Comedian Lil Rel Howery has been putting his stamp on the comedy game for the better part of a decade. First appearing on NBC’s Last Comic Standing, the Chicago native was able to parlay the opportunity into a number of other high profile appearances such as Shaq’s All-Star Comedy Jam, HBO’s “Diddy’s Bad Boys of Comedy, Russell Simmons Presents Stand-Up at The El Rey, and The Arsenio Hall Show.
Rel’s career kicked into high gear last year when popular comedian Kevin Hart signed on to executive produce his first hour long special for Comedy Central entitled Kevin Hart Presents: Lil Rel: RELevent. Shortly after, he landed a coveted role as Bobby Carmichael on the breakout NBC sitcom, The Carmichael Show, alongside Jerrod Carmichael, Loretta Devine, and David Alan Grier. As the show goes on hiatus in preparation for it’s third season, Lil Rel turns his attention to a slew of other movie and television projects.
N’Digo recently sat down with Lil Rel to talk his career beginnings, The Carmichael Show, and what the future holds.
I was born and raised on the west side of Chicago. Grew up with both of my parents on Monroe and Leavitt. Attended Crane High School and Providence St. Mel. I grew up in the church. In fact my Uncle is a Pastor. I played a lot of sports as a kid. My parents were involved in everything. My dad was like the neighborhood dad. Especially to the kids whose father wasn’t in their lives. He’d literally be fixing everyone’s bike in the Summer. It was interesting growing up like that. You know sometimes people try to sale their hard story of growing up. We didn’t have much, but we had them. I didn’t realize my family was struggling until I got older. They did a great job of letting my siblings and I just be kids and instilling in us that we could do whatever we wanted. We are a very tight-knit family. My aunts, my uncles, everyone. Everyone took care of each other. It’s so funny that now you have pay your family to babysit but when I was growing up it wasn’t like that. That’s family and you helped out.
I had to be maybe 10 or 11. I know it was crazy to say but I was really locked in on comedy at that age. I was so into In Living Color and Saturday Night Live, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy….I was so into them at a young age and I just knew then ‘Okay, this is what I gotta do.’ It’s one of those things where you literally dream about it and it comes to fruition and starts happening. Right now I am living all the visions I had as a kid.
Believe it or not I wasn’t. When you go to a black school, most times EVERYBODY acts a fool. *laughs* No seriously, but my homeboy in high school was actually the funniest dude in class. We were all funny, but he was bolder. So he was the class clown but I was the dude that could act, ya know? I was always able to kinda translate it better. Like he’d be sitting there roasting somebody and I’d be the one doing characters. That was the stuff that’d make everyone laugh. I used to do an impression of (legendary NBA Center) Robert Parish . I remember seeing this karate commercial that he did here when he played with the Bulls and it was the funniest thing ever because it didn’t make any sense. So I would impersonate him and have him tell all these crazy stories in school. It was so hilarious. But my thing was just doing these characters.
It was during a high school play at Crane. First of all, they heckled EVERYBODY but that was just the atmosphere. My teacher at the time, Mr. Washington, let me write some of my own scenes and lines and when I did my stuff, I knew by the roar and laughter I got that this was gonna be it for me. I remember afterwards when I was walking around school, it was like I was a new person to everybody.
The Chicago Sun-Times used to have this weekend section that I would look at all the time. And I would see the comedy club listings and when I got old enough to do so right after high school, I would just start showing up at those clubs I’d read about. There was this really small place called The Lion’s Den that I’d go to that was really hot at the time. It’s funny because back then that place was really big to me and I remember going back there recently and looking around like ‘What happened? Did they make it smaller?’ Shortly after that I met Deray Davis and it was kinda off from there. That was about the time I said to myself ‘Okay, I ain’t working no more regular jobs…’.
How do you feel about the critical acclaim your latest project, The Carmichael Show, has gotten thus far?
I’m so proud to be on this show…and to be on a good NBC sitcom because I grew watching this station, you know? A Different World, The Cosby Show, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and all those great shows…and now you’re a part of that. It’s kind of surreal. But I’m a fan of the show. I watch the show every Sunday like I ain’t on it. *laughs* So yeah I am just humbled and happy to be a part of this great show that my friend created.
With the show being so topic driven do you all collaborate on things discussed on the show? Are you in the writers room pitching in as well?
I’ve only been in the writers room a couple times. Now the thing is…discussions happen all the time, Every episode we do there is some sort of discussion that happens for it. Especially with (co-star) Loretta (Devine). She’s quick to tell you ‘I don’t want the NAACP on us now!’ *laughs* But yeah, it’s a real discussion that takes place. We’re on hiatus now, but that’s one of the things I already miss about it. It’ll be like Christmas morning waiting on the script to see what you’d get. There’s been a few times when we’d get the script and things that were a part of a heated discussion earlier in the week are now in the script. And they happen organically most times. Like we’ll be in the middle of rehearsal and venture off into a discussion and the production crew will be standing around staring at us and waiting for us to get back to work so in that way we do contribute a bit.
What was the feeling like to be able to do your RELevent comedy special for Comedy Central on such a large scale?
It felt great. Again, I prayed on this, you know? So for it to happen like it did was amazing. We shot it the Vic Theater. Funny enough, I went to see Janelle Monae at that theater and as I was sitting there and thinking to myself ‘Okay I gotta shoot my special here’. I ain’t have no deal whatsoever at the time but I remember sitting there and soaking up the energy of that place. The Vic has such a rawness to it that you can almost feel the energy of the other acts that have performed there before you. I was doing some research and watching all these old comedy specials before I did mine and I found out that Robin Harris and Martin Lawrence taped their HBO specials there and it took me back to childhood watching those as a kid. But it was one of those things where everything came together like I wanted. I had to fight for some things to be the way I wanted but I got them. I gotta send a shout out to Kevin Hart for backing me on it and letting me fight for it.
For Kev to introduce me was huge. I wanted to be introduced by a boss in comedy, ya know? It’s all about that introduction. It helps when you’re being introduced to the world and getting that stamp of approval from someone who is a comedy king. It was really a weird and strategic plan in my crazy mind that ended up happening for me.
Kevin easily. Because we’ve had those sessions. Kevin can go. My dream person would be Patrice O’Neal though. Patrice was so ahead of his time and under-appreciated. Like I watch (his comedy special) Elephant In The Room and….sometimes you watch a comedy and just be like ‘Okay, I THOUGHT I was good but….’ Patrice was just a genius.
Believe it or not, outside of the traveling I do for work, I do like to travel for pleasure. Most of the time, I just like being with my babies. Taking them to Legoland or something like that. I enjoy just being a dad. In a strange way, being a dad is relaxing to me.
So funny you ask that because I was just joking that a friend has affirmations all over their house but I do have a couple I really like. One is actually from the Wade’s World Foundation (Dwyane Wade’s charity) event that I do every year. It says ‘I live to dream and I dream to live’.
I just finished shooting for a new show that MTV gave me. It’s a stand-up series called Acting Out. We shot 10 episodes and it’ll probably premiere in August. It’s a stand-up show where while the comic is performing you’ll see their jokes acted out at the same time. It’s a really fun show that I think people will like. I’m really thankful for MTV giving me this shot because hosting is something that I’ve been looking to do. One of the things I’d like to do is host one of the award shows. Maybe the BET Awards or MTV Movie Awards and I think it’s going to happen if I keep going the route that I’m going. I also have a movie that I’ll be in soon called Get Out. It’s a horror film written and directed by Jordan Peele from Key & Peele. I’m also getting ready for the next special that I’m hoping to get Robert Townsend to direct. So yeah there are a few other things I wanna do but I’m just working hard man.
Catch Lil Rel Howery on the season finale of The Carmichael Show this Sunday, May 29th on NBC at 8pm CST. You can also catch his stand-up special, Kevin Hart Presents: Lil Rel: RELevent, currently streaming on Netflix.