Rothaniel Is Both Great and a Comedy Special (and Let the Debate End There)

Stand-up comedy, in comparison to its much older relatives in the arts, is still very much a nascent art form, even in the realm of live performance. However, that doesn’t stop the old guard and purists from being rigid about structures and dynamics and what should and shouldn’t be when it comes to the art of going on stage with a microphone and making an audience in a venue laugh.

For decades upon decades, jokes/bits/stories have all been carefully woven into hours or half hours or fractions of time thereof to make for signature performances of comedy. For a classic performance of stand-up that, we believe, will stand the test of time that was recorded and aired this year, look no further than Maria Bamford’s most recent genius stand-up set on Corden.

Jerrod Carmichael, on the other hand, wants to not play at and beyond the fringes of what stand-up comedy can be, not unlike Hannah Gadsby or Rory Scovel or Andy Kaufman or Al Lubel before him, but very much wants to reimagine the whole damn thing. In one fell swoop, on what seems to be an unassuming wintry night in NYC, Jerrod taped his latest special Rothaniel, with gorgeous direction from Bo Burnham, and has just achieved that.

The special itself is essentially some sort of hybrid between an extended story at The Moth and stand-up, but is more beautiful than being purely one or the other from Jerrod seemingly revealing so many of his most personal secrets (mainly, his coming out as gay and his actual name) and reveling and connecting with folks in the audience in the aftermath, all in real time. The ever elusive lightning in a bottle that is one of the main reasons people pay very good money to see any sort of live performance is so wonderfully captured here. Partially, that result is due to the fact that it wasn’t overly prepared or rehearsed and the well worn comedic label of “raw” actually applies to this hour, making this special all the more actually, truly, deeply special. Rothaniel essentially couldn’t happen more than a few times in full. Otherwise, it would lose the magical ephemeral quality that courses its way through every second.

Jerrod himself is still in the thick of what his special has wrought as you can see from his panel interview on Seth Meyers last night.We hope we haven’t played our hand too aggressively and revealed too much so this will all still be revelatory for you as it has been for all the folks that have watched Rothaniel before the writing of this op-ed.

There is so much to wax poetic about in the communal elements of the special and, in a manner of speaking, how “real” it was in comparison to the finely tuned and honed hours of stand-up that have been put out at Netflix, HBO, and elsewhere. But, we’d rather you just watch it if you haven’t done so already and marvel in Jerrod’s art gallery exhibit of a comedy special for yourself.

Also, we’d urge you to not engage in the discourse we’ve been hearing here and there, in places high and low in comedy, over the last week, a sentiment echoed from Gadsby’s Nanette, about whether this is a comedy special or not. One can bandy quite a bit about how Rothaniel is not as laugh out loud, high on the laugh-per-minute ratio as any of Jim Gaffigan’s hour specials.

Yet, does that necessarily disqualify it from being a comedy special? In our minds, it doesn’t and any argument to the contrary holds back stand-up comedy from progressing forward from just being dick jokes and comedians making fun of the fact that they make money telling dick jokes in a never ending moebius strip of dick jokes and meta commentary. There is actually no agreed upon standard for what qualifies comedy special other than the fact that it’s promoted as one, which Rothaniel explicitly does. There’s a great freedom in that lack of definition and we wish more comedians took advantage of that freedom, especially since the whole aggregate of comedy is wired to push itself forward much faster than almost any other art form.

Once more, Rothaniel is both a great piece of art and a comedy special and let that be that.