Last night, NBC’s Norman Lear For The Modern Day sitcom The Carmichael Show aired "Cynthia’s Birthday." The title sounds innocuous enough, but the season 3 installment is actually one of the most boundary-pushing episodes of comedy in TV history. Last night, The Carmichael Show used the n-word six times, all uncensored. Six times. The slur has been said on TV before, going all the way back to a 1978 episode of All In The Family, but it’s never been said six times in about 12 minutes of television. That’s once every two minutes. And it all begins in a way no one would expect.
Going into "Cynthia’s Birthday," I knew what was coming, so I was constantly trying to guess when viewers would hear the first n-word dropped. At the top of the episode, the Carmichael family is discussing "controversial Black opinions" they believe go against the rules of their community. What a perfect time for someone to say they do, or don’t, believe everyone should use a racial slur that has hundreds of years of hate — and a few decades of rap lyrics — behind it. Yet, no one brings it up. Instead, the Carmichael clan decides their edgy opinion for the evening is heading to a fancy restaurant "Black people don’t go to" called Florentine’s. This is where the n-word drama begins.
The family is only able to get a reservation at the swanky eatery because lead Jerrod (Carmichael creator-writer-star Jerrod Carmichael) is friends with the white owner’s white son, Drew, who meets them when they enter. The second thing out of the young man’s mouth is "Anything for you, ma nigga," while man-hugging Jerrod. Every Carmichael family member’s jaw drops, as did mine. In an episode all about using the n-word, the first person to actually use it is a white man. Let us all be this GIF of Donald Glover for a moment. Once my jaw was picked up off the floor, I realized that is exactly how the episode had to go for our characters to really talk about the n-word and actually say it out loud repeatedly. We had to see someone who supposedly "shouldn’t" use the word say it, for the stakes and emotional reactions to seem genuine.
Unlike Reggie (Marque Richardson) in Dear White People, Jerrod doesn’t take offense, or even pause, at a white friend's use of the slur. This reaction leads to a conversation among the Carmichaels that’s familiar for anyone who’s ever debated who should use the n-word and when. Jerrod’s brother Bobby (Lil Rel Howery) is critical of the youngest Carmichael for letting a white man talk to him like that. Jerrod’s girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West) believes no one should use the word. Jerrod believes everyone should use the word. And Jerrod’s dad Joe (David Alan Grier) just wants to enjoy his pretzel rolls. In true Carmichael fashion, the discussion proves no one’s opinion on the controversial epithet is technically wrong. Jerrod can believe Drew gets a preverbal "pass" for using the n-word since he supports Black culture and dates Black women — and Maxine can disagree since appropriation doesn’t also give people permission to throw slurs around.
This no-win approach to the topic was 100 percent episode writer Carmichael’s goal in penning the installment. "That's the thing I just wanted reflected. More than anything, it's saying that even Black people, who have been both victims of and beneficiaries of the fun and ubiquitous use of it, we don't all have the exact same opinion on it," he wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, mentioning his real-life family doesn’t agree on the n-word. "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.'" Although NBC originally said The Carmichael Show could only use the n-word once, Carmichael explains the showrunner gave him permission to use it twice while penning "Cynthia’s Birthday." He and episode writing partner Ari Katcher used it four times, and the cast ended up saying it six times during filming.
With The Carmichael Show’s future still uncertain on NBC, at least they managed to produce something for broadcast TV literally no one else could.
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