare him to George Carlin. If he is that good before 30, maybe he will go far beyond what Carlin did two decades later. I don’t know. I will have to see it. But now, he is good. The tempo is slower, but his public is less used to his kind of thoughts. And Jerrod is good. […] I did not laugh once. I was shocked people laughed in the audience. But it’s comedy, so laugh.

While I laughed more than once watching 8, Ersbel and I fundamentally agree. And Jerrod is good. His craft is pristine and chock full of tricks. He extracts laughs from repeating a sentence but emphasizing different words (He turns “I had a dog” into “I had a dog,” and the line goes from set-up to punchline in the process). He masters misdirection by posing big questions and surprising with small answers (“What do I believe in?” leads into a bit about the exhilaration of avoiding a pregnancy scare). He pauses in the discomfort of his provocative premises before puncturing them with punchlines, and he generates extra laughs from doing so (Calling a boyfriend’s job thankless prompts awkward giggles even before he unspools an ideal example of an unsolicited supportive text message to prove the point). He interacts with audience members without relinquishing control, by asking them questions and responding to their answers with comebacks that reveal those answers as inessential (His opinions about animals and the environment are built to withstand the objections he solicits). He’s alley-ooping to himself off the backboard of his unwitting audience.

Carmichael is not a one-liner guy, neither is he a storyteller nor exactly a confessional comic. Rather, he belongs in the Bruce-Carlin-Chris-Rock lineage of truth tellers confronting us with our hypocrisies and shading in the gray areas between the cracks in our black-and-white culture. He also does this on his NBC show, “The Carmichael Show,” a throwback to Norman Lear capstones like “The Jeffersons” and “All in the Family” that used their TV families to explore difficult social issues. In episodes like “Gender” and “Guns,” the TV Carmichaels speak their minds, whether in conflict or agreement with each other’s plainspoken opinions. It’s a welcome surprise to see a show so blunt on thorny topics, knowing it’s on network TV. It’s hard to imagine Leo Burnett clients begging for airtime during the breaks in a story about Jerrod being a Big Brother to a trans high school basketball player.

It’s an even bigger surprise that Carmichael’s approach to similar subjects onstage is less strident than on TV, not more. He still discusses uncomfortable ideas, but instead of attacking them directly, he waffles, mumbles, false-starts, then changes course mid-sentence. Even more than his forebears in stand-up, Carmichael comes across like a comedy Montaigne. Sarah Bakewell wrote in her biography, How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, “Every few phrases, a new way of looking at things occurs to him, so he changes direction. Even when his thoughts are most irrational and dream-like, his writing follows them,” which applies equally to Carmichael in 8.

His waffling can be a trick too. Carmichael presents himself as a bumbler to the live audience, but he knows the force of his punchlines, even if he hasn’t predetermined his path to them. This is clear in the film when close-ups show Carmichael’s eyes alert and scanning the crowd like prey, betraying a similarity to the tigers he claims not to give a shit about. He has crafted an act that is the spoken version of a James Harden crossover.

Carmichael’s stutter step is on full display in those apathy-touting transitions that predominate the first two thirds of the special. I fell for the deke when I thought his seemingly endless claims not to care only highlighted his youth. It’s easy to be carefree when you’re young. There’s a Steve Martin quote that goes something like, “When you’re young, you make all sorts of dark jokes and think nothing of it. Then when you get older, your friends start dying, and you think twice. I’m definitely Steve Martin, and I’m pretty sure I or someone like me said this or something close to it.” I saw Carmichael’s apathy as a comedy phase he’d outgrow.

What I failed to see at first was the way his transitions change toward the end of the set. Here’s another sample of between-bit utterances from late in 8:

  • What am I rebelling against?
  • What do I actually believe in?
  • Am I gonna find love?
  • I don’t know what I’m doing. Goddammit. That’s a fear.

The truth about his apathy is right there: it’s another trick, a defensive pose in response to the fact that Jerrod Carmichael is afraid. Some of his fears are commonplace comedy fodder like premature baldness, but he also threads deeper existential fears throughout the special. What is a grandmother’s identity without baking? What would we have to face within ourselves if we didn’t have sports to distract us from our feelings? What is the point of caring about anything when the world feels so hostile? He wants to know why we’re alive and, again like Montaigne, how best to live.

By infusing his special with these questions, Carmichael has created a rare thing: a stand-up special with real angst that’s also deeply funny. His waffling works because it rings true. Some of his false starts mask punchlines, but others are the starts of questions he’s asking in earnest. Through following his intuition, he flouts the convention of the stand-up special as a mere collection of a comedian’s best new jokes or even as a more intricately woven, cohesive piece. There are no callbacks in 8. It’s a singular document of the twists and turns of one flawed man’s mind.

This singular quality would be far less potent without fellow comedian Bo Burnham’s exquisite direction. Burnham establishes a surreal tone that matches Carmichael at every turn, from showing him staring at his phone amidst the grandiosity of the otherwise dark Masonic Hall green room in the opening sequence to the first and last shots of the set itself, which give the impression that the entire evening might be a figment of Carmichael’s imagination. Even the audience’s apparently mandatory formal wear feels like an absurd joke in contrast to Carmichael’s casual Timberlands and jean jacket on stage.

So perhaps 8’s title is another absurd joke. For an hour of stand-up in which he constantly poses everyday answers to existential questions, it’s fitting that Carmichael chose a name that twists the infinity symbol on its head. It’s an impressive trick.

Dave Maher is a comedian and writer in Chicago.