NBC sitcom The Carmichael Show has proven it’s not afraid to tackle complex, topical subjects. In its six-episode run last summer, the critically praised multi-camera comedy — loosely based on the life of 28-year-old comedian Jerrod Carmichael — riffed on everything ranging from the Black Lives Matter movement to gun control to transgender acceptance.
But for the show’s second season set to launch this spring, Carmichael is pushing one of the hottest buttons in Hollywood: He has written an episode about Bill Cosby.
Yes, the once-revered comedian — about whom more than 50 women have made sexual assault claims (and who last year was charged with aggravated sexual assault stemming from an alleged 2004 incident in Pennsylvania) — will be the subject of an entire installment of a prime-time comedy. And not just on any network, but NBC, the former home of multiple shows starring Cosby, including the generation-defining 1980s family sitcom The Cosby Show. The network ultimately severed ties with Cosby in late 2014, dropping the new family sitcom it was developing with the actor as allegations continued to pile up. (Cosby has maintained his innocence against the assault claims; his lawyer, Monica Pressley, said he was “not guilty” of the sexual assault charges.)
The episode — which is co-written by Carmichael co-executive producer Mike Scully (The Simpsons) and being filmed Thursday night in Los Angeles — explores the themes of fallen heroes, loss, and the difficult process of trying to separate the artist from the art. The plot begins with Maxine (Amber Stevens West) becoming upset when Jerrod (Carmichael) surprises her with tickets to a Cosby concert, igniting a firestorm of debate within the family. “The episode is [about] the dilemma of any fan,” says Carmichael, the show’s star and co-creator. “And it’s a thing that I’ve found myself going through with Bill Cosby in my personal life, being a comedian and in the same industry and admiring him. But I think a lot of people go through these things with whoever they’re a fan of, anytime this happens. It’s about that moment of decision, where you’re trying to figure out how to adjust that fan-person relationship. It’s about that moment where you’re trying to figure out: Where do we place Bill Cosby in our minds?”
Such an episode is guaranteed to generate headlines and debate, something of which both NBC and 20th Century Fox, the studio which produces the show, are keenly aware. “It gives you butterflies, but the good butterflies — that, ‘Wow, we’re going to see something that’s smart and provocative that will ignite a social conversation in the way that great television should,’ ” 20th Century Fox Television president Jonathan Davis tells EW. “Jerrod and [executive producers] Danielle-Sanchez, Nick Stoller and Ravi Nandan were like, ‘Trust us, we’ve got something great here.’ And when we read the material, we were just blown away. And give NBC credit too. We just said, ‘We have to back this, they’re saying something in that Norman Lear kind of way where it’s funny and it makes you think about all of our hypocrisies and gets you talking. This episode will certainly be part of the cultural conversation.”
“Jerrod’s comedy and the storylines for his show are meant to be funny but also provocative and sometimes even challenging,” said NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke in a statement issued to EW. “He embraces issues that are being discussed in many aspects of our culture today — gun control, race, gender identity — and he and his producers approach these topics head-on, exploring them from all sides. We embrace this and we’re proud to be in business with him.” (A representative for Cosby had no comment.)
It sounds like Carmichael will be proudly embracing controversial debates in season 2 beyond Cosby as well. “There’s an episode coming up about gentrification,” he says. “There’s an episode that explores Islamophobia. There’s an episode that explores cheating, trying to explain the emotions around the death of a family member. It’s some fun, rich topics. … I like the excitement of television and what it can mean.”
Right now, though, he wants to talk about The Carmichael Show taking on the Cosby scandal.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What does this episode say about Bill Cosby? What kind of statement does it make?
JERROD CARMICHAEL: Removed from the legal aspects of it, removed from all of the accusations, I think it’s the most fair argument on what’s happening with Bill Cosby that you’re going to see on television. It’s the most honest, sincere argument about it. It’s both sides. It’s people not knowing what to do with it. There’s doubt, there’s the acknowledgement of how horrendous the accusations are. I think we balance the argument. That’s what we try to do with every episode, but especially this one because we didn’t want any agenda, any narrative. This isn’t a “Let’s defend Bill Cosby” episode. This is also not a “Let’s persecute him” [episode]. It’s really just, “Well, this is how I feel about his work. This is what he meant to me and with these circumstances, this is how I’m trying to deal with that.”
So, the whole debate is a springboard for you to explore these questions in the episode, without having to reach a conclusion…
If you’ve ever liked an artist or someone who then does something or is accused of something extremely corrupt and your moral conscience won’t allow you to accept that artist, the truth is then that creates a void in your life. Because then something you loved was taken from you. You justify it because you’re like, “Well, I am doing the right thing by removing myself from this person’s work,” but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a void. It really is a void. If you lose a parent — even if you had your history with that parent and that parent did something horrible — you still just don’t have a parent anymore. So it’s hard. The episode is really exploring the fact that the reality is it’s difficult. Even if you want to say it’s black or white, it still doesn’t make it easy. It’s easy in a tweet to just say, “I don’t support this anymore,” but if it became a part of your personal life, it’s hard to stop.
The show is a comedy, but you’ve shown you’re not scared of tackling controversial subject matters. Was it a big challenge here finding where the comedy was?
If you talk about a thing long enough and you explore it from so many angles, the laugh is going to come. And we have this obligation to tell the truth, and we are acting, and there are funny things that happen and there are funny elements around it. The same thing we did with the protest episode where the topic isn’t a source of humor, but the reactions and feelings around it are. So it’s easy to find humor in the reactions around it while maintaining the respect of the topic. Because that is very important, and I do want to say, even some of the lines reflect the argument more than any of my or the actors’ personal beliefs, but [these are] just important things that we feel like need to be said. … I think people will still be willing to hear it out, and I think it’s a really funny episode of television.
I imagine that NBC had some reservations. What was that process like?
Oh, what a process it was. [Laughs] We have champions within the network who realize a lot of these things needed to be said. And it’s a fight and there are legal things and more people are involved and there’s a lot of caution. And rightfully so: It is a corporation and they have to be cautious and they have to protect their best interests, but ultimately I think creativity won. And I’m very thankful. … I just know there were champions within the network who were really excited and knew this could be important television. Even though there was a process and there was caution and there were questions and there were concerns, ultimately I saw a lot of excitement. Even in the process, even in the hesitation I saw a lot of excitement. I think it really connected with why a lot of people got into television in the first place and it is to do things that are genuinely provocative — not shocking, but genuinely provocative — and I think a lot of the execs really appreciated that.
What was the very first reaction you got from NBC when you pitched the idea?
No. [Laughs] To put it in its truest and simplest form, “No.”
So it was a process of persuading the network that this was worth doing and worth the risk?
Well, yeah, I knew I wanted this to be the season 2 opener while we were doing season 1. And you know, sometimes I’ll say certain things and sometimes I think some execs think I’m saying it as like a, “Nahhh, he’s just talking.” And I’m like, “No, no, we really want to do this episode.” [Costar] Loretta Devine thought I was joking. I was like, “We’re going to do a Bill Cosby episode. It may upset a few people.” And she was like “Ahhh, I’m not listening to you.” And then she got the script and she was like, “You were serious? We’re doing this?”
What are your own personal views on Bill Cosby? How do you feel about what’s been going on, and what conclusions have you drawn?
I was a huge fan. And so many of us were. My family and my friends were huge fans of his stand-up, and especially the show. And I’m using the term “allegedly” because I have to. It’s a difficult thing where it’s like… we know. We know the answers. With so many accusations, we know the answers, I never want to come across as being naïve to it or like, “Well, maybe…” We’re pretty aware. It’s just not a good feeling. I feel bad about it because it’s a thing where nobody wins. These women were robbed of something that’s very very important, and they are hurting and it’s painful. And, I mean, that’s obviously disgusting. And the public gets robbed of art that we grew up on and a comedic mind that we loved and embraced. That gets taken away from us. It’s a situation where everybody loses. And that’s sad. You know? That’s just really sad. All around.
Do you feel that he’s guilty?
Honestly, it’s not my place to say. I have eyes and ears and I know what sounds like the very commonsense answer. But it’s genuinely not my place to say. I don’t think that 55 people made something up. I don’t think there’s a grand conspiracy either… It’s not that I don’t know, it’s just not my place to say. Does that make sense? We all know the answer. But the same way it’s not my place to say, it’s the legal place to say. If someone was speaking guilt or innocence, I have my feelings on it, but my feelings don’t put anyone in jail.
What will Bill Cosby say when he sees this episode? What would you imagine his reaction would be — or what would you want it to be?
Listen, Bill Cosby’s a very smart man. And once again, this answer is removed from the legality of it. I think he would watch. I hope that he would watch and realize that that these are conversations and feelings that people have. And I think you have to respect that. And I hope that he does.
You know this episode is going to cause a stir. Are you bracing for that? Do you welcome the debate?
You know, I don’t really check the Internet and social media a lot. … I’ll gauge people’s honest reactions. If people talk about it, I just hope it sparks honest conversation. We take ourselves to these edgier places, but I think it’s done with enough truth to where I think people who actually listen to the episode will understand the intention of it. So I don’t worry about the reaction. I remember before we did the protest episode, just hearing the Carmichael Show is going to cover issues relating to the police killing black youth, and I think it was just this uproar. Someone was just like, “No, you can’t!” Because if you just hear the buzzwords, you’ll shut down. And I think people who actually listen to the episode and listen to what’s being said and listen to the emotional arc of what the characters are going through will understand, and I think they’ll embrace it and I think it will spark honest, intelligent conversation. Or they’ll hate it. Either way. [Laughs]