Jerrod Carmichael Speaks Truth to Whoever Is Listening

The up-and-coming comic’s first special was shot by Spike Lee. That’s indicative.

You may not be familiar with Jerrod Carmichael yet, but you will be soon. The 26-year-old comedian will unveil his first hour-long stand-up special, Love at the Store, today on HBO. In the special, taped in May at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, Carmichael offers thoughtful takes on race, gender, poverty, national tragedy, and politics—so thoughtful, in fact, he was able to enlist Spike Lee as the director.

Carmichael, who recently appeared in Neighbors alongside Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, is also currently working on a TV show pilot for NBC. Maxim spoke with the comedian about working with Lee, getting controversial, and his goals going forward. Pay attention because you’ll be seeing a lot more of him soon.

How did you get Spike Lee on board to direct your special?

You know, it’s such a simple story you’re going to be disappointed. I was listening to jazz and his dad made this song that I play a lot. It was around the time I was thinking about directors, and I was like, “Hey, let’s call Spike Lee.” We reached out, and the next day I got a call from a Brooklyn number and it was him. He was excited. It was a pretty fast process.

He just called you up himself?

Yeah, he just called me himself. I didn’t answer because I didn’t know the number. And then I got the voicemail and thought, “Okay, I probably should return this one. I should probably get back to Spike Lee.”

What was his role in shaping the special?

His role was to really capture a moment. Of course Spike has made great movies and great films, but I really loved his documentaries because he captured what something was. That’s what the goal of the special is—really capture the Comedy Store, really capture my material. He did an amazing job of bringing texture and style to the special. We talked about the material, too. He talked about certain things he really loved. Maybe a couple things I would do he’d say, “Oh, you’re gonna get me killed.” He was really cool.

Who are the comics you idolized growing up?

Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby. Those guys are so authentically themselves. And that’s my goal: to be as authentically me as possible. Watching them be natural and breathe onstage is awesome. Those two more than anyone.

You definitely put your toe over the line a few times in the special.

I don’t think all comedy should be mindless. Have something that’s thoughtful. Maybe some things are tongue-in-cheek; maybe some things are very direct. I like that people have to think about things. That excites me. Because if you say certain things it starts a dialogue. Even if you disagree, it’s still a dialogue. These are a lot of really honest thoughts or feelings or questions. It’s me questioning things. I don’t mean anything malicious by anything I say. My intention is just to explore a thought.

Is that how you would generally describe your style of comedy?

I just like to explore honest thoughts or feelings. How I’m feeling at the time. I want to explore it and talk about it and have a conversation with the audience. I want to throw something out there, see how they feel about it and tell them how I feel about it. I know that’s really relaxed, but that’s the most fun. Just a really relaxed conversation.

So public therapy, basically.

Really public therapy. Like super-public therapy.

How does filming an hour-long special fit into your overall career goals?

I want everything to be an honest extension of me. What better way than me talking? It’s a direct connection with everyone. With film and television, you make great projects, but stand-up is the thing that is completely yours. I want everything else to fit into it. I’m working on TV show ideas now and focusing on the same emotion as stand-up, where it’s honestly me. Like, is this something I can see myself saying or doing? I write from that place. Stand-up is the uncut version of me.