Note: This story discusses self-harm and suicide.
The absurdity of this recurring bit falls in line with the rest of the film, not quite a dark comedy as much as a daringly humorous drama. “On the Count of Three,” released Friday in some theaters and digitally, follows longtime friends Kevin (Christopher Abbott) and Val (Jerrod Carmichael) as they make a suicide pact and spend the rest of the unpredictable day tying up loose ends.
Those familiar with Carmichael’s work as a comedian, from the semi-autobiographical NBC sitcom “The Carmichael Show” to his HBO comedy specials, may not be surprised to learn this type of film marks his debut as a feature director. He is known to push boundaries, to linger in the spaces others tend to hurry past. In his latest comedy special, “Rothaniel,” Carmichael came out as gay; he spends much of its latter half sitting in contemplation, even admitting to the audience that “at many points in my life, I thought I’d rather die than confront the truth.”
Speaking to The Washington Post over Zoom on an afternoon in early May, Carmichael notes that he has most often encountered discussions of suicidal ideation anchored by those who have overcome such thoughts — and “very thankfully” so, he adds. But he also finds value in exploring the thoughts themselves as a way to hopefully better understand the circumstances in which people like “On the Count of Three’s” Kevin and Val find themselves.
“I’m not here to give answers,” Carmichael says. “Just to bring my own questions.”
(The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Q: How did this project come together?
A: Well, I had met Ryan [Welch] and Ari [Katcher], the writers, a while ago … and we were trying to find a film that captured our shared tone. Me, Ryan and Ari have a really similar sense of humor, and it only works for us if it feels real and it feels like high-stakes comedy. “On the Count of Three” was an idea they had that I had talked with them about for a while, and then we went to try to get it made, and it was the hardest movie in the world to get made. I guess it makes sense. It’s not shocking that people shy away from it. We got turned down by everybody. Major studios, obviously. I always felt like it was very indie, so that made sense. In my head, I was thinking about the list of people who said no and the joke I didn’t make is, “Man, I’ve been turned down by people who have since been #MeTooed.”
We finally found financiers, David Carrico and Tom Werner. Lucky to have them as partners, and they contributed. But even still, there was a limit there. I don’t think anyone really fully saw it, what we were trying to do. It cost me a lot personally, to be honest. A lot of my own money. It’s a very difficult movie to get made. Even starring in it — actors were kind of unsure. Starring in it, in part, was a product of necessity.
Q: Had you initially envisioned someone else stepping into one of your many roles here?
A: I never really considered myself in any specific part of the project. … It was like, “Oh, I like this idea, I like this concept,” and I tried to see it through. I contributed a lot to the script for “On the Count of Three.” They were asking if I wanted to be credited as a writer. I want to create a credit that just says “With love from.” “With love, Jerrod Carmichael” at the bottom of the script. Not written by, directed by, starring by or whatever.
Q: This film is a really honest — a brutally honest — way to talk about suicidal ideation. Why didn’t you shy away from telling this kind of story?
A: Because it’s so true. A lot of what you hear about suicide is — thankfully, very thankfully — on the other end of it. I’ve very seldom seen things explore that space between: the thought, and having a day exploring that thought. What was interesting about these two characters to me is that they are regular people. The circumstances are very basic life circumstances that can affect people different ways and can sometimes feel like a massive weight.
It’s a dangerous moment, having those thoughts. A lot of times, if left unshared, it exists as a secret. I’ve been let into some very personal moments with friends, like the moment that the movie lives in, and it only makes sense if it’s real. It only makes sense if you realize how real the stakes are between the thought and the potential end of your life.
Q: In your most recent comedy special, “Rothaniel,” you talk a lot about keeping secrets and decide to share things you’ve kept private in the past. As an artist, what compels you to bring light to these secrets?
A: I’m sure it’s the psychological trauma of keeping one and the hopes for the freedom that relieving that can provide. I always just want to talk about things. Even my work as a closeted man was still about talking about these little tender pockets of things that aren’t talked about. I think it was in the hopes of, once it’s out there, we can feel better.
Even the process of getting the film made, hearing people say no and why — it’s a lot of, “you just can’t” and “we just can’t.” Those things seem super attractive to me because I need to know why. Why is this a red button behind glass?
Q: So how did you get Christopher Abbott to hit the red button?
A: A friend says this about me, and I think it’s very true about Chris: It’s about access to fearlessness. Chris, I think he was excited by the material and he connected with it in his own personal ways. But even beyond that, I think he understood it and what we were going for. I understand what it means to be a giving actor from being with him. It’s funny, the process and the film have a lot of parallels.
Q: It does seem like it.
A: You asked me a question about the film, I’ll tell you about the special. You ask me a question about the special and I’ll go back to the film.
Q: I mean, everything is interconnected, right?
A: I hope I just don’t sound like a lunatic, but it’s all from the same place. I can only really do stuff if it feels true. If it’s true to me. I have to connect with it.
Q: Are there different takeaways for you, personally? With a fictional piece like this versus a stand-up special?
A: I don’t see “Count of Three” as fiction. I see my work as an actor — that sentence sounds pretentious because I don’t even think I’ve earned that sentence, “my work as an actor.”
Q: You are an actor, though. I think you’re good.
A: No, no, no. I’m an actor and I’m learning and I’m growing in it. Like I did Yorgos Lanthimos’s movie “Poor Things” last year, and that felt really good. I was happy to be there. I feel like as much as I know how, I give myself to the process. That felt like fiction in the best ways, right? I’m just saying my work, for me. It’s all kind of documentary. It’s all kind of real to me.
Q: Do you think that’s a product of working in the contemporary era? Do you think you’d have that feeling while creating a period piece?
A: I wonder. I think if I could connect to it. I got really obsessed with the apostle Paul. I had a conversation with Lucas Hnath about him. That was great. He’s my favorite playwright. Because I see so many similarities the more I read and understand Paul, or understand the things written about him. His obsession with narrative, self-narrative and the narrative of others. If there were ever anything there, it would be because of that. It would be because for two years of my life, three years of my life, like a lunatic, a part of me truly felt I was the apostle Paul.
Q: So you’re in all your projects, whether it’s literally you or not.
A: I’m almost, to be honest, realizing it during this conversation. I’m realizing how true things even have to be. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve acted in things that aren’t necessarily me and those are fun. But anything that is mine — the “With love from” things, from “The Carmichael Show” to “Home Videos” to “Count of Three” to “Rothaniel” — is really just me.
Q: That seems to be what people connected with, with “Rothaniel.” It becomes a conversation with the audience, which I have not often seen in that format. What was it like to let go and allow that to happen?
A: It’s a great combo of trust and skill, right? The plan was to unravel, as much as that makes sense. The plan was, for me, to relinquish control as a performer from even my presentational way of demanding and stories and jokes and things you see throughout the first half of “Rothaniel,” into trust-falling into whatever happens in the room and letting that stream of emotion and the call-and-response from the audience dictate where we went.
It was me, trusting the skill of Bo Burnham. He’s my best friend. Forget the art for a second, the personal process — he was here for all of it. That trust also shows in the product.
Q: A similarity between “Rothaniel” and “On the Count of Three” is that they don’t have answers. And the questions they ask are so heavy. Do you leave these projects just thinking about them forever or are you a person who can shut that off?
A: These questions kind of linger, especially recently. I’ve been in a very impressionable state in my life, really a transition period. There have been things said to me or asked that linger, that kind of echo and come back on walks and in the shower. For me, the fun is exploring. “Carmichael Show” was probably a bit more topical, but it was fun to explore all these things. We never really found answers there, either.
I wish there were a word to describe that in-between thing, because I think a lot of my work hits this tone, this unanswered question tone. Like melancholic happiness or exuberant sadness. I’m trying to think of how to describe it. It’s this pocket. Some music describes it. It’s how I feel when I heard the sounds of daytime television, like soap operas. “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” And that sweeping, beautiful, sad music.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.