The Most Haunting ‘Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show’ Scene So Far

jerrod carmichael for esquire
‘Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show’ Episode 4 RecapAndre D. Wagner

“What’s been upsetting me,” Jerrod Carmichael said when we talked about his father Joe’s response to Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show, “is that he’s worried about these things being public.” These things are Joe’s infidelities, which resulted in children who were raised not far from Carmichael, his mother, and his brother. “My father had other kids in a small town,” he told me. “I think he made it public.”

Episode 4, as Joe tells him once they inevitably get down to the business of talking about it, “makes it public-er.” It also puts a whole lot of issues right there on the table, issues of consent and authenticity, disclosure and acceptance. It is a thrilling thirty minutes of television, and it also makes me wonder what it would have felt like to write recaps of public executions at the Colosseum.

Most of the action takes place on the road. Carmichael’s father has consented freely, but maybe not completely freely (we’ll get to that later), to a four-day road trip from New York City to his hometown of Dillon, South Carolina. It will be just the two of them, plus Sean the cameraman. Joe is visibly uncomfortable from the start, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s the intimacy with his son or the cameras that put him on edge.

jerrod carmichael and his dad joe
Jerrod Carmichael and his father, Joe, in episode 4 of The Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show. It is a thrilling thirty minutes of television, with one of the hardest scenes to watch in the whole series. HBO

Home video from the late nineties and early aughts shows the Carmichael guys having fun together, with Joe young and charismatic. “He was strong, just like a man,” Carmichael says onstage in the present. “He walks with a hunch now. Nothing is wrong with him; it’s just the weight of his sins.”

On the road, Carmichael asks his dad whether he wants to meet Michael, his boyfriend. “I will,” Joe says, and they go a few rounds.

“Do you want to?” Carmichael asks him.

“I will if you want me to.”

It’s a semantic game, and they both know they’re playing it. Carmichael is clearly desperate to hear his father say, “I want to meet your boyfriend.” Joe knows this and won’t do it. Carmichael breaks the standoff by showing Joe a picture of Michael—it’s a bathroom-mirror selfie of him in briefs. Then Carmichael launches into a taxonomy of gay men: the daddies, the bears, the otters, the twunks.

Now, listen. When you’re the gay kid in this situation—when you have come out to your family and they respond with this kind of acceptance, which feels exactly like rejection—it is painful. When the reaction is, “We love you, and if you are gay, then you are gay. We’re just not going to talk about it and we’d love it if you didn’t talk about it, either, or express it in any way, and as a matter of fact, if you could just go ahead and also not be it, that would be great,” it is very difficult to know how to feel or, in very basic ways, what to do. It is easy to settle for this kind of acceptance. It is easy to say, “Well, at least they’re still talking to me.” You can find yourself thinking, They didn’t throw me out on the street, so I should be grateful. But it stinks, and it hurts, and it alienates, and one way to react is to rub the parents’ noses in it, which some of us do. Very few of us, however, do it on HBO, and to the question of “should we?” I don’t have an answer, but I am one hundred percent going back to therapy to explore it.

We then see a montage of old stand-up clips of Carmichael talking about dating and loving women, which show how recently he couldn’t fully engage with his own sexuality. We remember his hometown friend Jess telling him how long it took him to be comfortable and asking him to extend that grace and patience to his parents.

And we know he’s not going to.

Over a meal, the Carmichael guys get into it a little bit. Joe knows there are at least two items higher on the list of reasons for this road trip than father-son bonding. He points out that after 2022’s Rothaniel, the HBO stand-up special in which Carmichael came out as gay and offered some brutal truth about his family, the comedian called his parents less frequently. Joe wonders whether they did something to upset him.

“You’re questioning whether you did something I didn’t like?” Carmichael replies. “When I came out, you acted like someone died.”

In digesting the news about Carmichael’s sexuality, Joe and Cynthia (that’s Carmichael’s mom) said something to him like, “Don’t bring any of your boyfriends home.” That moment was not caught on camera. “Not being able to bring someone I love home is you turning against me,” Carmichael says to his dad, and then he reminds Joe that he bought the house they live in. “I’m paying for a home that I wouldn’t be fully accepted in.”

Here, for me, is where we really start getting into questions of consent. His parents are participating in this show of their own free will, but also, as Carmichael said on his recent Kimmel appearance, they’re doing it “because I pay for their insurance.” The moral and ethical considerations of hashing all this intimate stuff out so publicly are already complicated before we get to the issues of coercion and volition. “Time heals things,” Joe concludes. Oh, but that does not seem to be the case, and it sure does feel like the cameras are going to rip the scab right the hell off.

At the hotel, we are back to Grindr, and to Carmichael’s continued cheating on Michael, which makes me wonder if they don’t already have some kind of arrangement in place, and which kind of only happens in this episode to tie back to Dad’s infidelity.

Back in the RV, Carmichael tries to get his father to acknowledge and apologize for the trauma he caused by having a whole other family in such close proximity. But Joe seems to have it worked out for himself. “I may have done things I shouldn’t have done,” he says, “but it’s already been done now, so I can’t really have any regrets.” In a way, it must be nice to live like this.

jerrod carmichael

They get to Dillon, where we meet Joe’s brother and some of Carmichael’s cousins. They set off fireworks and have a great time that is absolutely about to come to an abrupt end. In a clip of a recent stand-up appearance, Carmichael explains the situation to the audience and says something that is straight-up lacerating: “My biggest fear with my father is that he simply had more fun with his other family.” I brought up that moment with him when we spoke last month for an Esquire cover story. “It’s an uncomfortable thought,” he said. “Seeing your dad leave the house, knowing where he is going, wondering if there was anything that I did or anything I could do to get him to stay. Like, aren’t we having fun?” He pushed those thoughts away as a child, and he’s dealing with them now. “I used to think, Am I enough?And then he stopped himself. “That’s where I start to sound like Brené Brown.”

In Dillon, Carmichael asks his father again about his infidelity as they sit by a fire, which dials up the sense that Joe is being burned alive. “Why are you digging into this theme, son?” he asks.

Carmichael says he was humiliated to learn he had a half brother who went to the same high school, and to find out that other kids knew before he did. “This doesn’t have to be discussed on camera,” Joe says.

But Carmichael says it’s the only way to get his father to talk. “Your option is no option,” he says. “If the cameras help, then they help. Maybe I’m afraid to have these conversations without them, but you weren’t gonna do it.”

Joe is still very much not gonna do it. Last month, Carmichael told me he knows his father doesn’t want this business to be exposed. “But to me, what’s the difference?” he said. “We’re already exposed. It’s already out there, and it was harder dealing with that in high school than it is now. I think he’d rather it just go away. He doesn’t want to talk about it privately, either. I know it may be a chaotic way of viewing things, but we’re either going to talk about it or we’re not.”

In this episode of Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show, however, we are not going to talk about it. Joe shuts down completely and then starts whispering to himself, “I knew it.” And then, speaking up a tiny bit more, he asks plainly, “Can I go home?” It’s one of the most truly gut-wrenching things I’ve ever seen on television.

Over the show’s closing credits, we are back to the old home-video footage, which hits different now that we know things are not as they seem.

Last month, Carmichael said his father had seen the episode, and though he was characteristically taciturn about it, he suspected Joe was worried about how he would come off. “And I’m like, Do you watch me in it? Do you watch me regressing to a child? Are you listening to me? Are you watching my face? My dad’s worried about the world, and he should realize that the danger is me.”

I think there is room for a lot of different dangers in a situation like this.

Read more of Dave Holmes’s coverage of Jerrod Carmichael:

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