The last time I prayed, it was awkward — a reflection, really, of my relationship with God.
I’m sure with everything going on, the Lord isn’t judging me for my extended hiatus. But on that evening many months ago, when I decided to kneel beside my bed, clasp my hands and shut my eyes, I sincerely wondered if God was mad at me.
I wanted to ease the tension between us, so, naturally, I started my prayer with a joke: a brief bit about my absence, the state of the world, my anxieties, existential malaise. And it worked. My body loosened. My words become more animated, my storytelling more energetic. Humor has a way of doing that — soothing nerves and clearing the way for a sometimes destabilizing level of honesty.
I thought about my conversation with God while watching Jerrod Carmichael’s Rothaniel, a stunning and unnerving act of storytelling. The hour-long special, which premiered on HBO in early April, has already been written about considerably, with critics observing how it pushes stand-up into the realm of confession and functions as group therapy, or focusing on Carmichael’s brilliant use of silences, his coming out as gay and his engagement with the live audience. These pieces have rightly folded Carmichael into a new class of introspective, intimate stand-up specials, which include Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, Bo Burnham’s Inside and even Pete Davidson’s Alive from New York.
I agree with many of these readings. But watching Rothaniel for a second, and then third, time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Carmichael was doing something more: that this comedian, who has already released two stand-up specials, a short-lived sitcom and a pair of brief personal documentaries — material in which he gestures at his sexuality, explores family secrets, confronts his parents and demonstrates a desire to build rapport with the audience — was trying to really push himself and viewers. Buoyed by the freedom found within humor, Rothaniel struck me as a delicate movement between different forms of storytelling — a work that begins as confessional comedy, is organized like a memoir and is finally imbued with and sustained by the ecstatic energy of prayer.
Carmichael is a man of faith, although, as he says in Rothaniel, coming out as gay has forced him to redefine what that means. Religion, the church and the Bible have, for the most part, always made appearances in his work. In Love at the Store, his first special, directed by Spike Lee, he jokes about Michael Jackson reaching the gates of heaven, presenting St. Peter and the Lord with a conundrum. They are fans of the star, but they are also the moral authorities: Can they let the King of Pop in amid the accusations against him? In 8, directed by Bo Burnham, who also directed Rothaniel, Carmichael presents an absence of faith, performing an extended bit about how he struggles to care and feel strongly about any issues. His family in The Carmichael Show was deeply religious and in his two documentaries, Home Videos and Sermon on the Mount, both directed by the comedian himself, he grapples with the tension between his mother’s faith, his father’s infidelity and his family’s penchant for keeping secrets.
In Rothaniel, Carmichael returns to the subject of secrets. He is older now, much more in command of himself. You can tell just by the smoothness with which he gets on stage, takes a seat and addresses the applauding crowd shadowed by the darkness of the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York. His performing and storytelling abilities are sharper, too, allowing him to achieve a new degree of candor.
Carmichael opens with a handful of jokes that show off his signature style of humor. These jabs about the number of affairs in his family history, about his grandmother being a “side-piece,” about the embarrassment around his real name get the crowd going, but they are also a warm-up, allowing Carmichael to ease himself into the space and the crowd. In a recent talk for the New York Public Library, the critic and memoirist Margo Jefferson, whom Carmichael reminds me of, observed how humor factored into her own work. It allowed her to “break through my decorum, my anxiety,” she said, which led her to “other tones, to acknowledge a sort of grief, a sort of self-abnegation.”
Humor serves a similar function in Rothaniel. It allows Carmichael to access a more honest register in this story he has decided to share. In his previous work and in interviews about the special, the comedian has hinted at the suffocating role decorum and politesse play in his family, how they poison conversations and attempts to bridge gaps of understanding. As Carmichael moves from historical affairs to the present, his special transcends the introspective comedy of late and enters the realm of memoir. The contours of the narrative become clearer: This is a story about how revealing another person’s secrets (specifically, telling his mother about his father’s cheating) forced Carmichael to confess his own, and how that admission did not lead to immediate catharsis.
When he comes out, his silences serve as interludes, marking a shift in the story. Carmichael never abandons the humor, but he does lower the volume. The audience becomes louder as they chime in with prompting questions and affirmative statements of love and support. But when Carmichael starts talking about his mother, a central character in many of his stories, I couldn’t help but feel as though he is speaking to someone beyond the people in the audience and viewers at home. The perspective changes, too. Carmichael’s face occupies the left edge of the frame; when he shakes his head in disbelief at his mother’s responses to him, he looks up, away, elsewhere.
Rothaniel, then, starts to feel like a searching prayer, a conversation with God after a long hiatus. Carmichael starts and then abandons thoughts about his mother. He recalls how she told him, in a previous conversation about being gay, that she “can’t go against Jesus.” He follows that by saying he understands that she is trying her best. Prayer isn’t always about request or gratitude. Much like journaling or therapy or talking to a friend, it can help you make sense of the world.
The latter half of Carmichael’s special plays like a communion, a spiritual meeting between him, his family’s past and the unknown terrain of their future. Sitting on the stage, the comedian wears a loneliness familiar to anyone whose survival and self-preservation are at odds with the narratives maintained by their loved ones. To share that experience — with all the relief, confusion and discomfort that come with it — and to trust that those watching will follow is, to me, an extraordinary act of faith.