Jerrod Carmichael’s New HBO Special Rothaniel, directed by Bo Burnham and filmed on a recent winter night at New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club, is a quiet comedic revelation. Carmichael first dives into the skeletons in his family’s closet (in short, prolific deception of the men in his family), then reveals his own big secret: he’s gay. He takes viewers through a gentle coming-out story, interspersed with occasional questions and reassurances from the audience.
“I try to be very honest because my whole life was shrouded in secrets,” Carmichael says at the end of the evening, “and I thought the only route I hadn’t tried was the truth.”
Carmichael’s approach to his coming out is to make his comedy stage a place of healing and acceptance, in which the audience becomes his confessor. Like Hannah Gadsby’s 2018 special nanette has pushed comedians to balance serious themes with the need to make people laugh, Rothaniel is a brand new mediated space – half comedy, half interactive therapy session. The setting of the jazz club gives Carmichael’s monologues an even more intense sense of improvisation. It’s comedy as melisma, maybe, complete with stutters, pauses, and his admission that he’s still working on some things – both the comedic bits and the emotional bits.
The special’s name hints at a layered metaphor for that process — it’s the first name he’s spent years trying to erase, but eventually accepted as a messy part of himself. It may be easier to laugh than Carmichael’s previous specials, but his extraordinary, unhurried strength has always come from a lack of neuroses about audience reaction, coupled with a willingness to deliver what he sincerely has to offer. Here he takes the mental and emotional toll of trying to suppress something so big until it comes out – until honesty is all you have left.
Two days later Rothanielthe release, Louis CK won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album, for Sincerely, Louis CK, filmed in Washington, DC, in March 2020 and released to fans a month later on his personal website. The Grammy win comes four and a half years after multiple women in comedy leveled accusations of sexual misconduct against CK, prompting him to issue a demonstrative apology in which he vowed to “step back and listen for a while.”
The title of CK’s special might lead you to believe that it, like Rothaniel, holds a key to its content — that CK may be ready to talk to the public about his behavior and be open about what has changed since the scandal. Instead, he seems to be arming himself against a world he has decided to fight. In conversation with Rothaniel† Honestly offers us a poignant glimpse of how “confession” comedy means very different things depending on who makes the confession.
The hugely delayed nature of the Grammys, delayed even more thanks to Covid-19, means watching Honestly now, two years after its release, it feels like an anachronism: CK’s performance was just days before the start of the 2020 lockdown, in front of an audience that may have understood the concept of a locked confessional very differently than the intimate nightclub crowd of Carmichael did two years later. The contrast between the two shows couldn’t be greater: Carmichael worked gently through his coming-out process to a small venue with often completely silent listeners; CK greeted a crowd of 1,500 who gleefully applaud every statement about pedophilia, disabilities, gay sex and his sexual misconduct.
Throughout his decades of stand-up, and especially during the performance of his once-influential TV show, LouisCK preferred material leaning towards empathetic empathy, always tempering self-mockery with a base layer of goodness. For example, jokes about dating were looked at honestly women’s reasonable fear of men† jokes about airplane wifi were fundamental about how good we all have it. CK could be honest about his worst impulses, as they were always tempered by his and humanity’s.
After his disgrace, numerous critics discussed how CK had built a level of trust that allowed his audience to accept his dark material as part of a man’s struggles who shared their fundamental sense of morality. CK then destroyed that trust, at least for some, when he allowed to years of openly masturbating to many women in comedy. CK did this without their enthusiastic consent (or, at least in some cases, without any clear permission), nor any attention to the huge power imbalance between them. After at least one incident, his manager reportedly tried to silence some of the women.
Once the less-than-empathetic nature of his personal interactions came to light, it seemed that his empathic act was over, too. Instead, something uglier crept in: Nine months after his promise to listen, he resumed acting, his comedy taking a decidedly turn toward the reactionary. During leaked club appearances in late 2018, he mocked Parkland’s survivors, non-binary teens, and the loss of the “r” word. (The latter made it to the Grammy-winning special.)
Honestly seems to be mostly about insincerity – his, ours, and how foolish we would have to be to expect anything else. He talks about wishing he could be meaner. He calls his audience hypocrites because they pretend to be morally shocked by some tacky jokes but not others. He says he hates New York where he came from at least 2006 to the implosion of his career. He jokes about Orthodox Jews, Islam and Japanese restaurant workers; he fantasizes about crushing the illusions of humble shopkeepers. Where he once heartwarming humanistic kicker† sincerity seems to be about establishing CK, and his audience, lack of empathy as the standard. There is no longer a collective desire for something higher. There seems to be nothing higher to aspire to.
At one point during the special, CK wondered if maybe gays didn’t prefer the days when homosexuality was more of a taboo. Is there not somehow an illicit excitement in the deviation from strangeness? he wonders – or if you want to look at it through a different lens, because you know people think you’re less human as a result of your sexual orientation? Like a joke in isolation, it’s through and through. But taken in the context of sincerity as a whole, it’s an asshole joke that masquerades as an indictment, as a suggestion that queerness is a clever joke being played out on the rest of us and that queer people are involved in some way. For Louis CK, sincerity now means reconfiguring the world as an accomplice to his dishonesty – and ultimately as an accomplice to his wrongdoing.
“You don’t want to know… who your real friends are,” says CK at the beginning of the special. “It’s never who you want it to be.” The obvious penetrating point about why some of CK’s better friends left him, and what kind of penance might be required to restore their esteem, remains unresolved.
Meanwhile, in Carmichael’s monologue, one of his closest friends tells him that he felt “cheated” about having a gay best friend — because despite CK’s best efforts, the world he tried to reframe still threatens the most vulnerable people in it. Carmichael’s reckoning with his strangeness – 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 with private betrayal, Carmichael doesn’t express his discomfort in the same way. Maybe it’s because much of this is new and raw, but maybe it’s also because externalized anger is more expensive and risky for black gay men in America than it is for the average disgruntled white man.
In other words, Carmichael’s comedic honesty stems from the kind of desperate need for freedom and self-expression that CK’s revamped comedy now seems to denigrate. Having lost favor from his native audience, but still amassed a tremendous amount of patronage, wealth and power, CK chose to rewrite the world that denied him rather than rewrite itself. If he had truly kept his promise to “step back and take the time to listen,” it’s hard to imagine him resurfacing with a worldview so cynical. But a by-product of his feeble analysis is that it makes a really sincere inner reckoning like Carmichael’s seem much more profound by comparison.
CK’s Grammy win – not just on the face of it, but for this particular, aggrieved album – underscores the entertainment industry’s reluctance to internalize many of Me Too’s lessons. CK’s moment of “authenticity,” when he finally talks about his behavior towards the end of his special, remains disturbingly superficial, mistaking his behavior as an unfortunate miscommunication over a strange sexual kink.
He goes on this one of his “maybe gay people wish they were still taboo” – that fantasy of illicit kink was just projection, of course. His ability to look at human relationships honestly, to see them through something other than his own lens, is shot. He will get 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 re-appropriated by the man who attacked them, and then stamped with the approval of the Recording Academy, should be the ultimate confirmation that nothing really changes.
His win suggests that privileged men like CK can afford to be dishonest about what confessional comedy really is. CK’s moment of so-called honesty costs him nothing. He risks nothing and he learns nothing. Rothanielon the other hand, suggests that there may be a link between the kind of comic that makes themselves vulnerable and open to deep interpersonal connections through the chosen medium and the kind of life experience that pushes a person toward a need for security and acceptance in a society that marginalizes them . It suggests that there is something higher to be won.
CK may think he still needs safety and acceptance from the comedy community, but the kind of worldview he’s displaying these days makes comedy a little less safe for the rest of us. The Academy is eager to welcome CK back, but that only underscores the pernicious subtext of: Honestly: Perhaps the most heartfelt about it is the reflection of a societal structure that rewards unkindness, inequality and denial.
That may be true, but Rothaniel shows us that those on the fringes of society are still seeking truth, compassion, and healing, turning to increasingly unconventional spaces as more traditional avenues of community and acceptance remain closed. Carmichael finds that healing on stage during a snowy night at the Blue Note, playing comedy as a new hybrid form of slow jazz improvisation. That performance ultimately feels much more important to comedy than Honestly† One may have won a Grammy; the other feels like a much more meaningful reward.