Jerrod Carmichael’s HBO standup special ‘8’ absolutely brings the pain

Comedian Jerrod Carmichael has a beguiling stage presence, lulling you into a contented place while you wait for what you assume is going to be an easy, readymade punchline. The way each tangent branches out, it feels like hes chumming the waters with easy laughs. By the time Carmichael gets from the the Onion-esque, attention-grabbing premise of a joke to the surprisingly contemplative punchline, it throws you off guard, in the best way.

Its a blueprint that fits most of the strongest bits of Carmichaels new HBO special 8, which is now streaming. Whether hes moving from a goofy premise to serious punchline structure or vice versa, hes just as likely find laughs in a non-sequitur as he is with cutting insight.

Carmichael starts the special by asking the crowd at home and in the room with him a simple question: Are we gonna be OK? Its a serious query asked in a serious way, left to dangle for a minute so everyone can fill in the blank for themselves. He vocalizes the obvious by bringing up President Trump. But before things get too serious, he breaks into a riff about how we all created Trump by being so mean to him: We made fun of his hair, we made fun of his skin.

Its nonsense, of course, but it does force a moment of introspection, reminding us that the man we accuse of lacking empathy was shown so little by much of the public. Theres something palpable in that moment that, for all its highlights, I wished 8 delivered more of.

Directed by fellow comedian Bo Burnham, 8 is more visually compelling than most standup specials. Carmichael is in the middle of the room, casually turning around and scanning the audience for reactions, and sometimes stopping to engage with an outspoken audience member. Between Carmichaels leisurely pacing and Burnhams circling cameras, there arent many static moments. It’s an interesting juxtaposition against Carmichaels relaxed and confident stage presence. The overall effect is that they’re putting the viewers at home in Carmichaels headspace, with all his thoughts swirling around, waiting to be plucked out and explored.

Carmichael has always had (or appeared to have) easy on-screen confidence, whether in movies (Neighbors), his TV show, or his other standup special (Love at the Store), and he’s only continued gaining swagger. Look no further than the mischievous twinkle he gets in his eye as he scans the crowd, saying you’re not gonna laugh at this, before going into a bit about not supporting the troops. It’s a look we see throughout, and he issues the same disclaimer before numerous jokes, constantly daring the audience, knowing good and well he’s going to get the laugh. It doesn’t matter if he’s explaining why people should be allowed to cheat if they work hard enough, or discussing with a member of the crowd why he has a hard time caring about squirrels. (Getting hit by cars is their mass shootings.)

8 is an amusing hour of standup with occasional moments of transcendence. There are a lot of laughs to be had, but not enough philosophy that lingers with you after the credits roll. It’s worth watching to see the evolution of someone who is a stones throw away from being a major, important voice. Carmichael is at his best when hes making the audience squirm, and that comfortability with awkwardness recalls Louis CK and Chris Rock.

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