When a Comic’s Silence Says Everything

Jerrod Carmichael’s HBO special exposes the way that humor can relieve incredible tension while obscuring the truth.

Jerrod Carmichael pausing in reflection during his comedy special "Rothaniel"

In his latest special, Rothaniel, the comedian Jerrod Carmichael doesn’t seem all that interested in getting his audience to laugh—or even in being the star. Rather than emerge from a dressing room backstage, he wanders into New York City’s Blue Note Jazz Club as if he were just passing by, shrugging off his winter coat without fanfare. He takes a seat in a folding chair and grabs a mic, but he doesn’t launch into jokes. Instead, he makes sure the crowd is comfortable. “This only works,” he explains, “if we feel like family.”

“This,” as it turns out, is Carmichael’s attempt to transform the comedy stage into a space for processing “secrets”—the secrets that shaped him, and the ones he still needs to share. The revelation that’s made the most headlines since Rothaniel hit HBO Max has been the one he discloses halfway through: that he’s a gay man. But Rothaniel isn’t powerful because Carmichael comes out; it’s powerful because, by the end of his hour on stage, Carmichael is still untangling how he feels about being so open. His story is incomplete and imperfect. In his honesty and tenderness, Carmichael has created a special that blurs the line between comedy and confession, exposing how humor can relieve incredible tension while obscuring so much truth.

Carmichael spends a significant amount of time in Rothaniel silent, with his chin tucked in his hand, his back hunched—Rodin’s The Thinker come to life, draped in a loose red shirt, holding a mic. Comics normally use their stage time to hone their material and fine-tune their performances. Most shows are narration-heavy, one bit blending into the next. But Carmichael doesn’t appear to be delivering a practiced set. He pauses often, at some points even failing to finish his sentences or turning to the crowd for help. “I don’t know what will happen,” he says, reflecting on his family’s mixed reactions to his coming out. “You guys got any ideas?” With every secret he shares, Carmichael cycles through deflecting and catching his deflections. When he admits that his mother has been cold toward him—she told him she “can’t go against Jesus”—he interrupts himself by joking about how, whenever he doesn’t match with someone on a dating app, he’s certain it’s because his mom’s been “trying to pray the gay away.” And then he goes quiet. He’s perhaps noticed that he’d instinctively tried to compartmentalize his hurt. Later on, he even apologizes for attempting to lighten the mood. “I’m sorry, but that laugh was fake,” he says. “I wish this moment weren’t so weird.”

Carmichael has always been a low-key comedian, the kind who delivers provocative jokes in an unassuming, devil-may-care manner. In his previous stand-up work, he’d speak softly, usually smiling to himself throughout his routine. Away from the stage, he uses conventional methods as a foundation for experimentation. The underseen The Carmichael Show, which he created and starred in, followed a traditional multi-camera sitcom format, but explored political, often uncomfortable topics. Rothaniel operates in a similar manner, combining his relaxed demeanor with an unusual approach to classic comedy beats: Directed by Bo Burnham, the special follows the confessional style of other comics’ recent work, but it’s less about divulging than it is about understanding, alongside his viewers, how to give voice to his emotions. Rothaniel starts off with well-trod subject matter—Carmichael recounts his father’s and grandfather’s strings of affairs, which he’d covered in his 2019 documentary Sermon on the Mount—but that familiar material only helps underline how much the second half, after his coming out, contrasts with the first. Carmichael is sure the crowd’s perception of him changes as soon as he reveals he’s gay, so he explores what his audience expects of him, answering their follow-up questions, taking time to observe his reactions, and turning a comedy show into, essentially, a group therapy session.

Rothaniel still manages to be funny; Carmichael’s comedy is just more subtle here than in anything he’s done before. Take a quip about his young nieces, for instance: Early in his set, he draws laughter when he talks about how much he enjoys spending time with the children in his family. They don’t care about where he is in life, or, you know, the fact that he’s high when he’s hanging out with them. Later on, after he comes out, he circles back to the topic while discussing how his nieces’ father, his brother, loves him “with an asterisk.” That love is a love “despite,” he says, an acceptance that is incomplete and “a little condescending.” When he brings up his nieces again, he makes the same observation as before—about not having to second-guess himself around them—but this time, the joke comes with a poignant weight. The punch line remains the same, but its potency has changed.

Rothaniel is, in other words, a portrait of a comic navigating a personal moment publicly. He admits that he’s trying to tell the truth in this special after a life “shrouded in secrets.” He says he knows his mother will watch. As he concedes this, Carmichael looks straight into the camera, and the moment reminded me of something he told me when I interviewed him in 2015, before the debut of The Carmichael Show. “When I’m onstage, I know certain things aren’t just going to be cheered … I get that in real life too,” he said then. “You get the, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t say that.’ Well, it’s like, ‘Okay, we just said that. Look at that, we’re still here.’” Carmichael deploys that same approach today, saying the things he’s been told shouldn’t be said. But he’s also allowing for some silence between his words—silence that leaves room, perhaps, for the kind of response that comes without an asterisk.