Jamar Neighbors Talks ‘Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show’

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In one of the stand-up interstitials featured in episode five of Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show, Carmichael tells the audience about an invaluable piece of advice comedian Jamar Neighbors gave him when he was a struggling open-mic comedian: “You’re really funny. Just slow down a little bit.” Years later, Carmichael still feels a debt of gratitude. “I’m forever trying to pay back that first moment,” he continues onstage. “I want to see him as clearly as it felt like he saw me.” What follows is Carmichael’s ostensible attempt to even the balance sheet. His method of remuneration? A grand on-camera experiment filmed for his HBO reality show in which he takes Neighbors on the road and directs his provocative, joke-heavy style of stand-up to hew more closely to his own. Despite having some reservations, Neighbors agrees to participate.

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Over the course of six performances at Flappers Comedy Club in Los Angeles and the Den Theatre in Chicago, Carmichael pushes Neighbors to confront his demons onstage — like growing up in a foster home and not knowing the identity of his father — and eschew hard punch lines in favor of direct confessionalism. To facilitate this process, he connects Neighbors to a therapist and encourages him to confront family members about unresolved issues. In one scene, Neighbors calls his mom to ask who his father is, then panics and immediately ends the conversation. Despite some compelling premises and intermittent laughs, his stand-up shows appear to go poorly.

Carmichael and Neighbors have been friends for over 15 years. They were roommates earlier in their careers — a period during which Neighbors says Carmichael was often “condescending” toward him — and in their respective recent stand-up specials Rothaniel and Rotten Luther King Jr., each perform material about how Carmichael’s coming out as gay affected their relationship. They’re also fundamentally different people with clashing philosophies about comedy and how to heal. At times in the episode, Carmichael comes off as paternalistic and Neighbors comes off as obstinate.

Having seen the episode now, Neighbors is as resentful of the rationale behind the experiment as he was when Carmichael first proposed it and balks at the way he’s depicted in the final edit as an “unfunny, homophobic clown,” but he’s also thankful to Carmichael for putting him through the process. “It did scratch certain itches that I didn’t know that I had,” he says. “I can’t necessarily say I’m gonna commit to doing this my whole career, but I may do it in some form down the line.”

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How did you first hear Jerrod was making a show like this?
He called me to come do some shows, and then I got in the car and there was a camera in my face.

What was your reaction when that happened?
I said, “Nigga, what the fuck is this?” He was like, “Oh, it’s for HBO.” And I said, “Oh, okay, I like HBO.” And then we just rode to the show. I’m used to being on camera anyway. I just didn’t know what it was for. It was always kind of vague.

How did it unfold from there that Jerrod proposed this experiment to you to be more vulnerable in your stand-up? 
Maybe two years ago, he was like, “Your stuff is real good, it’s real funny, and it’s different and original. I still think that you’d benefit from being more vulnerable, because your personal story is extremely compelling.” When he said it on-camera, by that time, I had already heard him say it before. But I still didn’t know where it was headed.

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Jerrod makes this argument to you that the comedy you perform isn’t “personal” and that “someone else could do that.” Is that how you would have described your own comedy before that? 
I always felt like my comedy is personal to me. A hundred percent. My perspective on anything — whether I’m talking about something personal like the foster home or I’m talking about Joe Biden — it’s all coming from me. Whatever I do onstage, even wearing a mohawk, that’s a personal choice. I told Jerrod this and I guess it got cut out, but I was like, “It doesn’t matter as long as the perspective is original.”

You’d talked about some of the same topics Jerrod asks you to address — not knowing who your father is, spending time in an orphanage, etc. — in your special Rotten Luther King Jr. What did Jerrod want you to do differently?
I think what Jerrod was trying to do was try to get me to have a conversation about it instead of, Hey, these are very well-written jokes about this. But for me and my comedy style, that’s just how I do stand-up. There were certain things in my comedy special that I had to cut out because I felt like if my mom saw it, she’d be extremely upset. So it was still very personal for me.

When we’re all just kicking it around the house — me, Jerrod, Willie Hunter, all our friends — I’m usually running the living room telling stories about my childhood and how I grew up. And the stories don’t have any punch lines. It’ll be like, “A social worker came over to see these foster kids my grandma was taking care of. And you know how social workers check on the status of the home? They went out into the shed, and they saw my uncle lying naked on top of some old clothes. So they took the kids away from my grandma because they found my uncle sleeping on these clothes butt-ass naked.” To Jerrod, that’s the funniest version of me. So he wanted me to do more of that stuff, but I’m not used to doing that stuff onstage.

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There’s a moment when you tell Jerrod that back when the two of you were living together, you felt like he was condescending to you. Given that history, did you resent it when he came to you with the idea to “direct” your stand-up?
A million percent. I told Jerrod, “Hey man, what’s wrong with the way I do comedy?” To me, it sounds like you’re saying, “What you’re doing is fine, but you should do this.” I feel offended if somebody is telling me that the thing that I’ve been doing for 21 years isn’t good enough. I’m not struggling with my style of stand-up at all, and I believe that what I do is very great. I told Jerrod this in some personal conversations. I said, “Who the fuck are you to tell me how to do my shit when I’m one of the most respected comedians in the game? Maybe I don’t have your level of fame, but in the game, I’m right there.”

It just seems like your styles are fundamentally different. 
Did you see that one joke I was doing at Flappers where I was doing Spider-Man taking a shit off of a building? That joke literally destroys. I didn’t know where I was gonna put it into my set, but at the time Jerrod put the camera in my face, I was still unclear as to what this all was, so I was like, I’m just going to do what I’ve been doing, and I guess I’ll just work on this. But that time it was like, You threw me up in front of your crowd after you just won an Emmy for coming out of the closet. And we have two totally different styles. So you go up first and you do your comedy and be vulnerable, and then you got this guy coming up here doing Spider-Man taking a shit off a building? The audience is going to be like, What is this? I’m not gonna look great, because they’re coming to see you and what you do. They’re not expecting this guy to come out of nowhere and be like, “That’s cool about your father, man. Sorry to hear that. Hey, here’s Spider-Man taking a shit.” 

The way the scenes of your shows were edited, it seems like you were bombing a lot. 
I called him about this and I said, “Jerrod, in this show, you made me seem like I’m an unfunny homophobic clown!” Out of those six shows, I probably took the L twice. And also, I went up after Jerrod. These people aren’t expecting me to headline his show, so I’m in a weird, unique position. But out of those six shows, at least four of them, people were walking up to me saying, “Damn, man, do you always do your comedy like that? That’s the shit!” In the show, it made it seem like I was laughing at my own jokes when nobody else was, and that’s not what the fuck was going on. That’s how they cut it together. It’s reality TV, you know?

When I first saw the show, I was furious. They showed the dichotomy of our lives, right? They showed Jerrod living in a high-rise in New York, and they showed me washing my car and washing my clothes. So it looked like Jerrod was way better than me and I’m just this struggling person. Nah, I’m just a down-to-earth person who lives his life. I don’t have to have a mansion or anything like that to be happy. At that time, I was on a hit show; I was on This Fool. I’m a working actor. I have my shit together, but it didn’t make it seem like that. That was one of my only qualms.

In the episode, Jerrod pushes you to talk to a therapist, and you explain to him that your approach for dealing with your past has been to not linger on it, because that has enabled you not to think of yourself as a victim. Having tried both approaches now, what works better for you? 
The way I was doing it before: just not harping on it. Again, they cut out so much in the show, and I was talking to Jerrod about this. I said, “Hey man, the shit that you kept versus the shit that I was really telling you would’ve probably changed the world.” Because I was talking about how I did a lot of internal work. At age 27, 28, I was going through a lot because, at that age, you get a little introspective and you’re like, Okay, what the fuck is going on in life right now? I started meditating, and I started making sense of everything, and this whole holistic journey I was on really broadened my perspective. I made amends with a lot of people who I felt like had wronged me in the past. I silently forgave my mom and all this stuff.

By the time I did Jerrod’s show, I was already over every single thing he was trying to get me to dig for. Even the therapist was like, “You seem like you’ve really thought this out.” I said, “I had to. If I didn’t figure all this shit out by the time I got here, I’d probably be … not dead, but I don’t know where I would be.” The real therapy, you do that shit yourself. That’s the only way you’re ever going to figure out all of this shit.

So you haven’t kept up with therapy?
No, but I love my therapist. I fuck with Marvin. I actually liked him asking me certain questions, because he did give me certain things to think about.

Were you compensated for appearing in the show?
I was not compensated. I would have expected to be, because it’s HBO, but they said you don’t get paid for a documentary. I did make them give me $1,000 one time, because I was over giving them content — brilliant things — and not feeling like I was getting paid anything. Jerrod always says, “Never ask about money.” But I’m over here like, “Nigga, I want some money. Pay me!”

That final scene with your mom begs the question: Did you eventually learn who your dad is? 
They didn’t tape it or whatever, but my mom was like, “Jamar, I honestly don’t know who your father is. If I knew, I promise you I would tell you. But I don’t remember. I’m sorry.” She doesn’t remember because the ’80s were wild.

Have you been keeping up with the online reception to the show? What do you think about the way people have been talking about Jerrod as they’ve been watching? 
I’m 50-50 on it. As an internet troll myself, I love it. But as a friend, a comedian, and an artist who knows what it takes to put shit out there and have it critiqued, I feel for my friend who’s taking all this heat. And rightfully so, because Jerrod is showing himself in a light that isn’t very likable. It’s a very polarizing light, so he kind of brings it on himself. But I personally appreciate the bravery.

What, if anything, did you learn about yourself as a person and a performer from going through this process?
I sent Jerrod a text message like, “Damn, man, I’m actually glad you made me do that.” Because it was kind of therapeutic to go out there and say things that I didn’t necessarily write down. Whether it was venomous or whether it wasn’t funny, it was just truly coming from the heart and the soul. It did scratch certain itches that I didn’t know that I had. Even to call my mom out and say, “Hey, who was my father? Let’s have an open conversation about that,” and then us both laughing about it at the end of the show. That stuff did help.

Ultimately, I don’t regret the experience at all. It did help me grow in a way where I was like, This just-being-truthful shit onstage is actually kind of awesome. I can’t necessarily say I’m gonna commit to doing this my whole career, but I may do it in some form down the line.



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