Jerrod Carmichael is still in lazy Sunday mode when he takes the call for this interview from a hotel in Los Angeles. He explains up front that he is still in bed. “But you’re getting the most honest me possible,” he says. “So you know, I promise you, I won’t lie to you. I’m too comfortable to lie right now.”
Carmichael, who plays the Wilbur Theatre June 3, has been dropping some heavy truths lately. In April, he released his remarkable stand-up special “Rothaniel” on HBO. More contemplative than punchline-oriented, the special details his family secrets, how his real name isn’t Jerrod, and leads up to his coming out as a gay man. Last week Carmichael released the film “On the Count of Three,” a comedy/drama that he directed and co-stars in about two friends trying to fulfill a suicide pact.
One could be forgiven for expecting a more somber Carmichael, but he is immediately engaging in conversation. In the few shows he’s played since “Rothaniel” was released, Carmichael has felt that expectation of seriousness from his audiences. “Everybody thinks I’m sad,” he says. “Everyone’s just like looking for a sign, like, are you okay? And then you hear me talk and then it’s like, ‘Okay, well, even if he’s sad, he’s dealing with it in a weird way, and I might as well enjoy whatever is happening.’ ”
If anything, Carmichael feels more free to be himself these days. In previous specials, detachment was a frequent theme of his. He talked of trying to get himself to care about a number of things, from animals to politics. “I don’t feel strongly about anything,” he said in his 2018 special “8,” adding, “I don’t like being around people who do.”
From the beginning, with his Spike Lee-directed 2014 special “Love at the Store,” and with his NBC sitcom “The Carmichael Show,” Carmichael has always tried to ask big questions through his comedy. But he was dropping rhetorical bombs instead of analyzing himself. “Rothaniel” ushered in the next stage of Carmichael’s comic evolution. “In so many ways, I’m actually edgy now,” he says. “Before it’s like the illusion of edgy.”
In “Home Videos,” one of two documentaries he made for HBO in 2019, he got closer to his own story, telling his mother that he had “hooked up” with guys before. Looking back, Carmichael sees himself trying and failing to say the words he needed to say — that he is gay. “It’s funny, because a lot of comedy right now, you hear people talking about free speech,” he says. “But I’m like, bro, there are things that I was free to say that I was terrified of saying, so I’m just gonna focus on that. I feel a lot of freedom, because now I can go to the places I was afraid of.”
Now Carmichael is doing all-new material onstage, exploring the person he couldn’t before. “I think I’m trying to get to the bottom of, like, my dating life, or lack thereof, and trying to get to the bottom of, or find some stable ground in, my relationship with God.”
By way of example, Carmichael says that before the interview, he was perusing the account of a particularly attractive gentleman on Instagram with the song “This Is the Day the Lord Has Made” stuck in his head. “I’ve been having sex to gospel music sometimes, just trying to break down walls,” he says.
The idea for “Rothaniel” came together quickly at a time when Carmichael says he was virtually retired from comedy. After his 2018 special “8,” he did occasional guest spots but had no long-term plans. “I didn’t think that I had anything to say at the time,” he says. “I’m glad for that because I explored things in my personal life that I probably would have ignored had I been just writing jokes for those four years.”
He did keep writing, and by December 2021, he decided to do stand-up again. He went to The Comedy Store in LA and bombed, but continued to perform and develop material. “Rothaniel” was recorded just after Valentine’s Day and released in April, and it has reinvigorated Carmichael. “Oh, I have a lot to say,” he says. “I have a lot to say.”
It has been strange for Carmichael to talk about both “Rothaniel” and “On the Count of Three” together. The film premiered at Sundance in January 2021, but the wider release was delayed because of the pandemic. Carmichael and Christopher Abbott play friends who both realize they’ve been having thoughts of suicide and decide to do it together. But each has some unfinished business to tidy up first, which is the focus of most of the movie.
But where the film arcs toward tragedy and redemption, “Rothaniel” is about a healthier resolution. Despite their releases within a few weeks of each other, they aren’t necessarily of a piece. “The movie is such a result of the angst of your 20s, this cumulative angst that plays out in this last day between these guys who are about to turn 30,” says Carmichael. “And ‘Rothaniel’ is just, like, a man who’s taken the steps necessary to grow and try and understand himself. ‘Count of Three’ is about the feeling of running out of time, and living up to who you thought you’d be, and ‘Rothaniel’ is contending with those things on the other side of it.”
Carmichael doesn’t like the term “multi-hyphenate,” but it’s likely he’ll continue to write and direct in addition to doing stand-up. When asked if he’s tired of talking about the special yet, he says he’s still proud of it and happy to talk, but the fatigue of dwelling on what’s already been done will hit him at some point. “It’s time to make something new,” he says.
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the Wilbur, June 3 at 7:30 p.m. $33.79-$43.79. 617-248-9700, thewilbur.com