Gallows Humor: ‘The Carmichael Show’ Takes on Police Brutality and Racism

Last night, NBC premiered The Carmichael Show (which debuted to 4.83 million viewers!), a highly promising sitcom that the network is unfortunately burning off quickly. After an expository pilot, the series jumped right into some heavy subject matter, tackling police brutality and racism in only its second episode, demonstrating a strength for gallows humor — and providing yet another case for why we need diverse television shows.

In “Protest,” The Carmichael Show pulls a bait-and-switch by beginning with a seemingly tired plot about Jerrod celebrating his birthday, but quickly seguing into something very different. In the midst of joking about birthday plans, Jerrod’s brother and ex-wife show up and share the news that the cops killed an unarmed black teenager in Charlotte, North Carolina. The inclusion of this storyline is jolting, and creates a dissonance between the plot and the live studio audience trained to uproariously laugh at the punchlines — even when the punchlines revolves around systematic racism and trigger-happy police officers. There’s also a dissonance between the plot and the expected tone of a multi-camera sitcom on NBC, a network that loved trotting out sitcoms that featured one token, sassy black person to snap out truths in a white world. (It’s worth mentioning that NBC is pushing diversity this coming season — a strategic business move — with The Wiz and projects starring Wesley Snipes, America Ferrera, and Jennifer Lopez.) Despite this disconnect, the episode remains successfully balanced throughout, telling a modern, complicated story with a old-fashioned sitcom feel. Perhaps the closest spiritual predecessor to The Carmichael Show is Norman Lear’s All in the Family.

The vast majority of “Protest” takes place in Joe and Cynthia’s living room. (The other featured set is the living room of Jerrod’s own apartment. These two stock sitcom sets immediately conjure up memories of past multi-camera sitcoms, especially Everybody Loves Raymond, luring viewers into a familiar world and inviting us to watch these couches from our couches, before disrupting that comfort by getting real). The characters — all family members, either by blood or through romance and cohabitation — hem and haw, discussing the pros and cons of protesting, and interjecting bleak jokes into a bleaker situation.

When Maxine waxes poetic about how great it is to see young people out there fighting and how she wants to be part of that moment, Joe snaps back, “Do you always get this giddy when someone gets shot?” If protests work, Jerrod later jokes, “then why did I see George Zimmerman at a Dave & Buster’s?” After Maxine calls Jerrod out on lying, he mumbles, “I could’ve. [Zimmerman]’s free enough.”

As mentioned, these jokes do seem a little jarring — but maybe that’s only because it seems like it’s been a while since we’ve had a multi-cam sitcom, and especially a black multi-cam sitcom, willing to tackle incredibly dark subjects. This kind of humor is nothing new, especially on cable. Comedies thrive on dark humor; look at Review‘s death toll or Inside Amy Schumer‘s football rape sketch or, closer to this particular subject, recent Key & Peele and Why? With Hannibal Buress police brutality sketches that aired during back-to-back episodes. But how often do you see this on an NBC sitcom? And how often is it the topic of an entire episode, rather than just a quick scene or throwaway line?

There’s a great book by Glenda Carpio titled Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery, which discusses, in both broad acts and specific jokes, approaches to dark humor related to slavery by artists, writers, and comedians. It’s a fascinating text that interrogates the reasoning behind these jokes, the history behind their punchlines, and the catharsis of making light of a tragedy that runs deep in your bones in order to take some power back from the oppressor. It’s not hard to imagine, in the future, a similar exploration of humor related to this current, never-ending onslaught of headlines about murdered unarmed black men and women. As black children, we were all given “The Talk” at a young age; many black children, particularly my peers who now work in creative industries, were also taught — whether by parents, older siblings, Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy or Dave Chappelle, or just our own self-defense instincts — how to channel this sadness, frustration, and anger surrounding racism into humor and art.

It’s difficult, of course, to do this correctly: to make jokes about racism rather than to make racist jokes, and to mine a laugh from something that hurts. It certainly depends on who’s telling the joke, and whether they’re punching up instead of punching down; I find myself constantly returning to Shrill’s tweet: “You’re not doing ‘gallows humor’ when your head is not marked for the noose.” But it is not impossible, and when done correctly it educates and it entertains.

These jokes are important, and sometimes even necessary for survival, and telling them is a way for us to connect with other black people going through similar situations and feelings. A shared joke, no matter how bleak it is, is cathartic for all involved, a necessary break in tension — similar to drum circles or impromptu dancing that breaks out during protests. It’s a form of healing. And to see that played out at 9:30 on a Wednesday night on a major broadcast network was all of those things.

What’s more is that The Carmichael Show didn’t just rely on jokes — like Joe’s worry that “protests are filled with too much sexual energy,” which culminated in one of the darkest punchlines of the night: Joe saying that if anyone hits on his wife, there will be another murdered black man. The episode actually got down to the gritty core of the subject, discussing the different ways people view protests. It didn’t back away from Jerrod’s assertion that “nobody should go protest; it doesn’t do anything” or Nekeisha joining the looting (by stealing a television that was already stolen) or Joe explaining that no one fully knows the story of what happened and that the protesters are jumping to conclusions. It got serious, too: Maxine reeled off statistics about black vs. white arrests, while Jerrod told his father about the time cops pulled guns on him, forced him onto the ground, and handcuffed him all because he “fit a description” (meaning that he is black and wore a hoodie). To lighten the tension, Joe makes Jerrod demonstrate the way he was walking and then deems his stance too aggressive, just begging for a cop to take issue.

It takes a specific sort of show to do an episode on Black Lives Matter and, more importantly, black deaths at the hand of police officers (and I’m not talking about  Scandal or SVU‘s half-assed attempts, but a real, honest, emotional approach). It’s certainly not going to show up on Modern Family anytime soon — which is why we need to champion these brave and diverse shows, and why we need to make sure they continue.