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Carmichael Show: Jerrod Carmichael previews episodes about rape and the n-word

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Chris Haston/NBC

The most fearless and underrated comedy on broadcast television, a.k.a. The Carmichael Show, will ease into its third season with a light-hearted adventure in which Jerrod tries to decide which shirt to buy before a big job inter— oh, who are we kidding? Carmichael wastes zero time in diving right back into charged matters in tonight’s season premiere on NBC.

After her friend writes about her sexual assault on social media, Maxine (Amber Stevens West) debates her boyfriend, Jerrod (Jerrod Carmichael) — and other family members — on the issue of consent, which thoroughly freaks out Jerrod’s brother, Bobby (Lil Rel Howery), who’s recovering from a hazy drunken hook-up the night before.

“The line of consent is such a topic on college campuses — in the world in general,” says Carmichael, who co-created the series. “What consent means is evolving, and rightfully so. We’re trying to curb any problems and any tragic events from happening. But when we talk about where that line is — when we talk about how it’s evolved and hearing a verbal ‘yes’ — guys realized that what it is on paper and what it is in an actual situation where you’re with a young lady or a young guy, a lot of times they don’t match up. We wanted to write an episode around the confusion, the not knowing, the ignorance. Bobby says, ‘Oh wait — by your definition, then I’ve made a huge mistake.’ It’s an episode around the evolving definition of consent.”

He hopes that the episode, titled “Yes Means Yes,” will provoke discussion while helping to clear up uncertainty in an arena in which there should be none. “We wanted to contribute a little bit more clarity of not only the definition, but men and women’s feelings around the matter because it is such a delicate thing,” he notes. “Like anything we talk about, we want to handle it with care. We are aware that there are far too many victims of sexual assault every single day, and we just wanted to have a very specific conversation about it. It’s women talking about their fears and men talking about their fears — and it’s the things that we feel enlightened or ignorant on.”

The episode even contains a brief discussion about Donald Trump, as Maxine tells Jerrod at one point that “a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women and then dismissed it as locker room talk was elected as President of the United States. Clearly, we don’t take it seriously enough.” Carmichael notes that the mentions of Trump were carefully reviewed by the network. “People were really cautious because we don’t want to say anything that’s not true about anyone — and you can’t, it becomes a legal issue at some point,” he says. “I think we kind of teed it on the line. I think we ultimately got to the honesty of it.”

The second episode of the night, titled “Support the Troops,” centers on Jerrod getting in a fight with someone he knows who serves in the armed forces, prompting Joe (David Alan Grier) to try to smooth things over with the soldier. This leads to friction between father and son about what it means to be patriotic and Carmichael’s favorite line in the episode, which is Joe’s attempt to explain why the U.S. went into Iraq: “He’s like, ‘Don’t go into the we-invaded-Iraq-over-a lie nonsense. I told you why we went: Iraq has oil. The terrorists were trying to do bad stuff with that oil so we had to go there, fight them, get the oil, return to freedom, mission accomplished.’”

Other installments this season don’t take their foot off the peddle — or rather, their fingers off the hot-button issues. Another episode likely to raise eyebrows and chatter is “Cynthia’s Birthday” in which Jerrod is called the n-word by a white friend. “The family has a discussion about who should say it, who shouldn’t say it, the pain around it, how it affects us, the benefit of trying to stop someone from saying it,” he says. “It’s a full discussion about that. And we say ‘n—–‘ six times.”

Was that a tough sell to NBC? And how exactly did he arrive at that number? “They agreed to once, and [co-creator Ari Katcher and I] went off to write it,” he says. “Our showrunner Danielle Sanchez-Witzel was like, ‘All right, let’s try to keep it at two,’ because she knew I was going to write it more than once. We wrote it four times — and we ended up saying it six times in the episode.”

Speaking of pushing boundaries, next Wednesday’s installment, “Grandma Francis,” will seek comedy in a deadly serious topic, exploring assisted suicide after Jerrod’s grandmother (Marla Gibbs), who suffers from Alzheimer’s, decides that she’s going to take her own life. “It shouldn’t make me laugh, but it’s one of our funniest episodes, actually, and Marla Gibbs is just brilliant in it,” he says. “It’s a tricky situation: Should you stay around for your loved ones? Is the value of your life based on just how you feel about yourself or how others feel about you? If she’s no longer herself and, as she says in the episode, she’s losing who she is, what’s the value of her staying? Those types of questions are really begged in the episode. It’s one of our favorite ones.”

There’s also an episode that deals with the emotional fallout of a mass shooting at the mall (“The family tries to get Jerrod to talk about his feelings about it,” he hints), another one that examines African-American literacy, and one in which Maxine tries to set up Bobby with a friend who the family considers unattractive. “It’s an episode about body image, and how society treats attractive people, and how people view themselves,” he says of the latter. “Is your worth rooted in how you look?”

In sum, season 3 looks to be the show’s best yet, according to Carmichael. “Everything that the characters talk about feels honest to them,” he notes. “I’ve never been more excited than anything. It’s not that I was lying to people for the first two seasons, but this one, I’m so proud of. I’m so happy with every single episode.”

And he stresses that his writers aren’t trying to poke at controversy with these all-they-really-going-there? episodes that the show offers up week after week, they are simply reflecting conversations that are happening in living rooms, bedrooms, and bars across America. “We don’t write with the intention of offending,” notes Carmichael, “we write with the intention of exploring.” Their compass tends to be pointed in the right direction.

The Carmichael Show airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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