The heart of this show is about the painful tension between family ties and personal growth, and the most searing segments focus on his relationship with his mother. Her reaction to his sexuality, rooted in her faith, leaves him cold. The fact that he has such love for her, that he describes himself as an echo of her in some ways, makes this even more poignant. This special, which at its climax finds its star hunched in a nearly fetal posture, hits jarring notes that have never been matched in this form.
It’s not just emotionally raw, but present and immediate in a way that a polished joke will never be. In one remarkable moment toward the end, he looks directly at the camera, and I physically turned away, as if it were so private that it would be impolite to watch.
Art this uncomfortable tends to have rough edges, and this special does, too. But it’s artfully presented, almost to a fault. Burnham and Carmichael are such slickly skillful and assured artists that it can be hard to believe them when they get messy. Carmichael isn’t trying to tell an uplifting story so much as a real one, and “Rothaniel” does not build to a tidy resolution. It’s raw, and you might have some questions.
I would recommend watching Carmichael’s lovely little 2019 documentary, “Home Videos” (also on HBO Max), shot in his hometown Winston-Salem, N.C., that features a conversation with his mother to give her some equal time. You can see the warmth between them, and his role as a needling son, asking her if she ever did cocaine or slept with a woman. When she says no, he tosses out abruptly that he hooked up with men. In a later interview, he downplayed the comment as just something he said in the moment.
His mother has her story, too, though this special isn’t about that. Earlier this week, Carmichael performed at Union Hall in Brooklyn to prepare for hosting “Saturday Night Live” this weekend, an episode that will be surely dominated by bits about the Academy Awards. He joked that he was the least famous person to ever host “S.N.L.” and that all you had to do to get the gig was come out of the closet. He said he hadn’t talked to his mother in months though he once did every day.
Once again, he was sitting, chatting with the crowd less than delivering a set, and seemed to be seeking something in the moment, a real experience, albeit one that could help him build a monologue. Carmichael asked the audience what he should talk about on Saturday. Someone yelled gas prices. “I’ve been rich too long,” he retorted.