“Gritty sadness and guileless humor are blood brothers. One may often be found in the company of the other. Together they keep the soul intact. They are a kind of yin and yang that heals by spreading emotional glue on the many splits and divisions that show as pain. You may win this deep humor by your pain, suffering, and endurance.”[i] Thomas Moore is talking about “Dark Nights of the Soul,” the title of his book.
In this essay comedian Jerrod Carmichael (b. 1987) will be talking about the dark soul in the depths of the American cultural identity. Like many sensitive comedians, he is consciously taking on the task of shining the light on the dark “splits” and “divisions” in the chasms of the American community, a community divided brother against brother.
Perhaps nobody in the business of producing laughs and at the same time creating awareness has succeeded better than Norman Lear, creator of the classic sitcoms like “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons.” Lear told Jonah Weiner that Carmichael’s comedy “helps America look at itself in the mirror. He sees the foolishness of the human condition—he understands that there is humor to be found in the darkest places.”[ii]
Carmichael, who is African American, deliberately provokes his audience and he doesn’t care who the audience is. He seems to understand that they are all culpable in their responsibility for the American version of the human condition. Like the essays you are reading in this book, Carmichael’s stand-up routine is designed to shock and bewilder audience members who often don’t know whether to laugh, be angry or just confused. For example, Carmichael’s success is as performer and creator of such comedy specials as “Love at the Store,” have enabled him to live in a building with a doorman.
Carmichael begins his stand-up routine with a set up related to his newfound prosperity:
“Money changes you.” He continues with telling the audience how he recently entered his upscale apartment building wearing a hooded sweatshirt and walked across the lobby without being challenged by the doorman. He tells the doorman. “I’m concerned. I pay a lot of money—like, a lot of money—so that niggas in hoodies like me can’t waltz by you. Next time stand your ground.”[iii]
And here’s another example:
He can’t wait until he gets rich enough to say “Republican things” out loud such as “I don’t think people on welfare should be allowed to eat breakfast (pause). Which is kind of true when you think about it. Like you’re building up your strength for what?”[iv]
Carmichael isn’t afraid to tackle the sensitive issues of race, class, gender and sex in unorthodox ways. He realizes the issues cause growing gaps, and tear apart American society. He addresses them in a fearless manner in which the audience can’t fail to see themselves reflected in his captivating images. Comedian Neal Brennan, one of Carmichael’s mentors, describes how he has intuited what we in the context of Simple Reality would call false-self behavior in P-B. Brennan said that “at its best, Jerrod’s stand-up shows America/humanity at its worst—capitalist, cut-throat, cynical, narcissistic.”[v]
Carmichael’s jokes can be both funny and very sad at the same time and the audience often starts out laughing and later feels the sadness a few seconds later. “Carmichael declaring that some people are ‘more important’ than others, describes ‘looking at my little cousin, and you can just tell he’s gonna work at Wendy’s. Like, you could see it in his eyes; He has Wendy’s eyes.’”[vi]
Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, a showrunner on “The Carmichael Show,” points out that Carmichael intentionally creates the emotional rollercoaster which often results in laughter, anger and sadness. “Jerod likes to make people uncomfortable not for the sake of making them uncomfortable, but to shake them out of their regular way of seeing the world.”[vii] For example, what did he say in a stand-up routine about Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the border with Mexico? “You don’t just have an open wall at your apartment, like, ‘I like my neighbors to be able to come in if they feel oppressed.”[viii]
Self-reliance, one of the all-important principles undergirding Simple Reality is intuitively understood by Carmichael. “Can I say: I don’t think we went to the moon? All of you are crazy for believing it, but we don’t have time to get into the real facts because it’s not funny. I think it’s kinda cool we made it up. That’s so American. Lying about a moon landing? That’s so us. You think we went to the moon. Well, the same people said that drinking water is safe [in Flint, Michigan]. When you grow up and a lot of things people tell you aren’t true, you learn to challenge and question everything. If you’re in Flint and the government said the water is safe to drink, and you find out it wasn’t, and they knew (pause). It’s up to you to figure out the truth for yourself.”[ix]
Rejecting the inevitability of his fate, the story and identity that his society would automatically impose on him, happened early in Carmichael’s life. “There was a path laid out for me by circumstances, decided at birth, that I sent back.”[x] He demonstrated a choice we all can choose to make. We can accept the narrative and false-self identity handed to us and behave accordingly or we can make an alternative decision, one which is less replete with pain and suffering. We can “send back” the script that others would have us read and walk off the stage and find a different play to appear in, one that is more in alignment with our True-self. This is what Carmichael is struggling to do.
Without humor, can we endure the suffering inherent in a community where compassion is so rare? Without humor can we experience the insight necessary to undertake the dismantling of our own personal, fear-driven and reactive false self? If Jerrod Carmichael has his way, he will provoke us with his courageous and often outrageous performances in a way that will make it impossible for us to cop out and pretend that everything is OK or that the problems we are aware of are someone else’s fault. Or, more importantly, that we are impotent and can’t do anything about our circumstances. It may be funny, but it’s no laughing matter.
[i] Moore, Thomas. Dark Nights of the Soul. New York: Gotham. 2004, page 284.
[ii] Weiner, Jonah. “Say Everything.” The New York Times Magazine. March 6, 2016, page 34.
[iii] Ibid., page 31.
[v] Ibid., page 34.
[vii] Ibid., page 61.
[x] Ibid., page 35.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.