'Dead Eyes,' but tons of heart: This small podcast is among the year's best
The podcasts that spoke to me the most this year tended to be small and scrappy. The best was Dead Eyes, Connor Ratliff's quixotic quest to reconcile himself with the frustrations of life in show biz.
Other segments from the episode on December 28, 2022
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we continue our series of some of our favorite interviews of the year with comic, actor and writer Jerrod Carmichael. This year, he won an Emmy for his HBO comedy special called "Rothaniel." What does that mean, right? We soon find out. The special is all about secrets. It starts like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROTHANIEL")
JERROD CARMICHAEL: I want to talk about secrets - secrets. Ooh - should whisper it, right?
CARMICHAEL: I carried a lot of secrets my whole life. I feel like I was birthed into them. One of my biggest - one of my last held secrets is my name. My name is not Jerrod.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What?
CARMICHAEL: Welcome to the show, everybody.
GROSS: Carmichael delivers on that promise to reveal personal secrets - about his real name, his family tree and his sexual orientation. It's a lot. Toward the end, when he's interacting with the audience, his show starts looking like a hybrid of a comedy show and a therapy session. Carmichael has done two other HBO comedy specials, "Love At The Store," directed by Spike Lee, and "8," directed by Bo Burnham.
Carmichael was also the creator and star of the sitcom "The Carmichael Show" that ran on NBC for three seasons. That show portrayed a fictional version of Carmichael's family. Many episodes portray them disagreeing with each other on complicated and uncomfortable issues, like, is it still OK to enjoy Bill Cosby's comedy? Is it OK to have a gun in the house? How do you eulogize a bad father? Is it OK to take the morning after pill if a condom breaks?
In Carmichael's HBO Max special "Home Videos," he returned home to Winston-Salem, N.C., and filmed conversations with his real family members about sensitive family topics. His special "Rothaniel," directed by Bo Burnham, was taped earlier this year at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City. It's streaming on HBO Max. Our interview was recorded in April.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Jerrod Carmichael, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's such a pleasure to have you on the show. I love the new special. Congratulations. And you really were great on "Saturday Night Live," so congratulations on that, too.
CARMICHAEL: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Oh, my pleasure. What changed in your life that you were willing and able to tell secrets now on stage?
CARMICHAEL: (Laughter) I think I got tired. I think I grew tired of being someone I wasn't. I felt like I was, like, just hiding. They call it being in the closet, I guess, for a reason, because it does feel like you just have walls up. You're just like - I felt like I was, like, walking around with a mask with my face on it I think is the best way to describe it.
And it just - I started being more honest with my friends. I started being more honest in my life. I don't know. It just kind of - all over the past couple of years, it all started happening. It all started coming out, you know? I came out. Family secret - the things I talk about in the show started coming out. I felt freer. I feel freer. I'm still in the process. But the show just captures a moment just - where I just wanted to feel free.
GROSS: Before we get to coming out, let's start with your name, which you tried to keep secret. Jerrod is your middle name. Your first name, as you reveal in the special, is the title of the special, which is "Rothaniel." Tell us about the origin of the name.
CARMICHAEL: The name comes from my father. He named me after my two grandfathers, his father and my mother's father, Robert and Nathaniel - combined the two names at birth and never really used it. Like, we immediately started using Jerrod. It's mostly all I remember since I was a kid. No one ever called me Rothaniel. I was embarrassed, very ashamed. It was a secret. And, you know, as a child, I already felt different enough.
CARMICHAEL: And, like, I don't think that the name helped (laughter). And so, like, it was big. It took up too much space. And I didn't want it. I didn't want any parts of it.
GROSS: So what did you have to do to keep your name a secret?
CARMICHAEL: Well, I hid it as much as I could. On legal documents, they have to write your first name. So I always hid those and turned papers upside down and never showed anyone my driver's license. And as soon as I got my bank cards, I, like - well, I had to, like, quickly get them to take the name off 'cause I would forget they have the name. And I would go through some process there.
Like, only - like, a few friends knew - like, a few close friends. And then every now and then, it would slip through to the yearbook, and I would have to get it erased. Or, like, some years I would bribe a friend that, like - please don't put Rothaniel. Just put Jerrod. And, yeah, it was a fight. It was a constant fight, constantly hiding it.
GROSS: You had to keep a lot of secrets as a kid. And one of them was about your family tree - your grandparents, your father and all the extramarital affairs they had and all the outside children that they had.
CARMICHAEL: It's a lot. My - one of my grandfathers had dozens outside of his marriage. And the other had a few himself, including my father, who had a few children outside of his marriage to my mother, which I knew about. I found out about it at an early age. And, yeah, it's in my family history, you know, in a real way. And I think it's more common than, you know - in the South, I feel like a lot of families where I'm from share that secret or have families like that or at least know families or are in families like that in some way.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic, writer and actor Jerrod Carmichael. His HBO comedy special is called "Rothaniel." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "SKYLARK")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with comic, writer and actor Jerrod Carmichael. His HBO comedy special is called "Rothaniel." It's all about secrets, about his real name, his family tree and his sexual orientation.
So these are powerful things to be carrying around as a child. You're hiding your name.
GROSS: When you figure out your sexual orientation, you're hiding that. You're hiding the truth about your father's relationship. You're hiding it from - that you know from your father. You're hiding his relationship from your mother. You're living with them. I mean, you see them every day, and you have this huge secret you're carrying around about their relationship. How did you bear all that?
CARMICHAEL: It's something you figure out later as an adult, you know, reflecting on your childhood or going to therapy or talking to friends (laughter). You know, like, I thought I did. I thought I beared it. I thought I beared it without consequence, I should say. And I didn't. I didn't go out unscathed. It's definitely things that affect my behavior to this day, fears, you know, my hypochondriacal nature, all things kind of - that stemmed from mistrust. But at the time - I don't know. I was just - I was scared. I think I lived in fear. It was a lot of consequence or stakes to everything.
GROSS: How could you even trust your father knowing how he deceived your mother? Did you wonder, like, what else don't I know about you? What else are you hiding?
CARMICHAEL: Yes. Yes. It definitely causes me to have, like, fear of a duplicitous nature of all things. You know, everyone - I question everything still. And I'm sure that has, like, a huge effect on me. It should be said that my father is very fun. He's charismatic. He was good to be around. He used to wrestle with us in the backyard. And, you know, he would pull up in the driveway - and all of my friends loved him, as well. He would pretend to be the Rock and just get out and talk trash, and we would talk trash back and sometimes get out the camcorder and, like, film each other, you know, with water hoses tied around a clothesline to resemble the ropes and, like, mats laid out in the grass and just, like, slamming each other around. And my dad would be out there with us.
He would play video games with us. He would tell stories. And he was one of the few fathers in the neighborhood - again, a lot of broken families. And it was a role that he took on kind of silently, you know, being a father to many of my friends who would just be at our house. My mother would read the Bible to us, my father would make us laugh, which made it all the more devastating, I guess (laughter), you know, that there was this, like, other side of a person. Yeah, yeah, but I love him. I love him.
GROSS: Especially with your mother reading the Bible, you know? Like, your mother's reading the Bible to friends, and you're keeping this really big secret about the family. That must have been strange.
CARMICHAEL: Well, again, also, like later in life, you start realizing really irony in a lot of the Bible verses that my mother would read and how they would reflect situations that she didn't know. Jeremiah 33:1-3 - call unto me and I'll answer thee and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knoweth not. My mother would read that - probably still reads it daily - and I always - I guess I found it funny then. It's ironic now.
GROSS: What does that passage mean to you?
CARMICHAEL: Well, it's someone searching for answers, the unseen truth. But, like, I would hear verses like that, that Jeremiah verse, she would always do verses about protection. And I always felt like I was guarding her. And one time, I went home a few years back once I moved to LA, and I was visiting. I went to church with my parents, and the pastor started doing, like, this somewhat prosperity teaching. It's very popular, obviously, in most churches. We don't have to get into it. But anyway, he was talking about sowing a seed, as they call giving money. And he was saying that just whatever you give, you'll receive tenfold or, I'm not sure, whatever the amount is, by the end of the week. And he's saying this on Sunday. And I watch my mother go into her purse and put money into the envelope. And I'm like, you know, obviously me just, like, kind of mocking it in my head. I can't believe you're doing it. I think I mocked it out loud in church. I was like, I can't believe you're doing this. Like, you're sowing the seed. Like, we should know better than that.
And she gives the money. We go back home. Anyway, I'm staying home. I always stay home for, like, a few days whenever I go. And whenever I leave, I always give my parents cash. I, like, plant a certain amount of money in, like, their sock drawer and hide it and let them find it after I go. And - like, a decent amount of, like, pocket money, but - and not to be gross and say amounts, but I'm, like, putting $2,000 in my mom's sock drawer and having a flash to the $20 she put in church. And I'm like, damn it, they got me. Like...
CARMICHAEL: Like, it got me again. Like, look at me. I'm like a pawn in this relationship between God and my mother, and, like, I'm doing it again, you know? But things like that, I just - I always kind of felt like the result of what she was asking God for. I was prayed over. I was prayed for. Deacons and pastors and women of the church would lay hands on my mother and pray. And she wanted a boy, and she'd just had a miscarriage and had me. Sorry to get into all of it (laughter), but I'm just saying how important that relationship with God is and how much it was instilled in me as a child.
GROSS: Oh, gosh, so complicated. You know, like, you are - like, your existence is God's gift to your mother. And that was instilled in you right from the start. And you were so involved in your church. And yet, you know, there was, quote, "sin" in your home. You know, I put that in quotes.
CARMICHAEL: No, no, no. That's a direct quote (laughter).
GROSS: OK. OK.
CARMICHAEL: That's not a false quote. I think that's how it would be described.
GROSS: That's so confusing to a child, isn't it?
CARMICHAEL: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. It definitely shaped my perspective. Again, like, it's - I remember the fear. I remember the anxiety. I remember just the need to perform, the need to change the energy of a room. If a secret could potentially come out or things could go in a direction that I thought had great consequence, you know, maybe something that revealed my father or me, like, you know, it was too dangerous. So I - you know, I always probably tried to control conversation.
GROSS: You say that you made your father tell your mother about his outside relationships with other women and his children by other women. How did you make your father tell your mother? If you don't mind my asking, what did you say to your father? And how old were you when you said it?
CARMICHAEL: I was in my 20s. I was in London shooting a movie. And my father had booked a hotel room. And he and my brother have the same name, and the email confirmation accidentally went to my brother, and I found out about it. And at this point, I was offering financial support to my family. And something about using my money to cheat on my mom felt a little egregious (laughter). Like, it felt like a little bit too much. And a lot of feelings and a lot of emotion that I suppressed came rushing back. And it just felt like too much. It just felt like enough. And so I called him. I got very drunk and called him. And I was walking around on the streets (laughter) in London. And, like, God, I remember it being so late, like after midnight.
And I started the conversation with, this will all go OK as long as you don't lie to me. And I'm glad I said that, taking lies off the table immediately, because it went OK. He listened and apologized and - yeah. Yeah. Yeah, it was a really strong conversation, really hard one to have. I was really scared.
GROSS: Was he shocked that you knew?
CARMICHAEL: He said at the end of that call, I always knew you'd be the one (laughter). I think I say that in the special. But that's true.
GROSS: Yeah, you do.
CARMICHAEL: Yeah, yeah. He said that. And I think that a lot had changed between us. Like, the power dynamic had shifted. You know, I was the breadwinner. But I had less fear of, like, the consequence of asking questions, I guess. I argued more (laughter). I think it made sense. I think it made sense to him.
GROSS: So continuing with you telling your father that he had to tell your mother about his affairs, about his children outside of their marriage - and so you told him he needed to do that, and he did it. He told your mother. Did you worry that maybe your mother was better off not knowing, maybe the best thing for her life was to continue living without that knowledge, without that really painful knowledge?
CARMICHAEL: Oh, of course. Of course. I mean, I thought it would be over...
GROSS: That she'd leave him.
CARMICHAEL: ...And say - and it's over. Well, I don't even know what I thought the exact reaction would be, but something explosive. Yeah, I thought it would be devastating.
GROSS: Well, you asked your mother about finding out about this in your special "Home Videos." So I thought I'd play an excerpt of that in which you're asking your mother about, you know, learning about these secret relationships and staying with your father in spite of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HOME VIDEOS")
CARMICHAEL: You ever think about leaving?
CYNTHIA CARMICHAEL: I did at first. Oh, for sure. Oh, yeah. Yeah. Now I'm not - no, I'm good.
CARMICHAEL: No moments of resentment? No moments of anger?
C CARMICHAEL: No. I chose not because I know resentment will build in. So that's why, like I said, it was a gradual thing. And I'm not going to sit here and say the hurt and anger didn't try to build because I'm human. But maybe I suppressed some of it. But then I got enough talking and asked enough questions that, I don't know, like I said, I'm pretty much content. And it's on him to prove to me that I can trust him again. So it's not on me.
CARMICHAEL: Has he been proving it?
C CARMICHAEL: For the most part.
CARMICHAEL: Do you question him now?
C CARMICHAEL: Yeah. Really, I don't really have to question because he's so on it now. He opens up and tell me - well, as far as I know - everything.
CARMICHAEL: It's hard for me to let go and understand.
C CARMICHAEL: OK.
CARMICHAEL: You know what I mean? Like, just go like, oh, I - because I know - I mean, you're my mother. I know you very well. And I know that you actually don't stay up at night thinking about it (laughter)...
C CARMICHAEL: No.
CARMICHAEL: ...You know? What brings you that - what - how do you have the ability to do that?
C CARMICHAEL: One name - Jesus.
GROSS: Getting back to the church again. So do you think, in retrospect, that you did the right thing in getting out the truth?
CARMICHAEL: Well, yeah, always, always. That was a lot to hear to play that. One, because I haven't been talking to my mother a lot. So just hearing her voice (laughter) first thing in the morning is a lot (laughter) for me right now.
GROSS: Well, OK. Well, let's talk more in a moment, but we have to take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jerrod Carmichael, comic, writer, actor. He created "The Carmichael Show" on NBC and starred in it. He's had several HBO comedy specials. His new one is called "Rothaniel." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BLACKOUT & STEFON HARRIS' "UNTIL")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we're continuing our series of some of our favorite interviews of the year. So let's get back to my interview with Jerrod Carmichael. He's a comic, writer and actor. His HBO comedy special "Rothaniel" is streaming on HBO Max. It's all about secrets - about his real name, his family tree and his sexual orientation. He also created and starred in the NBC comedy series "The Carmichael Show" about a family loosely based on his own that constantly disagree on issues relating to politics, guns, abortion and nearly everything. Carmichael has also had other HBO comedy specials.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: You made a joke in an earlier comedy special about how a friend of yours came out, and you didn't know why because he was doing very well and he should have waited until he needed the applause and the support (laughter). So what were you thinking about when you came up with that for your comedy special - for an earlier one?
CARMICHAEL: I don't know what I was thinking. Like, I don't know if it's, like, me trying to separate myself from it by adding commentary to gay people the same way I would give commentary on women or - like, kind of trying to be an equal opportunity (laughter), you know - I don't know the word, but, you know...
CARMICHAEL: ...To choose my topics. Yeah, yeah, critic, I guess. Yeah, yeah. And I don't know exactly what the logic was, but definitely, it was written as someone so far removed and out of touch with who he was. Like, I was looking at myself from 30,000 feet in the air. I wasn't writing that joke with any true connection to my life. You know, it's me trying to hide with commentary, I think.
You know what's funny? I actually remember saying a joke about gay people one time at an open mic. And a comic who was gay got angry with me, and he went up after. And I remember he did a set commenting on that, you know, and, like, just kind of trashing the joke that I said. And he came up to me after - it was just at an open mic. I was - this was years ago. And he came up to me, you know, and, like - you know, in the lobby and just said he didn't like it. And I remember actually apologizing to him, maybe a little bit to myself. But (laughter) I just remember thinking, I don't want to be that person. It was self-hate. You know, I think that was, like, a little peek through of, like, oh, wait, is that what I'm doing? Like, it was - so I don't remember the exact joke, but it was aggressive. I remember it being, like, some aggressive joke, impression. I forget. And the guy had on a great leather jacket, too.
CARMICHAEL: It was a great leather jacket. And he was attractive, like, is something I couldn't have said then, you know? And I'm - like, I don't really remember his jokes. But I remember being like, oh, he's just kind of hot.
CARMICHAEL: And, like, you know, yeah, I felt bad.
GROSS: You know, you've said that there was a - there's been periods in your life where you thought you'd rather die than come out. What were the consequences that you feared?
CARMICHAEL: You know, being disowned, everything gay. (Laughter) Even, like, when we would use it as a term of, like, oh, that's gay or - one, it's just a dismissal of a person or a thing. It's just - it was a wall. It was like, oh, well, I don't want any parts of anything that's gay, you know? And I just felt like I would just be banished from the lives of my friends. They'd be embarrassed to be seen around me. These are the thoughts that I'm having, you know? They'll be embarrassed. They'll be - that everything's high school. And they'll just mock me. I've also been straight long enough to hear how straight people (laughter) talk about gay people sometimes.
GROSS: What was the model of masculinity you grew up with?
CARMICHAEL: I mean, the word hyper comes to mind.
CARMICHAEL: A lot of - I think there were - in a world without fathers, I think there was an overcompensation. So people find fathers elsewhere. You'll find a father. You'll find, like, you need it for balance. And unfortunately, a lot of my friends didn't know their dad and, you know, found it from other guys who didn't know their dad. And, you know, there was always the potential of violence. Friends have gotten killed over, like, ego, over protecting that masculinity. It's all such a grand performance.
GROSS: Race was an issue, too, when you were coming out, in the sense that, like, one of your boyfriends was white. And in one of your home videos - and "Home Videos" is another HBO special, an earlier one - you're talking, I think it's to your sister, to one of your sisters. And you say, how would you react if I brought home a white girlfriend? And she says, you know, that she wants you to embrace Black love. And you kind of question, like, you know, what does that mean? But anyways, so when you had a white boyfriend and you were keeping secret that it was a boyfriend and that the boyfriend was white, like, can you talk about that, the double secret, the, like, racial and sexual secret?
CARMICHAEL: You know, the racial part, less of a secret and more of something that I need to explore in my own life about, you know, I find men of all races very attractive. But, like, what root of self-hate or fear causes me to not date as many Black men as white men, you know? Like - and that's something that I'm cautious to say. It's a mandate I want to change because it just sounds so false and corny and not organic and whatever but I am exploring, like, what is that, right?
And there was this movie called "Beach Rats" that I loved, and I was in the closet at the time, so I couldn't express how much I loved it. I love that movie. And it's about - I won't spoil too much of it. It's worth seeing. But it's a closeted young man who hooks up with guys from the internet, but he hooks up with older guys. And one of the older guys asks him, why are you into older men? And he says, because you don't know anyone that I know. And it's such a powerful line.
And I feel like, you know, that - I mean, that fear is in me - or was in me. I'm trying to eradicate it. But that fear of, oh, it's just my friend. It's just a, like - you know, especially earlier on when I was, like, hooking up and it was more discreet and, like, trying to keep a secret, I was afraid of being with a Black guy because he may know my family or may know - it's illogical, but, like, it's just this fear of association, this fear of - yeah, it's just too close, and it became all too real. And, yeah, that's just - that's messed up. It's self-hate playing out.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jerrod Carmichael. He has a new HBO comedy special, which is called "Rothaniel," which, by the way, is his real first name, which he kept hidden most of his life until now. So we'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED NASH'S "THE FOUR FREEDOMS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with comic, writer and actor Jerrod Carmichael. His HBO comedy special "Rothaniel" is streaming on HBO Max. It's all about secrets - about his real name, his family tree and his sexual orientation.
How old were you when you realized you were gay?
CARMICHAEL: I don't know. I don't know because I don't - I've had experiences with other boys when I was a kid. And I've had, you know, little secret things here and there throughout my life. But when I was younger, when the internet and internet porn would come around, I would watch gay porn. And then immediately after, I would watch straight porn, almost as if to cleanse it, almost as if to get rid of what I'd just done, to cover up the sin, to kind of hide it, right? Like - and it's a silly psychological game that I played with myself as a game of one - no pun intended. But...
CARMICHAEL: But you see what I mean? Like, the example of that - like, that - what am I doing in that situation? I don't know. I'm hiding. I'm trying to make it better. I'm trying to fix it. I'm trying to make it right, you know, like, little psychological things like that to make it go away that I would try and do that to myself. And so when I was younger, I believed myself to be on a straight path. Eventually, I would have convinced myself to marry a woman in some world. I would have - yeah. Yeah, I definitely was suppressing it, running from it, hiding from it. So how long before I realized that what I was was gay? I don't know. It just kind of became undeniable.
And I guess later in life, I was - you know, I'm someone, and I'll use air quotes, that probably leans a bit more masculine. So I could hide it. I couldn't have never come out. And, you know, some people suspect if you know my affinity for Dries Van Noten. But (laughter) like, you know, for most of the world, I was straight presenting, so I was able to hide. You know, even as a kid, you know, I didn't really play sports, but, you know, my jeans were just baggy enough to be trade (ph), you know, to be...
GROSS: You know, we talked about how deeply religious your mother is, and in her view of Christianity, like, homosexuality is a sin. Like, she is really having trouble accepting that. And that is part of the reason why you've had such trouble accepting it and being open about it over the years. But, you know, you say that you're still Christian but that it's taken a lot and that you've had to reconfigure God and what God is in order to accept yourself and kind of rebuild from there. What was church like when you were growing up?
CARMICHAEL: Fun, actually. It was fun. I sang in the choir. I had a lot of fun. Even as a child, I would go to Bible study on Wednesday nights and just, you know, get in arguments about faith. And it was really fun. It was a - it's a great social event, you know, Sunday morning. You know, I had friends. There were a lot of kids at the church. I used to run the sound room for a little while - very, very involved in the church plays. And yeah, it was, like, my first performance space. My mom was an usher. And I've always been obsessed with microphones my whole life. And she used to - like, after church, she would hold me up to the mic when the church was clearing out, like, when they were, like, shutting everything down. She would, like, hold me up to the mic so I could speak in it 'cause I just loved the sound. Like, it's just such a miracle (laughter). And church was just, like, the first place that, like, gave me a microphone and an audience. And it's a great show. It's an excellent show.
GROSS: Did you ever do comedy in church?
CARMICHAEL: I mean, I probably did comedy everywhere (laughter). I mean, but, yeah, definitely. I was pretty funny there. And it was always fun to make adults laugh. Like, I was one of those kids who really liked making adults laugh 'cause making other kids laugh was easy. You could do something big and, you know, slip on a banana peel. But, like, adults, you had to use intellect to make adults laugh. So I loved making, like - go and, like, laugh and argue and have honest conversations about God and - yeah, it was so fun. Sorry. I don't even know if I'm answering your question. I'm just, like, reflecting on, like - it was a really - it was a great space. I was - I - yeah, it was a lot of laughs.
GROSS: So, like, comedy was like your superpower. You know, you had to hide your actual identity, like a lot of superheroes have to do, but you had this superpower, which was comedy.
CARMICHAEL: Yeah. It's like a competition that makes you feel good, you know, like, when it's in a group setting like that. You know, like, comedy's just like - 'cause Black people are so funny (laughter). Like, that also has to be said, that, like, the average Black person is a top 10 comedian. Like, just like a church - like, it's just so many laughs. Like, the culture is funny. Like, the culture is - I think that's why Black people are so cool. Like, we're able to, like, laugh at things and even laugh at ourselves in certain way. Like, it's like - you know, like, everybody's kind of, like, telling jokes. And, like, it's a funny environment. So, you know, to be honest with you, to be a funny guy in those environments is an honor (laughter). It's probably, like, the biggest honor of my life - is, like, to be funny amongst kings and queens (laughter). Like, they are very funny.
GROSS: So, you know, I just want to end by saying that I hope you and your mother kind of get back together again 'cause you seem like you were so close in so many ways, and I hope that she's able to eventually appreciate the openness that you have now and the acceptance of yourself and the reality of your truth and meet you there.
CARMICHAEL: Thank you for that. And I hope so, too. And I know it starts with myself. Like, you know - and it's not me trying to take responsibility for anyone else's feelings. But I do know that the world can't love me, my mother included, or anyone else until I have a firm foundation and I know who I am and I'm willing to accept who I am. And, you know, that's a process that I feel like I started late. But, you know, the more honest I am, the freer I am. And I hope that time helps.
GROSS: Jerrod Carmichael, thank you so much for talking with us. It's just really been great to speak with you again and hear you be so open, and I think it's been great for your comedy. I love the new special. And it sounds like it's been really good for your life as well. So congratulations on all of that.
CARMICHAEL: Thank you very much. I really appreciate talking to you, appreciate your words. It's been fun.
GROSS: My interview with Jerrod Carmichael was recorded in April. In September, he won an Emmy for outstanding writing for a variety special. That HBO special, "Rothaniel," is streaming on HBO Max. Our series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year will continue tomorrow with Michael Imperioli. Coming up, podcast critic Nick Quah will tell us about some of his favorite podcasts of the year. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Every year brings all sorts of great new podcasts, and 2022 is no different. Here's podcast critic Nick Quah's take on what kind of year it's been. He's also going to tell us about some of his favorite podcasts of the year.
NICK QUAH, BYLINE: 2022 was a decent year for podcasting with no shortage of new shows worth the time investment. Audio documentary devotees, for example, were well-served by strong releases like "Will Be Wild" and Rachel Maddow's "Ultra." And fans of celebrity chat podcasts have more to enjoy as always. Meanwhile, true crime heads had at least one clear knockout this year in a show called "Bone Valley." But when I look back at the podcasts that spoke to me the most this year, I found myself gravitating towards the smaller and scrappier - projects that, above all else, felt alive with creative spark.
One fantastic example comes in the form of a short fiction piece called "His Saturn Return." Best described as a cosmic coming-of-age tale, the hourlong audio drama follows a self-centered space alien named Duran Durag, played by Sai Sion, who also wrote the piece. He's put through a series of intergalactic trials designed to help him grow up and get over himself. If that description makes "His Saturn Return" seem a little out there, well, that's because it very much is.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (As D.J. Saturn) Duran. Duran. Duran, can you hear me?
SAI SION: (As Duran Durag) Oh - ah - what? huh?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (As D.J. Saturn) You are currently adrift in the fractal node. It is on the astral plane. Here, your mind is one with reality. Travel here is disorienting. Your mission has already begun. And you are in grave danger.
SION: (As Duran Durag) Wait, in the night? Like, from what?
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (As D.J. Saturn) Those.
SION: (As Duran Durag) Oh. Oh, oh. Oh. Whoa. That was a comet. That was a comet, right? It was - the size of it, just...
QUAH: Vibrant, energetic and terribly fun, "His Saturn Return" makes a virtue of excess, evoking a dizzying array of influences that spans "E.T.," "RuPaul's Drag Race" and the works of Douglas Adams. The piece was released through a podcast called "The 11th," a series specifically designed to publish one-off works that can't be easily placed in a genre and might not be financially feasible as a stand-alone release. Unfortunately, "The 11th" came to an end this year, closing out its run of experimentation. It will be missed.
Few things in this world are more delicious than gossip. And so it is no small thing to encounter a show that bottles the feeling of snooping around in other people's business. "Normal Gossip" is that show. Hosted by the writer Kelsey McKinney and produced by Alex Sujong Laughlin, the podcast features a deceptively simple structure. In each episode, McKinney presents an extensive, anonymous piece of gossip to a guest, who is made to react as the tale twists and turns and spirals out of control, as the very best pieces of gossip tend to do.
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KELSEY MCKINNEY: So she and Craig - she drags Craig back to Southeast Texas. They're smarter this time. They rent a car from the airport.
BOBBY FINGER: Alamo.
MCKINNEY: They arrive at the house, and Larry is there.
LINDSAY WEBER: Oh.
MCKINNEY: Not only is Larry there; Larry is in the living room in, like, a bathrobe over, like, a white tank top and boxer shorts. Larry is, like...
FINGER: Yeah, he is.
MCKINNEY: ...Holding his toothbrush.
FINGER: Yeah, he is. Uh-huh.
WEBER: So Larry's psychotic (ph).
MCKINNEY: Larry is wearing their father's house shoes.
WEBER: Larry's like...
FINGER: Uh-huh. Yep.
MCKINNEY: Larry is now living in the guesthouse.
FINGER: Oh, my God.
WEBER: All right. Well, Larry's a scammer.
FINGER: So Larry lives in the house that they lived in when they were doing the renovations.
MCKINNEY: Exactly. Exactly.
FINGER: OK, OK.
WEBER: I wanted them to be in love. And it turns out that's just really - that's optimistic. This is...
FINGER: Larry's just a grifter.
WEBER: Scammer vibes. Yeah.
QUAH: The trick of "Normal Gossip" is its focus on the banal. Each story is sourced from, and is ultimately about, ordinary people. What every good gossip knows, of course, is that banality doesn't equate to boredom. After all, the best stuff that shines in group chats everywhere tend to be the kind of things that can quite literally happen to anybody - from dating mishaps to social scene meltdowns to a horrifically embarrassing faux pas, all of which feature on the show. In an era where the power of celebrity is all-consuming, "Normal Gossip" feeds on a more democratic insight - unbelievable things happen to normal people, too.
There's nothing normal about my pick for the best podcast of the year, though, which requires some setup to explain. Around the turn of the millennium, a young actor named Connor Ratliff was cast in a tiny role on "Band Of Brothers," the award-winning HBO miniseries produced by Tom Hanks. But you wouldn't find him on the show because shortly before filming his scene, Ratliff was asked to audition in front of Hanks. He ended up losing the part, later learning it was because Hanks, famously the nicest guy in show business, thought he had dead eyes. In early 2020, Ratliff, now a working actor in his 40s, launched a podcast about that experience, which he calls, well, "Dead Eyes."
The show started out as a seemingly quixotic quest to figure out what Hanks meant by Ratliff having dead eyes, which might sound like a bitter adventure - except that it isn't. Indeed, as the show went on, it became apparent that what Ratliff really wanted to do was produce thoughtful interviews of friends and acquaintances about the tenuous nature of building a life in show business, which is often filled with disappointment, heartbreak and the ghost of what could have been.
Earlier this year, Ratliff got answers. After 30 episodes, he finally scored an interview with Hanks. And the resulting conversation didn't just turn out to be a satisfying capstone for Ratliff's journey, but also a thoroughly charming interview with Hanks, which saw the older actor imparting wisdom and some existential comfort to his younger counterpart.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DEAD EYES")
TOM HANKS: Yes, you were told I thought you had dead eyes. That's about as concrete a statement as anybody is ever going to have from anybody.
CONNOR RATLIFF: Yeah.
HANKS: But I was - I thought, well, in - I go right to the cheesy, melodramatic narrative, which is like, oh, OK, so this is going to be essentially ongoing "Poison Pen Letter." But it's not. Because you - we, the people in the know, the people who live on Fountain Avenue, as I like to say, know that there's no room for that.
HANKS: You can't go there. If you do, it's the death of moving forward.
QUAH: It's uncommon for a podcast to land such a resolution and even more rare for a project with such a prolonged conceit to maintain a strong sense of heart throughout. "Dead Eyes" is a miracle, and I'll be thinking about this show for a long time.
GROSS: Nick Quah is podcast critic for New York magazine and Vulture. You can find his review of his favorite podcasts of the year on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we continue our series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year with Michael Imperioli. He became famous for his role on "The Sopranos" as the young, impulsive gangster Christopher Moltisanti. Imperioli is one of the stars of the second season of HBO's Emmy award-winning series "The White Lotus." I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering today from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I am Terry Gross.
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