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Forget Netflix — HBO Max has the best new comedy special

A hand holds a phone with the HBO Max logo on it in front of a grid of other images
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Netflix may currently rule comedy specials, but HBO Max is coming at the king — and it certainly doesn't miss with its latest release, Jerrod Carmichael: Rothaniel.

Somehow, I overlooked Rothaniel in my guide to new movies and shows last weekend. Then, Carmichael mentioned the special while hosting Saturday Night Live, and he was so charming and funny in that gig that I turned on Rothaniel the next day. After watching 55 minutes of the comedian diving deep into his personal life, I can't recommend it enough. 

Hilarious yet also heartbreaking, Rothaniel is the best standup comedy special I've seen in the last year. Not since Bo Burnham: Inside (and there's a connection between the two) have I enjoyed a special this much. And you can find it on HBO Max (which you may notice is getting better, thanks to the new HBO Max apps), not Netflix.  

Who is Jerrod Carmichael? 

Carmichael, 34, is an established comedian, though one that's flown a bit under the radar. His standup career began in Los Angeles around 2011, while he notched his breakout acting role in the 2014 movie Neighbors. 

Then, he co-created and starred in his own NBC sitcom, The Carmichael Show, which was loosely based on his life and family in North Carolina. The show was critically acclaimed for tackling issues like Black Lives Matter, Black identity, LGBTQ issues, politics and gun rights. 

The Carmichael Show ran for three seasons from 2015 to 2017 before it was canceled. At the time, the star said, "I’m excited to go make other things that I love."

Before Rothaniel, Carmichael made two previous specials with HBO: Love at the Store (2014) and 8 (2017). 

What's Rothaniel about?

Carmichael performed Rothaniel in February 2022 at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City. The special is directed by Bo Burnham, who won three Emmys for his 2021 special Inside. 

Burnham specializes in almost claustrophobic close-ups. They're used to great effect in Rothaniel, lending an even more intimate feel to Carmichael's deeply personal, emotional storytelling. 

The comedian starts with two unusual actions: sitting down in a chair and inviting the audience to engage in dialogue with him. Carmichael first talks about the secrets in his family — his own actual first name (not Jerrod) and his father's infidelity. 

After pushing his father to come clean to his mother, Carmichael said he "was left alone feeling like a liar, because I had a secret. One that I kept from my father, my mother, my family, my friends, and you. Professionally, personally. And the secret is that I’m gay.”

The rest of the set revolves around Carmichael officially coming out as gay. He weaves in jokes about having a white boyfriend and his friends' reactions, and he's as funny as ever. But Rothaniel is so powerful because it's not just a joke-fest. Carmichael gets real and raw talking about his mother's refusal to accept him as a gay man. It's not an easy watch, but the best comedy shouldn't be. 

Rothaniel reviews

On Rotten Tomatoes, Rothaniel doesn't yet have a critics score, but it currently has a 92 percent audience score. 

Several major outlets have written reviews of Rothaniel, all of them near glowing. 

Jason Zinoman of The New York Times writes the special is "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."

Vulture's Kathryn VanArendonk calls Rothaniel an "incredible artistic achievement" and a "remarkable piece of conceit, craft, performance, and vision." VanArendonk adds, "[Carmichael is] also masterful, and hilarious, and more thoughtful about what comedy is and what we ask it to be than anyone else working right now."

Garrett Martin of Paste Magazine writes, "Despite ending on a great laugh that he sets up with the very first line of the special, Rothaniel is ultimately one of the saddest comedy specials you’ll ever see—and one of the most emotional and masterful performances by a comedian ever committed to tape."

Variety's Caroline Framke says the special is "pointed, quiet, hilarious, and heartbreaking all at once."

Decider's Sean L. McCarthy likens Carmichael to "legendary Richard Pryor, in terms of attaining brutal honesty about his personal experiences."

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Kelly Woo
Kelly Woo

Kelly is a senior writer covering streaming media for Tom’s Guide, so basically, she watches TV for a living. Previously, she was a freelance entertainment writer for Yahoo, Vulture, TV Guide and other outlets. When she’s not watching TV and movies for work, she’s watching them for fun, seeing live music, writing songs, knitting and gardening.