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Jerrod Carmichael a standup comedian-turned-sitcom star said he is "used to going to a somewhat uncomfortable territory with material." He does just that in the Season 3 premiere of his sitcom, which centers on rape.
And it is wildly uncomfortable when the studio audience laughs, sometimes uneasily, as the characters debate what constitutes sexual assault. Which doesn't bother Carmichael in the least.
"If an audience feels a little uncomfortable, then I think that's a good sign that we are going toward true feelings," not just going for "mindless laughter," he said.
"The Carmichael Show" is about an opinionated family who argue about hot-button issues. In the first of two episodes on Wednesday (8 and 8:30 p.m., NBC/Channel 5), Jerrod's girlfriend, Maxine (Amber Stevens West), is distressed because a friend has revealed on Facebook that she was raped a year earlier. That she was making out with a guy and "before she realized it, sex had started."
"Wait. I missed the part about the rape. Did you switch to a different story?" says Joe (David Alan Grier), Jerrod's conservative father.
"She didn't give consent. That's rape," Maxine forcefully argues.
"That's not the rules for sex," Jerrod says. "That's the rules for emergency exit row seating."
That leads to disagreements about what constitutes consent. About how false rape accusations can ruin a man's life. And Jerrod's brother, Bobby (Rel Howery), worrying that a sexual liaison he had the night before when he and the woman were both extremely drunk could mean he's guilty of rape.
It's a tough subject for drama. It's a very tough subject for comedy. And "The Carmichael Show" is supposed to make people laugh.
But should you be making people laugh about rape?
"Honesty is key," Carmichael said.
His show, which ended Season 2 a year ago with an episode debating the merits of Donald Trump, returns to that subject briefly in the Season 3 premiere, titled "Yes Means Yes."
"A man who bragged about sexually assaulting women and then dismissed it as 'locker-room talk' was elected as president of the United States," Maxine says. "Clearly, we don't take it seriously enough."
"Damn," Bobby says, "you can brag about sexual assault and become president? I don't know if I should be horrified or inspired."
Insert uneasy laugh here.
A lot of the points of view expressed will make a lot of people, yes, uncomfortable. But the episode very strongly makes the point about consent. Maxine argues, "We should be teaching our sons not to rape. To get a verbal yes every step of the way."
This is a sitcom, not a public service announcement. But you can certainly argue that "The Carmichael Show" is doing a public service.
It isn't often you can call a sitcom brave. This is one of those times.
Scott D. Pierce covers TV for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.