On The Carmichael Show and the Comedic Power of Specificity

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On <i>The Carmichael Show</i> and the Comedic Power of Specificity

Earlier today we published our list of the 100 best sitcoms of all time. Only two recent shows with less than two full seasons earned a spot on the list—Master of None and The Carmichael Show.

Our comedy editor Garrett Morgan makes the case for the show’s placement on our list, and by now you’ve probably heard some buzz about the distinctive and affecting approach the show takes with some of society’s most important current issues. The series was also just renewed for a third season. But when I’m in process of converting to a new show, it’s always about the small things. I fell in love with Master of None over the Lil’ Funyuns bit, and during this week’s episode of The Carmichael Show (“Maxine’s Dad”) I fell deeply in love with Tiffany Haddish’s character over the course of two perfectly delivered lines.

In the episode opener, everyone in the family is trying to impress Maxine’s rich Dad. When he finally shows up, they’re surprised to learn that he’s her white parent (after all, there are only so many Robert DeNiro/Roger Ebert/George Lucas types), but they’re not surprised that he recently saw Hamilton. As he attempts to tell an embarrassing story about Maxine—one which horrifies everyone in the room—there’s only one character who succeeds in earning his immediate approval, and it’s probably the last character we expect it to be.

Haddish’s Nekeisha might be easily classified as the ghetto girl next door, but she’s also got all these great layers that show through every once in a while. Her voice and style is distinctive, but she’s not a one-note character. And she reminds everyone of this when she casually explains the origins of Maxine’s Dad’s odd story about how he got Maxine to stop sucking her thumb: “Only way we could get her to stop was to tell her someone was gonna cut it off with big sharp scissors. You know, like in the nursery rhyme!”

Everyone is shocked, except for Nekeisha who recognizes the reference immediately.

It’s German. They used to read it to us in the foster home.

Well then. Score one for Nekeisha and well-read former foster kids (myself included) everywhere. What’s really important about this line is that, while it’s somewhat surprising to hear Nekeisha say this, it’s not delivered for shock value, just so we can laugh at the strangeness in this character’s knowledge of Germain nursery rhymes. Nekeisha is written so that she’s bold and bodacious, but also intelligent and confident. As a result, her statement fits in well with the way she’s been presented over the course of the second season.

But this wasn’t Nekeisha’s sole moment of glory. She had the funniest line of the episode, delivered in response to Maxine’s announcement that she was planning to work as a county social worker after graduation.

Maxine, you went to college for 7 years just to explain how to use EBT cards to single mothers? It’s just like a debit card, it’s not that hard!

And this is what I mean by the greatness of small things; it’s specificity that wins me over every time. Silicon Valley is consistently great at this, as was Master of None in its first season. And when it comes to the comedy of black characters—characters like Nekeisha—the specificity is not just funny, it’s humanizing and validating for a certain demographic of people.

The joke hit me harder than anything else in the episode because I only recently started making enough money to no longer qualify for food stamps. And I can still remember the horror from a few years back, of trying to finish college, while being a new mom, while also heading to the county social services office to figure out exactly how the whole EBT thing would work. I was so afraid that the card would be instantly recognizable to the entire supermarket; it’d probably set off a special alarm, and the manager would have to get on the intercom system and announce to all of the shoppers, “Shannon Houston, aspiring writer and unmarried mother is in aisle three, forcing hardworking taxpayers to help her buy food for her children because she’s a failure who’ll never graduate, or get that full time staff writer position she thinks is headed her way. Again, that’s Shannon Houston. A failure. Aisle three.”

But Nekeisha was right. And a woman, not unlike Maxine, kindly explained to me that, no, it wouldn’t be that embarrassing and, yes, it’s just like a debit card. It’s not even that hard.

So I laughed and laugh-cried over Nekeisha’s hilarious statement, and I felt glad knowing that that joke wasn’t for everybody, because it was just way too specific. There’s plenty of universal appeal to the Carmichaels, and every reason for people of all backgrounds to start watching. But I’m tuning in for these small moments, these shouts-out to foster kids, German fairy tales and EBT cards. I’m tuning in for more Nekeisha (and yes, Bobby, Joe and Cynthia), and all the ridiculous and intelligent comedy that’s coming with her.

Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.