Jerrod Carmichael’s ‘Rothaniel’ Isn’t Just Standup, It’s a Brilliant Documentary About Community

Some standup comics pause for laughs. Jerrod Carmichael stops to think. That impulse has never been more profound than in his latest special, “Rothaniel,” when he comes out of the closet and lets the news sink in. At first, the audience isn’t sure how to react; a few seconds later, the applause streams in, and the show evolves. But that definitive moment represents a turning point for the special as well: It invites the audience into the show, as it transcends the boundaries of the form to become a brilliant documentary of the comic’s life-changing confession.

Multiple times throughout the second half of “Rothaniel,” as Carmichael gets deep and personal about the challenges his sexuality have caused for his closest relatives, the audience chimes in, and Carmichael plays along. The results add a revelatory component to the special that plays like a documentary of Carmichael’s anguish, and the attitude that carries him through it.

Much more than a pileup of jokes, “Rothaniel” travels from amusing anecdotes to therapeutic confession to an unseen crowd, with the audience as the glue that holds those two components together. The audience pressure him to give his mother some time to process the news; he’s not convinced. ( “You ever see a 90-year-old get a college degree on the news and you’re like, ‘Bitch, now?’”) They ask him if his guilt complex came from his early knowledge of his fathers’ infidelity. (“I carry some guilt because I was complicit in the lie.”) And then there’s the cascading “Woooow,” that follows Carmichael’s admission of his white boyfriend (“the sound of a Black woman who feels doubly betrayed”) moments before he professes his support for heterosexual Black families (“There are no Black babies coming from the kind of sex I have, OK? It’s all getting flushed!”).

Like all of Carmichael’s work, “Rothaniel” sneaks its way to shocking punchlines, and clings to that sense of humor even as its subject grows more introspective. Carmichael gets personal to the point that it would be bad form for the crowd not to say something, to push him along and live in the moment. The camera stays so close to his face it threatens to break his nose; instead, it gets inside his head as few projects of this nature have done before.

In most comedy clubs, the participatory audience is usually frowned upon unless the performers introduce it. Comics know how to improvise around unpredictable circumstances (as Chris Rock did when Will Smith slapped him on live TV), but generally these moments loop back to pre-scripted material. Aziz Ansari excels at interrogating audience members for specific information and then weaving it into an existing template. This device makes the audience feel like they’re part of the show even as it keeps them a distance. At the other end of the spectrum, Eric André improvises comedic gems out of audience interactivity, as with his 2020 Netflix special “Legalize Everything,” which includes an extended bit where he facetimes with an audience member’s mother.

But that’s not what Carmichael does here. Early on, he hints at the unseen side of his identity by acknowledging that he’s never publicly revealed his first name. That’s enough detail to give his crowd the excuse to work their way into the act. “I’m hiding nothing from you guys,” Carmichael says, which prompts an audience member to remind him that’s not true: “But your name.” He recoils with a shy grin. “Let’s go back to the audience-performer relationship we had before!” he says, but the mood shifts to one of obvious relief.

The show obviously follows a template, and director Bo Burnham intensifies the fragility on display with extreme closeups of Carmichael’s contemplative face, which often melts into his knees as he collapses in a sea of inexpressible emotions. But the audience gradually fills in the gaps from just outside the frame, peppering Carmichael with questions that push him to clarify his problems. As these voices echo against the walls, they sound less like outside observations than internal monologues from the performer himself. And he hands his thoughts over to the audience, they become one with him.

It’s such a striking device that cynical viewers might think that Burnham and Carmichael scripted these moments. But “Rothaniel” was indeed taped live from multiple performances and the audience participation happened unprompted.

But these are just voices, not characters. When Burnham does cut to the audience, viewed as a shadowy haze of faces at New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club, they sit in silence, hovering in the uncertainty of the atmosphere at hand. These snippets hint at the advanced relationship Carmichael has with the people on the receiving end of his routine: As he discusses his estranged relatives, the anonymity on the other end provides a better outlet for his most profound thoughts when his family has already tuned him out. Carmichael, who has been performing for the entirety of his adult life, lives in public even as he remains reticent to do many interviews about his work. “Rothaniel” provides a vivid demonstration of why: The audience is his lifeline; without it, he’s tumbling through the void. At one point, a woman sounds concerned for his future. “Do you think without your mom’s approval, you’ll be OK?” she asks. “I know she’ll see this,” he says. “I don’t know what will happen. You guys got any ideas?”

Carmichael has been working through his internal strife for some time, and the audience has been receiving it even without realizing it in such explicit terms. This is a man who has thought a lot about the constant pull of desperation and the ceaseless struggle involved in breaking away from it. Later this year, Carmichael’s directorial debut “On the Count of Three” is finally scheduled to come out, nearly two years after its Sundance debut. The movie finds Carmichael and Christopher Abbott playing a pair of longtime friends who make a suicide pact that goes very wrong over the course of a hectic day. Carmichael’s character constantly dances up to the point of ending his life before doubling back to realize there’s more work to be done. It’s a bold and shocking dark comedy about how even utter hopelessness can be a constructive first step toward change. In “Rothaniel,” he charts that same path, albeit in less nihilistic terms. Consumed by a secret that has eaten away at him for years, he wrestles through his resistance as the camera watches every move, and the audience is there for him.

For Burnham, “Rothaniel” follows his masterful 2021 “Inside” (an actual 90-minute movie in disguise), another sneaky use of the comedy special that mutates into a more advanced concept with time. While the home setting of “Inside” uses pandemic-era claustrophobia as a jumping-off point for crafting a solipsistic musical, “Rothaniel” treats the comedy club like a psychological labyrinth filled with personal reckonings: Carmichael bobs and weaves through personal history with an imaginative form of exhibitionism that has more in common with the climax of “All That Jazz” than any conventional standup routine. The stage isn’t a veil — it’s a magnifying glass.

By its final 20-odd minutes, “Rothaniel” becomes a bonafide real-time thriller about a man coming to terms with himself on camera and finding catharsis in community. That’s a concept unique to the 21st century, when the boundaries between self-confession and exhibitionism continue to blur, and unscripted reality swoops in at unpredictable moments. Carmichael’s revelation provides the show with a genuine narrative arc that hasn’t finished yet. At the start of the special, he walks into the club as a closeted man, and slips out at the end in a new stage of life. The day after “Rothaniel” dropped, he surfaced on “SNL,” where that routine continued. His story is still unfolding in public, and wherever it takes him next, “Rothaniel” makes it clear that the audience has his back.

“Rothaniel” is now streaming on HBO Max.

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