We think secrets protect us, and sometimes they do. Is it worth it, though, if they’re simultaneously eating us up from the inside? That’s the crux of Jerrod Carmichael’s powerful stand-up special Rothaniel, his third for HBO, and his third overall. It’s a hilarious, brave, heartbreaking work about Carmichael coming out in his 30s, and how his Southern family reacts to his newly revealed homosexuality. It’s also a depressing real life example of how the people who love us the most might struggle to love the person they see us as once we reveal our secrets.
Carmichael’s comedy has always been defined by contrasts. He’s a quiet, soft-spoken, conversational comic whose gentle tone and drawled delivery teases out the audience’s attention, but he also has a contrarian streak. In his last HBO special, 2017’s 8, he’s low-key confrontational, challenging the presumed-to-be-respectable beliefs of a liberal audience, and highlighting how politics often lose out when pitted against comfort and convenience.
In Rothaniel, Carmichael doesn’t try to provoke his audience, but he still focuses on conflict. This time, though, it’s his own internal conflict as he learns to accept and open up about his homosexuality, while responding to his family’s lack of support and understanding of who he is. Along the way he delves into not just his own secrets, but those of his father and grandfathers, exploring the unique ability sex has to completely blow up a family.
When compared to its genuinely sad second half, the first 30 minutes of Rothaniel underline the fucked up way our society views sexuality. For a half-hour Carmichael discusses the infidelities of his grandfathers and father, from the several children both grandfathers had outside of wedlock, to his dad’s affair with his childhood friend’s aunt. Carmichael’s tales of philandering grandpas, ‘90s porn stashes, paternal infidelities, and his parents’ own sex tape are absolutely hilarious, and the kind of no-holds-barred courage that comedians who just want to be petty assholes about politics and the so-called “cancel culture” can only hope to one day match. Carmichael sorts through generations of dirty laundry both to better understand himself and to entertain his audience, and the result is the funniest stand-up I’ve seen this year.
And then he turns the spotlight from his family to himself, telling the crowd packed into the Blue Note on a snowy night that he’s gay. Carmichael and the audience together sort through what that means, how his macho father and brother are unsure how to react, and how his mother simply refuses to acknowledge it or engage with her son about the man he is.
The second half of Rothaniel is a therapy session. It’s one man working through his most personal problems on stage in front of a supportive audience—and on HBO Max in front of whatever Saturday Night Live fans decide to stream the new special by that show’s latest host. It’s an intimate, almost uncomfortable conversation about how Carmichael’s mother has essentially broken his heart with her reaction (or lack thereof) to his revelation. Carmichael bares his soul as his audience asks him questions about his mother and tries to talk him towards some kind of hope, only for the comic to grow more visibly dejected the more they discuss it. He even admits he’d prefer for her to be angry about it, because at least that would be a legitimate response, rather than completely refusing to engage with the situation. Despite Carmichael trying to talk his way to a positive outlook, despite his fans trying to encourage him, and despite ending on a great laugh that he sets up with the very first line of the special, Rothaniel is ultimately one of the saddest comedy specials you’ll ever see—and one of the most emotional and masterful performances by a comedian ever committed to tape.
Carmichael lays bare the trauma he’s experienced from telling his family who he really is, while also brilliantly exposing how society—and, crucially, his own mother—are more accepting of a straight man who serially cheats on his wife than they are a gay man simply existing. It’s both a refutation of the masculine environment Carmichael was raised in, and a brutally honest depiction of how difficult it is to escape the culture that formed you. It’s another reminder that the best comedy makes you experience something more than just laughter, and makes you feel something other than the anger, confusion, contempt, or superiority that so much stand-up comedy is based on. Rothaniel a startling work of confidence and bravery, and so far the best comedy special of the year.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.