With Emmy nomination voting coming to an end Monday night (10 PM PT is when all ballots are due) there is still plenty of time to get them in, especially with online voting making it so easy. I did my ballot last week, and one of the scripts in the Outstanding Writing In A Comedy Series that I cast my lot in with was the “Fallen Heroes” episode of NBC’s second-season series The Carmichael Show. The topical comedy, which was created by (with Nicholas Stoller, Ari Katcher and Willie Hunter) and stars comedian Jerrod Carmichael as himself, revolves around him and his extended African American TV family, but like ABC’s Black-ish it is different from much of the more heralded series now on cable or streaming services where there are no restrictions.
Carmichael’s show overcomes the network’s standards and practices department by replacing shock value with actual meaningful content as this seemingly average black family sits around talking about issues and events in the real world that affect them. That includes everything from the season finale about their feelings on Donald Trump or the aforementioned Emmy entry “Fallen Heroes,” written by Carmichael and Mike Scully, which examined their complicated thoughts about Bill Cosby, a true hero to Carmichael as he was growing up but now tarnished by sexual assault allegations from 55 different women. The show managed to put every point of view in on this situation as the plot revolved around Jerrod getting two tickets to see Cosby’s live show but finding it tough going to get his girlfriend or parents to go.
In the best tradition of the ’70s-era comedies created by Norman Lear , this series wants to be — and is — relevant. But, as Carmichael told me when we had lunch recently, it isn’t always easy to get this kind of edgier material on the network. After all, Cosby virtually saved NBC in the ’80s with his No. 1 show and also broke ground for NBC and television in the ’60s in I Spy, where he was the first-ever black actor cast in the lead of a dramatic series. “The biggest part of the concern was legal issues, someone overstepping. That type of thing,” Carmichael told me of his Cosby episode. “It was like a flat out ‘no’ (from NBC), and then we just told them we were going to write the script. They’re like ‘no’ and ‘like what?’.” Carmichael praised execs at the network though for championing him and his writers through all the growing pains of the show, which has been renewed for a third season (no air date for that yet).
“It was like a house that is a fixer-upper. This house is still beautiful and it just hasn’t been taken care of,” he says of the opportunity to do his kind of sometimes controversial comedy on the network. “It was enticing. For this show is an NBC show. I thought of it as an NBC show. When I was a kid that was one of my biggest goals. I wanted to have a show on NBC,” he said, largely because of the influence of such classics as Cosby, Seinfeld, Fresh Prince Of Bel Air and so on. It is probably no accident that his series is called The Carmichael Show in a homage to Cosby’s landmark sitcom that, as the “Fallen Heroes” episode points out, showed African American families they could reach for a higher ground, even while lobbing some devastating one-liners at the comedian’s current situation.
“At its best NBC is sophisticated, it’s funny, it’s edgy and it’s a truer sense. I know what the potential of NBC is as far as comedy goes,” he says. “I mean hour dramas you have some really good shows, but as far as comedies quite frankly NBC has dropped the ball. They just haven’t done any good shows on the network lately.
“It’s hard for them I think because they’ve got to program them in a certain way. Networks buy things to fit their schedule. They don’t have building blocks like CBS has. When people actually watched TV on Saturday and they had that incredible lineup with All In The Family and M*A*S*H, and NBC had it on Thursday nights,” he adds, mentioning that Cheers for example needed the success of Cosby before it found its voice. Carmichael has clearly studied the history of the networks and their successes and failures and is quite refreshing in his honesty about where he thinks his show can fit in, if given half a chance. That’s something NBC is doing in renewing the series despite ratings that are not burning up the charts yet.
Another area we got into was the ongoing controversy about diversity — or the lack of it — especially as it pertained to the #OscarsSoWhite problems the Motion Picture Academy has run into over the last couple of years. “I’ve been trying to figure out a way to do an episode about diversity, the black experience, what a real conversation is about — a very real conversation,” he said. “What people don’t realize is that the diversity as the networks champion it and as the studios champion it make people think it’s getting people outside of a box, but it puts people further into one. They make this cookie-cutter version of diversity and you are able to label it as diversity so everybody will get off your back. Just because it is diverse doesn’t mean it is good. If you have a lot of black people in a movie, doing your black movie, and the movie isn’t any good then what are we doing? You don’t help anybody. Obviously what I am rebelling against more isn’t diversity, it is diversity being a hot topic. It never helped anybody. You don’t want to put people in a position where they’re able to just write it off and check a box.”
Carmichael always goes back to using the word “content” in our conversation, even quoting Martin Luther King Jr. in that regard as to being “judged by the content of our character, rather than our skin,” and points to actors like Viola Davis, Denzel Washington and Michael B. Jordan as breaking down some of those barriers in the current environment. “That moves us toward true diversity, not hashtag diversity. I’m just hoping art wins. I just want art to win. There’s always a battle. There’s a lot of contenders, there’s a lot of things under the illusion of moving up, but you want to make sure that things that are good last,” he said.