In The ‘Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show,’ Truth Really Is Stranger Than Fiction

Early in the first episode of the new HBO series The Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show, an anonymous friend arrives at the Emmy-winning comedian’s door, clad in a black ski mask. (Given that Bo Burnham, who directed the comedian’s triumphant special Rothaniel, attended the 2022 Emmys with Carmichael in a ski mask, people have already identified him as the massively tall figure.) Sitting with Carmichael on plush hotel room couches, Anonymous chides him for his reality TV-based experiment, observing that all the raw footage they are filming will eventually be edited down into a half-hour episode. “This is not truth,” he maintains. “This is narrative.”

Whether Burnham’s statement is an expression of his real feelings or a thesis for the show to react against is, as with much in the new docuseries, up to interpretation. Like a good stand-up set, The Carmichael Reality Show, which premiered Friday, transmutes the raw material of real life into narrative. It’s a task familiar to comics and reality TV producers alike and, in this instance, Carmichael is acting as both subject and architect of his truth. If we already understand the act of storytelling as alchemizing the junk of our lives into a digestible narrative, then why should editing making it any less real? That central question is what Carmichael explores, with gusto, in Reality Show.

Carmichael’s new series exists somewhere between the self-promoting hilarity of Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List and the beloved reality TV deconstruction The Comeback, which tells the story of a B-Lister trying to regain her fame. The new show fits in a broader cultural milieu of reality TV deconstruction, in which lenses are turned on lenses and cameras on cameras, perhaps best typified by the work of Nathan Fielder on The Rehearsal and The Curse. Carmichael similarly uses the reality format as a prism to refract and bend the story of his own life, exploring his public and private personae, and adding layers of complexity to his own mythology.

The first episode, entitled “Emmys,” takes viewers back to that fateful 2022 Emmys night, when Carmichael won the award for outstanding writing for a variety special for Rothaniel, the stand-up program that made him a star. Rothaniel was widely praised as a bold hour of material that doubled as his personal and professional coming out, announcing him simultaneously as a comedic talent and a gay man. The new show complicates the rising star’s experience by showing us the emotions surrounding that triumphant win. As often happens in life, the high of an award could not fix his particular problems; his relationship with his parents is still icy and, in his love life, he has faced romantic rejection from his close friend, rapper Tyler, the Creator.

Indeed, Carmichael’s show pushes back on the very notion that “It Gets Better,” or that telling LGBTQ+ stories and sharing truths can be a sort of panacea for queer pain. And it’s fitting that this more nuanced story is told in a reality TV format, which has long been one of the most receptive arenas for complicated queer stories. The first queer wedding on television was between Pedro Zamora, who used his platform to educate America about people living with HIV, and his partner Sean Sasser in 1993 on an episode of The Real World, 22 years before the Supreme Court settled the issue. That pioneering spirit is still on display in shows like Couple to Throuple, which gave real-life couples the space to explore polyamory, still a cultural taboo, on an arena as public as Peacock. Contrasted to the often anodyne, safe representations of LGBTQ+ people that have dominated broadcast television, reality TV is a space where queerness can still be somewhat daring.