Lil Rel Howery: The Comedy King of Chicago

Comedy Features
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There’s one thing comedian Lil Rel Howery wants you to know: he wants to play Bernie Mac in his biopic, if one ever gets made.

There are a few more things you should know about him. The man is a star in the Chicago stand-up scene. He’s currently writing, producing and starring in truTV’s Friends of the People. The new NBC comedy The Carmichael Show, where he’s co-starring with Jarrod Carmichael, David Alan Grier and Loretta Devine, premiered to positive reviews last week. And on top of that, his first hour-long stand-up special RELevant premieres on Comedy Central this Saturday, September 5. The special is executive produced and presented by comedy superstar Kevin Hart.

Howery and Hart originally met through another comedian years ago who asked if Rel would fill in at a show he was doing with Hart. He told Rel that Hart was a fan, and they’ve been cool with each other ever since. When the Comedy Central opportunity came up, Hart was excited to work with Rel and the hope is that Hart’s name recognition can help boost the Chicago native’s star even further.

Paste had the opportunity to chat with Rel last week about the new special, the star treatment he receives in Chicago, and why he wants to play Bernie Mac so badly.

Paste: How was the process of writing or developing this hour different compared to the half hour you did a couple years ago?

Lil Rel Howery: Not really? I did the same thing. [Laughs] I didn’t really do anything differently. I’m not the type of comic that’s like, “OK I’m gonna work all of this. I’m gonna go on tour, work this material out, and blah blah blah.” I didn’t do that. I just did it. Same as the half hour, I just did it.

Comedy Central actually requests that you send in material you’re gonna do. I did that just so people wouldn’t bother me about it, but there was a good chance I’d change it. I just have fun man, and I’ve had material for a long time. I’ve got hours, at least two and half, three hours of strong material. So it wasn’t hard, but it had to be the “Best Of”. [Laughs]

Paste: This is executive produced and presented by Kevin Hart. How long have you known him and how did he get involved in doing this special with you?

LRH: Me and Kev have known each other for a while. With the special, it just came back that I wanted to be introduced by a big name comic. I reached out personally to Cedric the Entertainer and Russell Peters, and asked them if they’d be interested in doing my special because there’s something about respectable pull from one of these guys that’s already doing great. It’s very special. I told my agent (Mike Berkowitz) that, and he represents me and Kev, and he’s like “What about Kevin?” And I’m like well you could ask him. And he asked him. He hit me right back: Kevin was extremely down, he wants to do it, and hopefully history is made.

Paste: You got to go back home to Chicago to tape this at the Vic Theater. How important was that for you to be able to do the special in your hometown?

LRH: Very important. I actually don’t know why most people don’t do that! [Laughs]

Paste: Yeah, that doesn’t make sense; why wouldn’t you want to go to your hometown?

LRH: I know! It was a perfect marriage. We did it at the theater I wanted. I went to see Janelle Monae at the Vic Theater, and I was in the balcony, like we got tickets last minute. And I’m looking and I go, “I’m going to shoot my special.” I really said it out loud. It’s just such a classic-looking place. It has a classic feel to it. I am so thankful I was able to do that. Back in Chicago, the energy was insane. There was a line around the corner at this theater to see me for two shows.

Paste: And that kind of speaks to your rising status in Chicago. I was reading about how big you’re getting there, and it must have been great to take advantage of that growth for your special.

LRH: Well here’s the thing about that, and this is just the honest to God truth: I’ve been a star in Chicago for the last six years. [Laughs] Even if the rest of the country didn’t know who I was, that place treated me like that. The surprising factor was that nobody believed me when we were prepping the special. I was like, “You’ll see.” And once it happened the way it did, I mean people made t-shirts for the special. I didn’t know they were doing that stuff.

I built my brand there, man. You know who gave me good advice a long time ago, like ‘02 or maybe ‘03. It was Jamie Foxx’s old manager Marcus King, he said: “Why don’t you dominate your city first. If you do that, you’re gonna do well anywhere.” And I took that to heart, and I dominated Chicago for what I needed to. I used to host an open mic night on Tuesdays in Chicago at Jokes and Notes Comedy Club. I’d say every basketball player, football player, we’re talking Bears and Bulls, the finest chicks, dope dealers, everybody was there. I turned this open mic night into a rock star event.

And you need to have that mentality of it. Chicago made me. They can treat me however they want to treat me anywhere else in the country. When I go back home, they treat me like I’m a star. I remember being questioned by everyone, “Should we give out a bunch of tickets for the special?” I said, “We don’t need to. I promise you.” [Laughs] And afterwards they were like, “Wow! This city really loves you Rel!” And I said, “I know. That’s what I said.”

Paste: “I told you that!”

LRH: [Laughs]

Paste: You’re on truTV’s Friends of the People, and I got to speak to a few of your castmates a little while ago. You were also on the attempted reboot of In Living Color a while back as well, so you’ve been working with a lot of different comedians on different kinds of projects in recent years. How, if at all, has that influenced your stand-up, just being around different comedians and working in different environments?

LRH: I wouldn’t necessarily say it influenced my stand-up, but I would say it influenced me personally and businesswise. The Friends of the People cast, Josh, Kevin, Jermaine, Lucas Brothers, Jen, they’re younger than me. Their energy for comedy sort of re-energized me. When you’re in this business a long time, you start being around some of these theater guys, they don’t really weaken you, but they kind of do. Being around those young, hungry, love-what-they’re doing people with that kind of energy, it changed me forever.

There’s nothing like working with people who became your best friends. All of them. I look at them all as best friends. I have that old, basketball veteran kind of mindset [laughs] that you have to know who your teammates are. That was big for me to get to know all of them, and when I did, I just thought I can’t believe I’m working with all these young geniuses. Someday, in some capacity, everyone from Friends of the People will be dominating in some area of comedy. Because it’s a triple threat: producers, writers and actors. We all brought the best out of each other, and I’m very grateful for working with six of the best comedians in the country for two years.

Paste: When you were in your formative years of comedy, who were your biggest influences?

LRH: Well we have famous influences for sure: Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Bernie… Well here’s the thing about Bernie Mac, I throw Bernie Mac out there now, but at that time, Bernie wasn’t on that list. It was Eddie, Richard and Martin [Lawrence]. And as I got older and started getting more into comedy and started doing all the stuff I was doing in Chicago, I became friends with Bernie Mac’s daughter, Je’Niece McCullough, and when I tell you that me and this dude have some of the same life experiences, it really freaks me out. Bernie Mac might be on the top of my list even more than Eddie and Richard because of the way he did things, his hustle. It didn’t matter what his age was. That dude was a consistent guy. He was a good actor, too. He was so good at so much stuff, that I don’t know if he gets enough credit for. And if they do that movie and I’m not playing him, I’m gonna be pissed. [Laughs]

Paste: He definitely deserves one.

LRH: I’m just saying, and I’m going to say it enough times: I want to play Bernie Mac.

Paste: You say it enough times and you just will it into existence. I’ll lead the article that way: Lil Rel wants to play Bernie Mac.

LRH: I want to play Bernie Mac! Make it happen.

Paste: You’re also co-starring on NBC’s The Carmichael Show which debuted recently with Jerrod Carmichael and David Alan Grier, who is one of my favorites. How excited are you for the show and what was it like working with Grier who was an original cast member of In Living Color?

LRH: When I tell you it was the most surreal experience ever… David is so talented man. I have stolen from that guy—not material! Facial expressions, the way he does this hand shake, I do that stuff, and I literally got it from watching him. Sitting there and seeing him do that in person, seeing him make these faces and do stuff, man. It’s funny, people watch the shows and think they do a good job of staying focused. They don’t see me laughing all the fucking time [Laughs]. I get to watch David Alan Grier!

He’s such a genius when it comes to character work. Delivering. To watch that is insane, man. And I’ve said it to him before, and I’m sure he’ll get people that say I’m a fan because we’re working together. I’m a true fan. I watched videos of you all the time, like a crazy person. [Laughs] But he’s a genius, man, and even with Loretta Devine, just to work closely with these legends, I mean working with an original Dreamgirl? It’s crazy. They’re telling us stories about actors we’ve never seen and about their younger days, and it was just incredible.

It was such a fun show to do. Jerrod is a genius as far as writing, his vision, what he wanted the show to be and who he wanted in it. When he called me and asked me to be a part of it, I was like “Alright, cool.” We could all be doing our own damn shows. [Laughs] The connections are there, but what he was trying to do, and what people hopefully see that he did, I wanted to be a part of it. I get it, and if I could help that, let’s do it.

Lil Rel Howery’s one-our special RELevant premieres on Saturday, September 5th. Friends of the People airs Thursdays at 10:30pm EST on truTV and The Carmichael Show airs Wednesdays at 9:00pm EST on NBC. Follow Rel on Twitter @LilRel4 and on Instagram @comedianlilrel.

Ross Bernhardt is a freelance pop culture writer in the New York City area and probably spends far too much time listening to podcasts. You can follow him on Twitter.