The End of ‘The Carmichael Show': Network TV Is Still No Place for Edgy Black Comedy
In 1977, comedy giant Richard Pryor tried his hand at network comedy. Pryor would star in his own sketch comedy show for NBC, and before the show premiered, it's pilot aired on the network as an hour-long special. In the opening sketch of The Richard Pryor Special?, John Belushi plays a vicious slave ship overseer who needs one of the slaves to perform an unspecified awful task. After one slave jumps overboard to avoid being chosen, the slaver picks another slave--played by Richard Pryor.
When Pryor as the terrified slave screams "Where are you taking me? What are you going to do?" Belushi responds, “You’re going to NBC! You’re going to do your own special!” Pryor screams "No!" as he's dragged away. It's a very telling way to announce your network television show--and in many ways, Pryor's sketch was prophetic.
The Richard Pryor Show officially debuted on NBC on September 13, 1977, but was cancelled after only four episodes due to friction between Pryor and the network censors. That opening slave ship sketch and the show's subsequent cancellation highlights a conflict that has been ongoing ever since--a conflict between mainstream television and subversive, edgy comedy in a specifically African-American voice. Oftentimes, even the brightest and most significant black comedians struggle to sustain their voice on major television networks. The latest casualty of this struggle is NBCs The Carmichael Show.
Premiering in the summer of 2015, The Carmichael Show was the brainchild of standup comedian Jerrod Carmichael, and the sitcom showcased the sort of deadpan humor that made its titular star one of comedy's most popular new voices. The show tackled a variety of hot-button issues every week, from the Bill Cosby accusations to pornography addiction to gender identity and Donald Trump. Carmichael's aloof persona masks an insightful and questioning approach to topical comedy, one that doesn't pretend to have answers but also isn't afraid to ask tough questions.
The series got off to a promising-but-shaky start, debuting in the late summer with a short season of only six episodes. The writing was more forced and awkward in the early goings, but once the show hit its stride, it developed a knack for juggling controversial topics in a way that was honest, sometimes uncomfortable and somehow still funny. When Jerrod's grandmother on the show (Marla Gibbs) announces she has Alzheimer's disease and wants to kill herself, a running gag of the episode is family members reminding her that she already told them months ago.
That sometimes-dark approach to comedy meant that The Carmichael Show traded less on warm-hearted sentimentality (a la ABC's hit black-ish) and more on piercing commentary. The fictionalized Carmichael almost always represents the more "problematic" point of view; or it comes from his blue collar parents (an always-perfect David Alan Grier and Loretta Devine), with his long-suffering girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West) in the thankless role of left-leaning do-gooder.
It was announced in late June, just three episodes into the third season, that The Carmichael Show wouldn't be back for a Season Four. The show's cancellation came as a shock to fans, as the series seemed to finally gain a strong social media following. But things had taken an awkward turn after Carmichael butted heads with NBC over an episode about mass shootings.
NBC decided not to air the episode ("Shoot-Up-Able") on June 14, the same day that a man opened fire at the GOP Congressional baseball team during their practice. Four people were injured including Rep. Steve Scalise. Later that day, a mass shooting at a UPS facility in San Francisco left three people dead. NBC's apprehensions about the subject matter led to the episode being delayed. During an appearance on Chelsea Handler's Netflix talk show, Carmichael characterized NBC's decision as "criminal."
“I understand a corporation making that decision, but really, to me, what it says is that you don’t think America is smart enough to handle real dialogue and something that reflects real family conversations and something that feels honest and true and still respects the victims.
“We handled the episode with as much love and integrity as we could. To pull that is just criminal. It does a disservice to the viewer, it does a disservice to you, it does a disservice to all of us.”
The following week, it was Carmichael who announced that his show was over.
“For three seasons (okay 2.5), I got to make a show that I love with my friends. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was 13,” he said in a statement to Deadline. “Now, I’m excited to go make other things that I love. Thank you to every person who worked on or watched The Carmichael Show.”
“We are enormously proud of The Carmichael Show and Jerrod’s talent and vision to do a classic family sitcom that also taps into issues and relevant stories from the real world. We thank and salute the cast, crew, and producers — and especially Jerrod — for three critically-acclaimed seasons,” NBC said via statement.
NBC's decision isn't altogether without precedent, but it does speak to the difficulty black comedians like Jerrod Carmichael have had in sustaining long runs on network TV.
Despite the uptick in black programming on television in recent years, there still appears to be a disconnect between the most popular TV platforms and the kind of edgy, black humor The Carmichael Show specializes in. There is a long history of black comedic voices having mixed success on network television; while The Cosby Show and The Bernie Mac Show gained a strong foothold; more controversial fare tends to flame out quickly. Even during periods where there are an abundance of black people on television, certain kinds of black comedy run into the same sort of issues.
In Living Color would be a major ratings hit for the fledgling FOX network in early 1990. The brainchild of Keenan Ivory Wayans, the sketch comedy series offered a younger, hipper and blacker alternative to Saturday Night Live at a time when Arsenio Hall was re-shaping late night talk shows and Eddie Murphy was the king of comedy at the box office. But by late 1992, Keenan was disillusioned with FOX and the show.
In Living Color had come under scrutiny from FOX execs after a live Super Bowl halftime special drew criticism for a sketch that mocked actor Richard Gere and Olympian Carl Lewis. Censorship of the show's scripts increased after the backlash, and set the tone for a troubled season that saw Wayans coming into direct conflict with the network. Angered over FOX re-editing old episodes and airing them as reruns without his consent (which also undermined what were expected to be lucrative syndication negotiations), Wayans walked away, blasting the network for greed, short-sightedness and for not respecting black voices.
”It always was comedy from an African-American point of view,” Wayans told Entertainment Weekly in 1993. "But now they have all white consultants. There’s a fine line between African-American humor and making fun of African-Americans. FOX didn’t even have the good taste to bring in that other voice, and that’s offensive not only to the show but to a large segment of the population.”
In Living Color would carry on for another less-than-stellar year after Wayans left. A decade after Keenan Ivory Wayans' acrimonious departure from In Living Color, comedian Dave Chappelle was riding high with his own acclaimed sketch comedy series. Chappelle's Show was a ratings homerun for Comedy Central, with the funnyman's take on race, sex and quirky parodies of celebs like Rick James and Prince making him a superstar. But in 2005, just as the show was filming its third season, Chappelle suddenly was out.
"I would go to work on the show and I felt awful every day, that's not the way it was," Chappelle explained in a 2006 interview with Oprah. "I felt like some kind of prostitute or something. If I feel so bad--why keep on showing up to this place? I'm going to Africa. The hardest thing to do is to be true to yourself, especially when everybody is watching."
Chappelle also told Oprah that his decision to leave was exacerbated by people trying to manipulate him and telling false stories to the media.
"This was troublesome," he said. "They're trying to control and discredit me, and there was no question that I was stressed out, but it's even more stressful for them to say you're insane. I had considered walking. ... I got ahead of schedule and I bounced."
And Chappelle famously explained that one particular sketch he was filming--in which Dave played a pixie in blackface as personification of the N-word--drew a response that haunted him.
"There was a good-spirited intention behind it," he explained. "So then when I'm on the set, and we're finally taping the sketch, somebody on the set [who] was white laughed in such a way—I know the difference of people laughing with me and people laughing at me—and it was the first time I had ever gotten a laugh that I was uncomfortable with. Not just uncomfortable, but like, should I fire this person?"
In that moment, Dave Chappelle realized the conundrum that plagues many edgy black comics: using a satirical voice to examine black issues while white folks laugh without really getting the subtext. Or without caring to.
"That concerned me," he says. "I don't want black people to be disappointed in me for putting that [message] out there. ... It's a complete moral dilemma."
The struggles of Pryor, Wayans, Chappelle and now Carmichael all have their own specifics; but there are the common points of discontent and most have to do with ownership and/or voice. The Carmichael Show wasn't the kind of runaway hit that FOX enjoyed with In Living Color or what Comedy Central had in The Chappelle's Show, but its ratings were consistently stable and it was developing a strong voice and audience.
Shows like Saturday Night Live, Family Guy and South Park have thrived for decades despite their penchant for controversy-baiting. In the case of Family Guy, it was notably resurrected after a failed first run in the late 90s thanks to strong DVD sales and the popularity of the reruns on Adult Swim in the early 2000s. For white shows that trade on hot-button topics, there's more wiggle room both creatively and in terms of ratings' expectations. But there's also the reality of not having to navigate the same kind of cultural mine field black comedians always have to come to grips with. Outside of the more cuddly TV fare delivered by guys like Cosby and Mac, there's precious little opportunity to be black and edgy on TV. At least not for very long. It seems that, sooner rather than later, the voice and the platform will come into direct conflict with each other. It's a shame because television needs that voice.
Television needs Jerrod Carmichael.
Watch This Clip from The Carmichael Show Episode "Tickets To A Standup Show":
Watch This Clip from The Carmichael Show Episode "Jerrod Gets Racially Slurred":
Watch This Clip from The Carmichael Show Episode "Disorganized Religion":