'Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show' Episode 1 Recap: Sex, Homophobia, Religion, Family, and Farts

jerrod carmichael reality show
'Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show' Episode 1 RecapHBO

As is now very much on brand for the comedian, Jerrod Carmichael’s new HBO show, Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show, begins its premiere episode with ten seconds of total silence. Carmichael is doing a set somewhere, and he’s sitting down, and he’s processing his feelings, and—almost unheard of within the context of a stand-up comedy club—the audience is letting him.

Finally, he speaks: “I fell in love with my best friend.”

Right away, we get a sense of what this show is going to be: an unsparing, unblinking look into the life of Jerrod Carmichael as he navigates the early years of living life openly as a gay man. We’re going to be looking at love and sex and homophobia and religion and fame and family and farts. And after this first episode, there are questions that need answering, like who was Anonymous, and are Tyler, the Creator and Carmichael still friends?

I spoke with Jerrod about the show—for a profile you can read here on Monday—and even he has trouble explaining exactly what he’s trying to accomplish with this project. “I’ve been trying to talk about the show and sound articulate, and it’s not easy. Basically, I’m one of Cesar Millan’s dogs,” he says, referencing Dog Whisperer. “It’s like interviewing the Chihuahua about why he peed on the rug. Like, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s not J-Lo’s This Is Me…Now.”

It is going to get uncomfortable. It is, in fact, going to start uncomfortable.

But at least we’re in good hands, because one of the stars of episode 1 is accustomed to life on camera. The best friend in question is immediately revealed to be Tyler, the Creator. Carmichael explains that he texted Tyler, “I know you didn’t ask for this, but somewhere down the line I developed feelings for you, and I don’t know what to do with that,” and then walked right into a therapy session. “My therapist was thrilled,” Carmichael says. “He said, ‘This shit never happens in real time.’”

Carmichael tells us and the live audience that Tyler’s response was a six-second voice note: “Hahaha, you stupid bitch.”

Carmichael lets that settle over the audience, and continues: “And I don’t really know what that means.”

He is correct to be confounded. These are crazy times, and these here are confusing issues. Carmichael came out of the closet publicly in his 2022 HBO special, Rothaniel, and to come out in one’s thirties is to be in one’s thirties and thirteen at the same time. Tyler’s own sexuality is undefined, but his appetite for chaos is openly ravenous.

It’s thorny already. And then there is the fact that this is all unfolding on cameras and into microphones.

Which brings us to the show and why it’s happening. Carmichael talks into a camera in the living room of his apartment, which seems to look out over Manhattan’s High Line. “I keep saying I want to live more truthfully,” he says, “and I find myself alone a lot, and I wonder if it’s because I’m afraid of telling the truth.” He is interrupted by a Grindr message: “Wanna see my asshole?”

J-Lo could never.

The cameras and lights and sound equipment arrive at Carmichael’s apartment, and then so does Anonymous. Anonymous is a friend of Carmichael’s, and he is in goggles and a balaclava and his voice is altered. “These cameras,” he says, “it’s like there’s fucking sarin gas in the room, and I’m masked up, because I’m not exposing myself to this shit.” Anonymous is not having it with this experiment. “This is not a neutral eye. This is not truth. This is a narrative that will be edited by someone who’s making choices. I have no access to that, so I’m like, Fuck that, you don’t get any of me.”

Carmichael defends his choice: “I’m trying to let the cameras be what God is.”

“It’s exhibitionist.”

“Yeah, but what’s wrong with that?”

“There’s public and private,” Anonymous argues, “and then there’s masturbatorily public. There’s public that’s like unnecessarily shooting a camera up your asshole and broadcasting that to the world.” Still, without allowing himself to be a part of the action, Anonymous is there, and he’s there because he’s concerned for Carmichael. “You have a self-destructive thing that can be channeled into something exciting and alive,” he says, “but I care about you beyond this thing.”

When we spoke, Carmichael would not reveal the identity of Anonymous, but the Internet is convinced it is Bo Burnham, his friend and longtime collaborator.

A major part of episode 1’s action, something we would call a B plot if this were a traditional sitcom, has to do with Carmichael’s quest for a date to the Emmys. He’s nominated for Rothaniel, and as we learn from a montage of talk-show appearances, that special is not just the moment when he came out, it’s also the moment his relationship with his parents fell apart. In a clip from Late Night with Seth Meyers, Carmichael says he spoke to his parents that day for the first time since the special aired. They exchanged pleasantries, and then his mother said, “Your sins are tearing this family apart,” at which point the driver said, “We’re here” and Carmichael walked into 30 Rock to sit on Seth’s couch and do the show.

Carmichael flirts with the idea of asking his mother to be his date to the Emmys. “And that bitch is just crazy enough to do it,” he says in another stand-up set. “She wouldn’t recognize the irony in that, that I’m nominated for a special where I’m basically in tears because this bitch won’t accept me because I’m gay. She’ll put on a dress and some makeup and play gospel in the car.”

But this is all because Tyler, his A choice for Emmys date, is not returning his texts and hasn’t since Carmichael’s disclosure of his feelings. Carmichael explains the situation, again on stage, and his phone buzzes. It’s his assistant, Sarah, and it’s a nice reminder that even as this show explores the Big Issues, it will still find the comedy in the relatable and the mundane. “OH MY GOD IT’S HIM,” he says, “and then it’s ‘Do you want some food?’”

“I probably will be hungry after this, though,” he says. That’s a good assistant right there.

And then we’re back in Carmichael’s hotel room in Los Angeles, where he’s visited by Jess, a childhood friend from North Carolina, where he grew up. She’s ordering a spicy margarita from room service, and she has a question for our hero about an item on his table: “This caught my eye: What is Boy Butter?” Jerrod explains that it’s lube, and adds, “I like that it looks like Country Crock, so it evokes memories of my grandmother while I’m fucking these twinks.”

a person sitting on a bench
A scene from the first episode of Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show, which is unlike anything we’ve seen on TV. HBO

Okay, SO. What we have learned so far is that Carmichael’s parents—whom we have not yet met—are unable to digest the fact that their son is gay, and their discomfort is from the mere acknowledgment of the fact in Rothaniel. Carmichael goes much further in Reality Show; before long there’s a montage of Grindr hookups, a couple of makeouts, a banishment of a cameraman before sex happens, an on-camera sucking of toes. Carmichael pulls his sexuality from the abstract into the very real here, and it’s his right to do that, but the viewer can’t help but feel like he’s trying to get a reaction from his parents. In the tug-of-war between thirties and thirteen, it feels very much like the work of the teenager.

Jess has spoken to Carmichael’s mother more than he has in the time since Rothaniel, and her words are wise: “As you’re coming to terms with yourself, your mama’s having to go through the same process. Your mama had an idea of who you were for a long time, and you’re not that person she thought you were going to be. There’s a level of grief that comes with that.”

And then she sucks the last micro-drops of that spicy margarita out of that rocks glass. You should know that these recaps are the essay section of my application to be friends with Jess in real life.

Soon, it is morning and Carmichael is having breakfast with Jack, another Grindr hookup. “This is a dream morning,” Carmichael says. “You’re nice. I woke up in the morning and had sex, like memorable, spank-bankable sex.”

Jack replies: “This is the first time having sex where afterwards, the guy says, ‘The crew is coming in now.’ So it’s memorable for me, too.” I like this guy.

Jack hangs around for Carmichael’s fitting for the Emmys. Carmichael tries on outfit after outfit, one of which has pants that are late-night-HBO tight. “We have to deal with your dick,” the stylist says, perhaps inadvertently revealing the episode’s theme.

Carmichael still uses Grindr, he told me, though when we spoke last week he was trying to limit his use. At the risk of spoiling my own profile of Carmichael, he also told me he’s very much open to making an OnlyFans.

Tyler is down to talk with Jerrod on camera. He comes over, and things are visibly tense between them, but throughout it Tyler remains comfortable on camera. He’s conscious of his image, never in danger of losing control or looking bad. He’s good at this. He explains why he’s been hard to reach: “I’ve been avoiding this conversation, because avoiding this is avoiding change.”

Room service arrives. They eat, tensely.

“What would have been the ideal response,” Tyler asks. “Are you wanting the same thing from me? Because nah, it’s not like that. That’s like family, like a true brother.” It’s an, “I like you, but I don’t like you like you,” which we have all experienced, and which we all do not like, but which a lot of people get out of the way when they’re teenagers, which gay people of Carmichael’s age mostly didn’t get to do, and which nearly all of us don’t go through on camera. It’s a no. But Tyler knows how to keep this particular ball in the air; he knows how to keep the tension high. As they end their meal, Tyler gestures to Carmichael’s bowl: “Not gonna finish that?” Carmichael offers him some, but he says: “Oh, I wasn’t implying I wanted it. I know I don’t want any of that. I’m big straight,” he says. “Big straight on that.” Talk about twisting the knife.

And then he blows ass on the hotel’s tarped-off balcony, where cameraman Sean is stationed. Tyler, the Creator learned a lot in his time on Punk’d.

I asked Jerrod where he and Tyler stand now. “Yeah, I don’t know,” he said. “I think we’re okay. I’m in New York now, so I don’t see him that often but still admire him and love him, and his friendship meant so much to me, and he inspired me so much.” For more information about the use of the past tense right there, check back on Monday for the full interview.

So Carmichael ends up bringing Anonymous to the Emmys, and he ends up winning for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special for Rothaniel, and he ends up giving a really nice speech, which you can see here.

And there’s Anonymous right there! Were we talking about Jerrod bringing a special-ops guy as his date to the Emmys back then?

In his speech, he says he’s going to go home because he “can’t top this right now,” but at least in the world of the show, he doesn’t go home, because he’s always going to try to top it. He goes to do a set, somewhere in Los Angeles where they can fit the lights and the cameras and have one folding chair on stage.

And he has received a 21-second voicemail from his mother.

And he plays it.

“I love you so much, and you did a perfect job, as usual. I pray that you’re getting the rest that you need, and I love you so much. Good job.”

And then he is outside the theater, vomiting. Whether it’s from the tension or the honesty or the heartbreak or the mushrooms he took on the way to the Emmys, we won’t ever know.

The message from Carmichael’s mother is a harbinger of what’s to come in the eight episodes of Reality Show. She’s swelling with genuine pride; she’s invested in what he’s doing. But she will not engage with the content of the show he just won an Emmy for. She will not engage with him as a gay man. She clearly sees him. But she just as clearly refuses to see all of him. That’s the tension that’s going to drive these next seven episodes.

Episode 1 hints at the chaos that is to come. It is the safest of the episodes. The show is an extension of Carmichael’s art, and it seems like the full purpose of his art at this moment is to figure his own life out. He puts his feelings and his reality in front of live audiences, and then in front of cameras, and now in front of us, as if to say: Do you see what I see?

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