In its second season on NBC, The Carmichael Show has continued to build its episodes around hot-button issues and topical matters: infidelity, birth control, mourning, and Bill Cosby. But the show is also using these episodes to flesh out the people surrounding the show’s star, comedian Jerrod Carmichael—tonight’s episode, “Gentrifying Bobby,” puts a spotlight on eldest Carmichael son Bobby (Lil Rel Howery) as he adapts to a neighborhood that’s changing for the better (in Jerrod’s eyes) and for the worse (in Bobby’s eyes). In a phone interview with The A.V. Club, Howery spoke about stretching his dramatic muscles in “Gentrifying Bobby,” laughing with The Carmichael Show’s studio audience, and whether or not the sitcom has a Donald Trump episode in its future.
Lil Rel Howery: This is the first time you’ll see me and Jerrod butt heads really hard about an opinion, because he looks at gentrifying like a good thing. And Bobby explains it from a standpoint of a lot of people that are going through this right now. It’s a tough thing where you’re being kicked out of your neighborhoods. A lot of people who lived in the suburbs for a long time are taking over the city, because it’s closer to their jobs. So they’re offering people this other housing [Laughs.] to make them have to travel and commute longer—to work, to get jobs, to do all of those things.
It’s funny, but it’s very honest. Which is one of the things I love about doing this show: All of the characters have their own opinions—it’s not all one way. Because even Jerrod’s character explains it in a way where maybe you won’t look at gentrifying as bad, because of all the things that are coming to the neighborhood: the new grocery stores, all the dope stuff that’s in all of these hipster places. At the same time you’re raising rent, you’re finding crazy things wrong with people’s houses so they can get up out of there—so you can build whatever you’re going to build.
The A.V. Club: How did you react when you learned that the episode would have a heavier focus on Bobby?
LRH: It’s interesting, because as we go along, Bobby’s going to have stronger opinions about things. And I think, honestly, it was just getting out of that six-episode window [Laughs.] so we’re able to play a little more. With those six episodes [of the show’s first season], we had to show the show, the voice of it, introduce Jerrod properly—because it’s his show. But this season Jerrod does a good job of giving Bobby more opinions about a lot of different things.
“Funeral” explained so well who Bobby is emotionally. He’s a lot like a lot of people: Being overly emotional about things, even though he never knew his grandfather. So, in [“Gentrifying Bobby”], I like the seriousness of the character. I’m on a sitcom, and it’s dope to be funny, but as a comedic actor, you love showing range. I was excited about that, more than Bobby being funny.
Me and Jerrod have a lot of conversations, and then they become episodes. I’m like, “Man, this is what happened to my grandparent’s house,” and as you become an adult, and you start understanding the mistakes [Laughs.] that other people who were the adults in the family made. “Why would you fall for that? They’re gentrifying the neighborhood! We lost that crib because of that?” It honestly shows how much we are alike, as far as family life goes.
AVC: So what was it like going from the camaraderie of those conversations to your characters butting heads on stage?
LRH: I asked for this. I wanted this to happen as far as establishing the characters of Jerrod and Bobby. Because people sometimes could think that Bobby is the little brother because he’s not as successful as Jerrod’s character. This episode shows Bobby’s perspective on why he’s not as successful as Jerrod. Why, even though we grew up in the same house, the opportunities were different.
I’ve seen a cut of it, and I was smiling the whole time because I liked the argument of it. When one sibling might be successful, and the other might not be as successful, those arguments happen a lot of times when they become grown. “So you think you’re better than me, because of this and that?” The Carmichael Show does a great job of making these characters really honest about who they are, where people watch and be like, “That reminds me of my family. That’s a real argument.” We rehearse all this stuff, but when we do it in front of a live studio audience, the reactions—they’ll be like “Aw man, it is a tense moment! I love it!”
AVC: You mentioned in a Vulture interview that doing this type of show in front of an audience required a bit of an adjustment. In the second season, have you found that it’s a little easier to get into the rhythms and getting the immediate feedback from the audience?
LRH: It feels great. The adjustment was delivering scripted lines. I’m a stand-up comic, so I know how to perform in front of an audience. To understand a sitcom timing of everything—once you get that, it makes it more fun. You know when they laugh here, how long to wait, when you can cut off their laughter so you can deliver the line again. I’ve gotten way better at it. I watch the episodes every Sunday, and I over-analyze [Laughs.] the way I deliver things or say stuff. It’s like, “Oh! I like the fact that it looks like I get it!”
And that’s what makes the show unique and so old-school. With single-cam, you’re like, “This is what we think is funny, and good.” When you have a live studio audience, it’s like, “No, this right away is what doesn’t work and what works.” It’s an adrenaline rush, man. That’s why I’m so much better at it—I can’t wait to do it. We rehearsed all week, but I can’t wait until that. Because you don’t know who this audience is going to be. You don’t know what they’re going to react to. And I was just talking to Jerrod about this: There’s times I hope the camera ain’t on me, because Loretta Devine [paying Jerrod and Bobby’s mother] will say whatever, and they’ll ride that wave: the “Oohs,” or the “Aww” or the “Ha!” I laugh a lot, man. [Laughs.] I laugh at audience reactions more than anything. And it’s like “Oh, shit, hope they didn’t catch me laughing at this. That is an ‘Aww’ moment, I guess—look at all y’all going ‘Aww!’”
AVC: Are you developing strategies to avoid laughing at the reactions, or do you just have to go with it?
LRH: Sometimes I think you go with it. Ain’t nobody told me to stop yet. Sometimes I hear the director laughing at reactions in the background. Because it is insane: You rehearse this stuff, and you don’t know what they’re going to react to. This is 300 people sitting there like they’re a choir, reacting to something at the same time. [Laughs.] Like, “How did all y’all know to react like that to that?”
AVC: Did any audience reactions to “Gentrifying Bobby” catch you by surprise?
LRH: The couple of times they’re being sympathetic for Bobby was dope. The dope thing about being on a TV show is that you don’t know what characters people are going to gravitate to. People like Bobby—they feel bad for him. [Laughs.] Bobby being vindicated at the end, and the reaction the audience gave, was so dope. They’re making me smile, they’re cheering for him. “Yeah, he got you, Jerrod.”
AVC: That’s all the question I had, is there anything you wanted to talk about?
LRH: Let’s talk about Trump now! [Laughs.]
AVC: Is that going to be the topic of a future episode?
LRH: There’s been conversations about it. I think if they recorded our conversations in the morning. We all come in—before we read the script, which probably wastes a lot of time—talking about news stories. It looks like we scripted that shit sometimes, but it’s just all of us talking about these opinions and all these different things. And Jerrod’s talked about doing [a Trump episode]. If it happens, it has to be done in this way where it’s not corny or because everybody else is.
I try to ask Jerrod—I take him to brunch, pick his brain. “So what we doing next?” That’s how I found out about the Cosby episode: at brunch. He was like, “Yo, you know we’re going to do a Cosby episode.” And I went “For real?” “Yeah, man, it’s already written.” “You already wrote it already? Damn!” A lot of time that’s what we do: We go to a fancy Beverly Hills brunch and have conversations for two hours about episodes and opinions about stuff.