By Darlene Donloe
NBC’s The Carmichael Show isn’t one of those formulaic sitcoms.
Yes, it’s funny!
But, to its credit, the second year sitcom show goes beyond the obvious funny. It takes the funny a step further by tackling issues that other sitcoms would shy away from. Previous shows have taken a hard look at religion, police protests and gun control. One of the subjects this season focuses on gentrification, while the show’s opening “very special episode” will address the Bill Cosby controversy. Not necessarily a rib tickler.
The Carmichael Show is inspired by the real life of Jerrod Carmichael, a stand up comedian who decided to write about his North Carolina family. Joining Carmichael in his comedic quest are Amber Stevens West, Rel Howery, Tiffany Haddish and veteran actors David Alan Grier and Loretta Devine.
I recently caught up with Grier (DAG) and Devine (LD) and had a spirited conversation about their careers and diversity in the entertainment industry.
David Alan Grier
DD: How has your industry changed from the time you started until now?
DAG: When I started in 81, they used to have a player’s guide, a book that went to all of the casting director. You played a fee. You had a picture of yourself. You clarified yourself – either leading man, ethnic, character actor, whatever. It was a catalog of actors. It was the big Bible. It was how you got known. You had to physically hand someone your picture or mailed it. It was always hopeful. All of us were leading men. You could be 100 years old and still put down that you were a leading man. Now it’s all digital. When I talk to students – now you have your own website. The last time I produced and cast a series – I could punch up an actor on my IPad. I can see their work. I can cast right from there. Or a casting director can send me a zip drive. The ability for actors to have their own voice, as opposed to going through an agent or a casting director or any kind of directory. Your message would get filtered or muted. You’re too this or too that. There is a lot of power now that we didn’t have when we started out.
LD: Also, a big difference is there are so many different kinds of outlets for talent now. When I was coming up you just wanted to get on NBC or ABC or one of the stations. And you just knew you ever got into a movie you would be a star, which is absolutely untrue. Nowadays a movie is in the theater two weeks unless it’s a big hit or a big studio movie. As a black actor you are often doing an independent film. The biggest films I’ve been in that have won big awards were independent films where you made very small amounts of money. I’ve had an extraordinary career. I have always worked. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t employed doing voiceovers or a musical or a play or TV – these are all different outlets. So, if one didn’t click you just moved to the other. You try to do all of them. Now you have reality television. The industry is so different now. There is this whole thing about having a lot of followers. You have to Tweet all the time. You can get cash because you have the most followers, not because you have the greater talent or passion for it. I’m tweeting now. I’m Instagramming. I haven’t Periscoped yet.
DAG: I’m not that ambitious.
(l-r) Loretta Devine, Jerrod Carmichael and David Alan Grier
on the set of The Carmichael Show
DD: Lets talk about diversity. Are you encouraged or discouraged about your industry?
DAG: You know what, listen, I’ll put it like this, it’s going to take more than a minute. I’m 59 years old. When Loretta and I were talking the other day for most of my career black actors were nominated or won like once every 10 years.
LD: Ooh, longer than that. More like 25 years.
DAG: I think 30 actors of color have won the Oscars in the history of Oscars, you understand. I remember reading Sidney Poitier’s This Life and thinking, if he did it in the 50s somebody is going to break through. This is when I was with the Negro Ensemble. We didn’t know who it was going to be. We didn’t know it would be Denzel (Washington). Eventually something is going to happen. At this point it’s good to keep pressing and bringing things up. But, I don’t think anything is going to change. There is already push back from 85-year-old members of the Academy who haven’t voted in 10 years and aren’t, in anyway, active. They refuse to relinquish their seats. It’s a known fact that the types of roles that black men and women are honored for by the Academy are most of the time stereotypic roles. I remember watching Driving Miss Daisy and barely being able to hear the dialogue because of all these white folks crying and sniffling and choking. I’m like – that’s the way it is. That’s been common knowledge among actors. If you want an Oscar®, play a slave, play a one-armed slave, a one-armed, mentally challenged slave – something like that. There are exceptions. But this is something artists of color already know.
Amber Stevens West and Jerrod Carmichael
LD: There are many exceptions. And, you’re right. What he said is so true. There has been Hattie (McDaniel) and Whoopi (Goldberg) 25 years later. Whoopi was the second woman to get an award. What the Oscar® does for you is afford you A-list work or in the A-list movies. It’s very hard to get in those movies. You don’t see many black people in those movies. The black folks you see who get in those movies, like Octavia (Spencer) and Whoopi, then you get cast for taking care of all the little white kids. Whoopi’s movies after that, she must have saved about 55,000 white kids. But when you’re an actor, you just want to work so bad. You want to make a good living for your family. You know the truth of everything. You’re hoping in some way that you can change it. Thank goodness for the black movies. In my career I’ve gotten to do drama and comedy. A lot have been all black movies. Movies like, Death At A Funeral, The Preacher’s Wife and This Christmas. So, you get a chance. But, it’s still not the A-list movies. You’re not even allowed to audition for these things. We’re not even a part of this big thing called Hollywood. But, I’ve done over 100 films and I can’t remember when I auditioned for the A-list movie and they are doing them everyday. And, so you go, is it going to change? What’s going to change it?
DAG: Here is the most telling thing. I want to end on a positive. I remember watching an interview with Denzel Washington and the interviewer said, “Who is the next Denzel Washington? We have the next Brad Pitt.” And he said very pointedly, “No one is looking for the next Denzel Washington.” And, that’s the problem.
LD: That’s positive, David?
DAG: No, but when we started - there was one black star. There was Eddie Murphy who took over for Richard Pryor. You had Denzel. I mean those were the only two guys. Now there is a lot more work, not in film, but in television – this is a very rich time. Television is getting it more right than other mediums. There is diversity – black, white, gay, straight. For so long it’s a much broader subject than just black and white. I want to see the world in which I live. I encounter all different kinds and shapes, races, sexual preference – all that just in my everyday life. That’s not an extraordinary thing. There are millions of people who live in that world – so I just want to see that world represented.
(l-r) Amber Stevens West, Jerrod Carmichael, Loretta Devine,
Rel Howery (standing) and David Alan Grier
LD: I feel television has had to do that because it has so much competition with cable stations. There are other things that people can look at. If you’re not going to show me myself, I will go somewhere else and see myself. Oh, so we better diversify so everybody can come to the party So, I think in a way their hands have been forced. But films, films are going to have to change in a way because of the internet. We will just be streaming. The music industry has also changed. People have so much to look at. They don’t have to go to the movie house – it’s not necessary anymore. So I think the diversity has to come.
The Carmichael Show premieres at 9 p.m., Sun., March 13 on NBC. It stars Jerrod Carmichael, David Alan Grier, Loretta Devine, Amber Stevens West, Tiffany Haddish and Rel Howery.