Roundtable on The Carmichael Show

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Following Alfred Martin’s initial review of The Carmichael Show here at Antenna, he, Khadijah Costley White and Phillip Cunningham had a roundtable discussion on the new show.

Introductions:

Phillip Lamarr Cunningham (Quinnipiac University) is a scholar and critic of popular culture.

Alfred L. Martin, Jr. (The New School) studies race, gender and sexuality in American media as they intersect with production and audience reception.

Khadijah White (Rutgers University) is a writer, producer, and scholar studying race, gender, and politics in media.

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AM:     Ok. Well, I’ve been kind of in my feelings about The Carmichael Show because as my review of the series suggests, it’s kind of old school, but still there’s something charming about it. It simultaneously works and doesn’t work.

PC:      In a nutshell, what do you believe doesn’t work about the series?

AM:     It feels like a throwback to the “turn to relevance” series of the 1970s because it attempts to tackle “issues” in each episode. That feels forced to me in a way, but then it also kind of works. Although I will admit that it feels heavy-handed like a Tyler Perry movie in a lot of ways.

KW:    It’s definitely a black version of All in the Family, but I think it’s a necessary intervention. I mean, as an educated black person, it feels like “What If Tyler Perry’s World Met Me?”. Part of the reason it works as a program that keeps us tuning in is because it takes a really familiar black sitcom format and brings it some real politics. I’d say it’s more like Good Times than anything Tyler Perry can muster.

AM:     But I don’t feel like it gets the “offensive” in the way Archie Bunker was supposed to be offensive. So, while All in the Family was deemed cutting edge for the 1970s, I don’t think the same can be said for The Carmichael Show. I think it’s dealing with “issues” but it’s doing so in a way that is palatable for a network television audience. Where All in the Family, Good Times, Maude and other [Norman] Lear “turn to relevance series” were deliberately trying to make statements, I feel like The Carmichael Show is doing it in a way that feels dated and perhaps even forced.

PC:      Well, it’s heavy handed in that there’s always a resolution, it’s a self-contained narrative, etc. However, it almost feels as if he is trying to subvert that traditional black sitcom in a way.

AM:     How so, Phil?

PC:      Take the recent issue about the gun, for example. Certainly, we’ve seen sitcoms deal with gun issues, but the very idea that black men pack heat and, as the father suggests, do so in order to protect themselves from cops or white people feels a bit subversive to me. Now this is not to suggest that the show’s subversive nature always works, but I think it makes the attempt.

AM:     But I think it is in some ways undermined by the way the series needs to resolve itself. Ultimately Jerrod (who is the series’ axial character) ends up turning around his position on guns.

PC:      You’re right, Al. That certainly may be the weakness, but subversion does, in part, require that one negotiates with network constraints, genre conventions, and so on.

AM:     I think what bothers me is that its episodes seem to exist solely for the purpose of “bringing up issues” rather than them necessarily developing in a way that feels organic.

KW:    Yes, but the cool part is that it really exposes all the many issues about which black people think and discuss, the kinds of views that you’d have hashed out at your own house. That’s satisfying. There’s a sense of interiority; all the scenes are in the home. It gets at the ways in which black people engage in these sophisticated political conversations when they’re with each other, some of which involve race but mostly don’t. Everyone is able to articulate a really solid, logical argument.

AM:     I think the point you raise is a good one, Khadijah, but I think part of the issue I raised is that I’m not convinced that the series is having a conversation about blackness for black folks. I’d be surprised if given the way its audience has grown that the majority of the folks watching are, in fact, black.

KW:    I’m okay with that, inasmuch as I feel like it’s presenting the kind of complex and dissonant conversations we have with one another.

AM:     So it might also be that it’s a conversation happening about blackness out of class in a way. Also, I think its placement within the home is a central component of the black-cast sitcom. Other than Frank’s Place, I’m not sure there’s been a black-cast workplace comedy; black folks are always tethered to the home in the black-cast sitcom. Even something like Girlfriends and The Game were tethered to the home even as certain scenes happened at work. Living Single is, at base, a black-cast sitcom about black women living together (and Maxine).

KW:    I think your point about class is an important one, Alfred, and one that is really important here as an alternative to black-ish. This is an intra-class sitcom that I don’t know we’ve really seen since Roc.

AM:     Since Good Times and Roc, the only other working class black family in black-cast sitcom has been Everybody Hates Chris.

KW:    I’d leave out Everybody Hates Chris, because they owned a brownstone in Brooklyn and the mother was a stay-at-home mom. But the Carmichaels also own a home and have a housewife, and that gets at the way sitcom conventions don’t do class well at all.

THE CARMICHAEL SHOW -- "Kale" Episode 102 -- Pictured: (l-r) Jerrod Carmichael as Jerrod, David Alan Grier as Joe Carmichael, Amber Stevens West as Maxine, Loretta Devine as Cynthia Carmichael -- (Photo by: Ben Cohen/NBC)

PC:      Well do we even know what Jerrod is supposed to do in the show? Is he playing Jerrod the comedian? It doesn’t seem so, it hasn’t mentioned (yet) what he actually does. We know Maxine is a therapist-in-training.

KW:    We know Jarrod went to business school and seems to be doing well for himself based on the apartment and neighborhood he lives in.

AM:     And we are very clearly to understand that his apartment is a “come up” from where he came from. The family space is giving me Roseanne Realness.

KW:    Yes, Alfred, I was totally thinking Roseanne!

AM:     The show implicitly is dealing with class mobility as well–that (perhaps) black notion that the parents worked hard so their children could do better than they did.

KW:    But his brother is still struggling. We get a sense that, like so many of us, Jerrod made it but his brother and sister-in-law are still trying.

AM:     But I think that is the implicitness of the series. Jerrod succeeds because he worked hard. His brother didn’t because he’s lazy and trifling (and liked “ghetto” women).

KW:    No, I don’t get the sense that his brother doesn’t work hard. He’s maybe not as ambitious, but I don’t think it’s about laziness. For me, there’s such a sense of authenticity in this show because of its complexity–for example, the episode “Gender,” which focused on transgendergender identity. It was done so deftly, especially in terms of stomping on the idea that the black community is entirely homophobic or unable to have a conversation about gender.

AM:     That episode had me in my feelings. I felt like it was a very facile way to approach that topic. But I think that’s endemic of the genre. I just sat there looking at my screen…

PC:      I think you’re right about that episode being facile, but I think there’s something to be said that the resolution wasn’t neat.

AM:     I tend to hate the “neat” transition from gay to transgender. I think I got hung up on that.

KW:    Well, he said he was gay to test the waters. That felt somewhat like what a kid figuring stuff out might do. And there’s something really powerful about a person who appears to be a black boy who is a basketball star identifying as a girl and saying that she’s not confused about that identity! That is subversive. Like look it up in a dictionary and that scene is next to the word subversive.

AM:     I think it would have worked better to just have to deal with transgender-ness without gayness.. While I don’t profess to be transgender, I do know that a transition from straight to gay (in my case) wasn’t an overnight move. By attempting to do both, it gave both the short shrift

KW:    I think it was an attempt to fit in discussion about transgender identity and sexuality in one episode. A little simple, but fair-play in the world of sitcom plots.

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AM:     Thinking about flow, do we think the stakes were/are “just” much higher for black-ish given its spot with Modern Family (and needing to capture a bulk of that audience and being run in the “real” TV season) versus The Carmichael Show as a summer series?

PC:      Well, black-ish is at least partially about the tensions in feeling distant from a “traditional” black life. The Carmichael Show is somewhat steeped in that “traditional” black life in a way.

KW:    In part, because Modern Family isn’t really so modern, there’s a chance that black-ish felt the need to be a lot more conservative, too. But that allowed The Carmichael Show to aim for a different feel. I mean there’s a theme song! Sort of. A live audience! We’re in 1993. Like, if The Cosby Show and A Different World had a baby.

AM:     Can we talk about that? I don’t feel like I am in love with the live audience and the laugh track. I feel like it seeks to telegraph (and control) the funny in a way that makes me stabby.

KW:    In part, I think it’s because we’re dealing with comics who are used to performing in front of live audiences. It helps them in their work. Also, I think it’s very much about nostalgia.

AM:     Part of the live studio audience is really about cost. A three-camera, proscenium set-up series is cheaper to shoot because there are a limited number of sets and often limited editing (because it can be edited while it’s being filmed).

PC:      Well those nostalgic touches are really what make The Carmichael Show a bit of a postmodern black sitcom.

AM:     In the sense of pastiche or in some other way?

PC:      It’s taking those conventions and embracing them, on the one hand, and attempting (the keyword here) to subvert them, in another way. I think Alfred is right when he suggests that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

KW:    For sure, I mean, there are a lot of Gina/Martin moments with Jerrod and Maxine In terms of her trying to accommodate “traditional” domestic roles and feminist ideals.

AM:     I’m still not sure I’m on board with the series as subversive, though. To what degree are these Gina/Martin moments really endemic of the ways relationships function in the sitcom broadly and the black-cast sitcom specifically? Put another way, do we see Gina and Martin because we have them as cultural touchstones?

KW:    The hyper-confident dark-skinned comic with conservative tendencies and his light-skinned, awkward, professional girlfriend? I think that dynamic is there.

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PC:      In a way, the well-to-do light-skinned and/or biracial girlfriend/wife has become a hallmark of the black sitcom. In The Carmichael Show, Maxine is clearly marked as a bit of an outlier, which in a way makes her distinctive. Nobody in The Carmichael Show is trying to negotiate with whiteness, which I think is amazing. In fact–there hasn’t been a white person on The Carmichael Show, right?

KW:    Yes! So true. I don’t think there has been a white character. This show is trying to single-handedly keep black people employed, and in an age of colorblind comedy and drama, that’s important.

AM:     I can certainly raise my glass and drink to that. They are very clearly aware of their blackness and interact little (if at all) with a broader white world. In that sense, coming back to what (I think) Khadijah said, there is a sense of interiority in the series–almost in that Amos ‘n Andy way where there is a self-sustaining black world that does not consider or interact with whiteness.

KW:    But it’s also one that’s having really challenging conversations. What other show is doing this? Gun control? Police brutality? Even Scandal couldn’t do that right.

PC:      I think the brilliance of Maxine is that she’s not relinquishing her biracial identity either.

AM:     I think where Maxine does, in a way, represent whiteness in that her views are seen (I think) to stand in for whiteness (often attributed to her white parent).

KW:    We haven’t touched Nekeisha, and I think, in part, because I’m conflicted.

AM:     Can we see that as somewhat subversive and postmodern? Nekeisha as the “quintessential” black girl name and them playing with that?

KW:    On one hand, what she does in a lot of cases could be called cooning. Stealing TVs, showing up just to get free food, threatening to fight or cut people.

AM:     I admit that I hollered when she “found” that television in the “Protest” episode!

KW:    I did, too. Though I also cringed because I wasn’t sure where the “protestors are looters” storyline was going to go. And she has this big weave. I mean, in certain ways, I’m not sure about her.

PC:      However, I love the relationship between Bobby and her because it is complex (for television). Here is a divorcing couple who still have to navigate the same spaces.

KW:    Exactly. And I love that she’s still family.

AM:     But, to an earlier point, doesn’t she make blackness more complex as a “rainbow” of blackness that doesn’t sit firmly within respectable?

KW:    To be honest, I think it’s clear that the male characters are the core of the show. They end up performing the typical stoic, reasonable male role and the women often provide the humor and the jokes.

AM:     I’m not sure I’d concede the center to them because of La Divine.

PC:      Well, it’s interesting how Divine and Grier are actually de-centering Carmichael. And I’m wondering if that’s due to intention or just Divine’s powerful persona and Grier’s embrace of this character?

AM:     But I don’t think that’s on the page. I think it’s them and their skill. One thing I wanted to discuss that we haven’t really touched upon is why NBC? Why not BET or Comedy Central or some other cable network? What does an NBC sitcom (even if they were being burned off two at a time) mean with respect to a politics of representation?

KW:    Well, in part I think the turn to black is about what’s happening with for-pay web TV, the same way we got black sitcoms with the rise of cable. I’m not sure what it says about representation, though. I mean, NBC gave us The Cosby Show.

THE CARMICHAEL SHOW -- "Pilot" -- Pictured: (l-r) Lil Rel Howery as Bobby Carmichael, Loretta Devine as Cynthia Carmichael, Jerrod Carmichael as Jerrod, Amber Stevens West as Maxine, David Alan Grier as Joe Carmichael -- (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)

PC:      It’s interesting to think about the success of The Carmichael Show in lieu of the failure of Mr. Robinson, which also debuted this summer and with a bigger celebrity at the helm.

KW:    Maybe we should comment on why Mr. Robinson failed, other than it being a sad attempt at The Steve Harvey Show. It has a black lead, but blackness isn’t a central theme of the show. It felt like an old UPN show.

AM:     I think a lot of shows with black leads got greenlit this season so that the industry can watch most of them fail and then say, “See, we told y’all all this blackness wasn’t gone work.”

KW:    I think they got greenlit because Empire was successful. And because they don’t know why, that gives Jerrod Carmichael more editorial control.

AM:     For sure they did. But I still think the strategy remains the same from an industrial perspective. We’ve been to this rodeo before. I think the “major” networks are still attempting to “broadcast” when cable is narrowcasting, so their somewhat myopic view of “universal” has to supersede anything else. black-ish succeeds because there’s nothing really that black about it.

PC:      Well, The Carmichael Show also has benefitted from when it aired.

AM:     Meaning that the ratings assumptions were lower because it was a summer show?

PC:      Exactly, Al. It had the good fortune of airing new content just before the fall season really kicks off. If it was a mid-season replacement, we might not be having this conversation nor would it likely be renewed. How does the show grow from this point? Or can it even do so?

KW:    I think more discussions about their careers and choices, especially between the women, would be useful. I mean, neither son has children. That’s interesting.

AM:     I’d like to see it move less in a direction of “turn to relevance” and attempt to do some more in the way of character development. I’d love for it to get rid of the live shooting and laugh track. I just tend to be a postmodern viewer who wants to decide where I think the funny is located.

KW:    I want it to keep hashing out these tough debates we have within our own family. I think it’s helpful to have a space where everyone gets presented in a really humanizing way, regardless of education or occupation. I think that pushes against respectability, too.

PC:      My primary concern is whether it can remain funny with its current approach on a full season order. Right now, the success for the show has been that it has tackled black taboo, but there’s only so much left of that to address.

KW:    Well, I want to nominate that we title this discussion “Y’all All Nasty!!!” after Mama Carmichael’s favorite expression on the show.

PC:     Agreed.

 

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