Redd Foxx once said, ‘Certain things should be yours when you work your way to the top.’ Simply put, the life of a comedian can often be considered simple, straight with no chaser. The end result is making people laugh.
The Black comedy circuit was built upon the bar that Foxx had created and breaking some serious barriers for the next generation of working comedians. Today the new wave of talent on the entertainment business radar reeks of ‘Chicago’. In fact, for the first time in a long time—being Black from Chicago is not about ‘Chi Raq’, it’s about comedy.
Who better than Lil Rel Howery to ride that wave of being on the ‘Chicago Comedy Hit List’. He joins a great list of comedy power hitters as NBC premiere fellow Chicagoan, Craig Robison’s “Mr. Robinson” sitcom. Lil Rel enters into the primetime network arena on the “Carmichael Show,” co-starring with veteran comedian/actor David Alan Grier.
“The Carmichael Show is a Black American family conversation on television. It’s the kind of conversation that you have with your mom, dad or siblings about everything that’s going on. We’re going to try our best to represent that family voice and have all of these opinions,” Rel explains.
He plays the character, Bobby Carmichael, the oldest son of David Alan Grier and Loretta Devine’s characters on the show. “Bobby will have a bunch of different jobs as he goes through the season because he still hasn’t discovered what he wants to do yet. He has a lot of heart, he’s caring and he’s still in love with his ex-wife,” said Rel.
The show premiered in August as part of the NBC mid-summer sitcom line-up and has since renewed for a second season but this is not the only show that sports his credits. In July, Lil Rel entered a second season of “Friends of the People,” which he shares co-writing credits. He has been working non-stop out-side of the Chicago market for the past three years. From humble beginnings his hustle is an ongoing mix of faith, education and balance.
“I attended Crane High School and before that, I went to Providence St. Mel on the West Side. Providence St. Mel was a key place for me from 5th grade to my freshman year. My parents couldn’t afford to send us both so my time was up and it was time for my younger brother. They wanted him to experience Providence St. Mel too so my time was up and his St. Mel experience began. St. Mel impressed upon me that my dreams could come true,” Rel said. “That’s what they teach there–anything is possible if you work hard at it.”
Although, both schools were drastically different, shifting from a private institution to a Chicago Public School—he made it work to his advantage. “While at Crane I made a decision to do comedy. We did a senior talent show in high school. It was my first time writing jokes and creating a script. I had seen the students heckle people who’ve come to speak to the class,” He laughs, “I was nervous but the first roar of laughter I received – that was it for me. I was addicted.”
After graduating from high school, Rel pursued comedy working the clubs and taking on every show and promoter. Slowly, he began to make a name for himself, hosting open mics, fashion shows, and large-scale comedy shows. Although, he was keeping his head above water, none of it would have been possible if it wasn’t for the support of his parents. “My mom just told me that if comedy is what I wanted to do, I would have to work hard. When I first started doing comedy and I didn’t have any money, she paid my rent. She saw how hard I worked at it. She believed in me. Later, I found out that my dad helped out as well,” Rel said.
Just like Redd Foxx had created a standard for Chicago base comedians such as Bernie Mac, Robin Harris, Corey Holcomb, Adele Givens and others—Rel looked up to Bernie Mac as his inspiration. “Chicago is such a unique city. I remember in the beginning, some people would compare me to Bernie Mac and I would think, ‘I’m not Bernie Mac, I want to be Eddie Murphy,’” he laughs. “Since then, I’ve matured in the game and began to realize how great Bernie Mac actually was.”
After the good fortune of a long stint as the weekly host at Bronzeville’s comedy club, Jokes N Notes—he decided to quit. Within a month, Rel was asked to join the Rickey Smiley comedy tour and opportunities began to flood in leading up to working on the new “In Living Color Show” with creator Keenen Ivory Wayans. Although, the series never made it to the air, it opened the door to pitch “Friends of the People” to TRU TV.
As Lil Rel’s star continues to rise, his one-man comedy show on Comedy Central, “Lil Rel Howery RELevent” presented by Kevin Hart as executive producer is a hit among viewers. With his rigorous schedule and new goals of creating his own production company, his most important role is fatherhood. “Being a father is the most important thing to me, it changed my mindset about what my next move is about to be. The family is still in Chicago. For the last two years I’ve been in New York and now, I’m in LA. This is my hustle season and I’m on fire.”
No matter where he travels, his home is Chicago and the pride that comes with joining a line-up of comedy greats. Still he knows that there’s more work to do overall to bring more spotlight on the city. “All of these great people come from Chicago yet we don’t do anything in our hometown together. It’s very interesting. I don’t know when that mindset will change,” He adds, “But I’d love to be a part of this change. We have some great stories that we have to tell ourselves. I don’t want to see an outsider try to tell a ‘Chicago’ story when we have talented actors and writers from our city.”