‘The Carmichael Show’ tackled the n-word —
“The Carmichael Show” is known for confronting controversial topics, so it’s not surprising that the NBC sitcom would dedicate an episode to the n-word and who has a right to say it. But it may have surprised viewers tuning in Wednesday to hear the word aired six times — unedited — on broadcast television.
“The Carmichael Show,” now in its third season, is based on comedian and co-creator Jerrod Carmichael’s family. Wednesday’s episode found Jerrod (Carmichael) celebrating his mother Cynthia’s birthday, along with his girlfriend, Maxine (Amber Stevens West); brother Bobby (“Get Out’s” Lil Rel Howery); and father, Joe (David Alan Grier).
Jerrod and Maxine earned the family’s ire by gifting Cynthia (Loretta Devine) a Jacqueline Kennedy biography. Bobby told Jerrod that his gift is stupid because “black people don’t read like that.” The assertion launched a lively debate about cultural differences. “We do not have a set of rules we need to abide by,” Jerrod told his family. “Sure we do,” Joe countered. “We don’t ski. We don’t let dogs lick all up on our faces. And under no circumstances do we ever, ever drive a Subaru.”
Inspired by the conversation, Jerrod suggested the family break tradition and go to a fancy restaurant instead of the local, black-owned diner where they usually celebrate Cynthia’s birthday. He secured a last-minute reservation through Drew, a high school friend who co-owns the restaurant. When Jerrod thanked his friend for the favor, Drew, who is white, replied: “Anything for you, my n—–.” Jerrod’s family was horrified, but Jerrod was nonchalant about the exchange: “Drew is my friend, that’s just how we talk,” he said. His family members and girlfriend shared their own experiences with the word and their varying opinions on whether white people should be allowed to say it.
“The Carmichael Show” isn’t the first sitcom to tackle the n-word. ABC’s “Blackish” memorably confronted varying opinions around who can say the word in a 2015 episode that found the family’s youngest child, Jack, innocently dropping the word during a Kanye West-inspired performance at his elementary school talent show. In that case, ABC bleeped each instance of the word. Creator Kenya Barris told Vulture he thought editing the slur offered viewers “an easier entry point.”
“Hearing it is a little bit hard,” Barris explained. “The bleep, in a weird way, makes you hear it even louder. But it still allows you to get into the drama and the comedy of the scene without making you feel ostracized.”
The “Blackish” episode was inspired by Barris finding texts from his daughter’s white friends who used the n-word. Barris was horrified, but his daughter was used to hearing people of all races use the word. Similarly, Carmichael explained in a column for the Hollywood Reporter that his own family had varying opinions on who can say the n-word. His mother was opposed to anyone using the word, but his grandmother, who had lived through Jim Crow laws and the civil rights movement, “thought the word was fun.” “She would say it and we would joke and she would laugh. It was fun watching my mom get really angry while my grandma and I just said ‘n—er,’ Carmichael wrote. He continued:
My perspective is that I just don’t want us to be controlled by a word. I don’t want it to be used as a weapon. We have the power to dilute words and a lot of times, we use that in the wrong way. Donald Trump was called a racist and that should have been a strong accusation, but we use the word “racist” so much. Can you imagine [President] Jimmy Carter being called a racist? That would have been a crazy New York Times cover story with every journalist trying to get to the bottom of what happened. Now that we use it so much it doesn’t mean what it did. That’s a negative way of doing that. I think a positive way is how my friends and I grew up saying [the n-word]. So I don’t associate it with pain if I’m being truthful.
Carmichael fought for the word to air unedited on NBC. In his Hollywood Reporter column, he wrote that “having the word itself said on the show came out of a deeper conversation about do you feel beholden to these unspoken rules for being a black person, or being a woman or being gay or being whatever you are? It just naturally went to the n-word and the rules around it and that’s where it came from. Then we said to the network, ‘We want to say it, but it has to go on air.’ ”