Kevin Hart Talks to Lil Rel About Comedy, Storytelling, and Chicago

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Photo: Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photos by Chris Haston/NBC and Kevin Winter/Getty Images

As is often the case with comedy these days, when it rains, it pours. Comedians spend years grinding for their big breaks, and then three breaks come at once. Take Lil Rel: He's in the middle of the second season of the sketch show he co-stars on, Friends of the People; the NBC sitcom he co-stars on, The Carmichael Show, debuted with record numbers last week; and his first hour comedy special, RELevent, premieres on Comedy Central this Saturday. To discuss what it's like being the middle of all of this, Vulture had Kevin Hart, the comedy superstar known for juggling a lot project and producer of RELevent, to interview Lil Rel. The two discuss Lil Rel's background, tell jokes about Chicago, and whether Rel will ever stop doing stand-up.

Kevin Hart: Okay, Rel, for the people who don’t know you or the people who don’t understand anything about you — which is probably the world, at this point — why don’t you tell me: What is your full name?
Lil Rel: My full name is Milton ‘Little Rel’ Howery.

So, "Lil Rel" was in your name?
Nah.

So, you put "Lil Rel" in your name?
Yeah, it was a nickname given to me by the street.

By the street. So when you say, "by the street," Lil Rel, where are you from?
I’m from the west side of Chicago.

West side of Chicago. What did you do to deserve the name Little Rel? What did you do on the streets that made you deserving of such a powerful nickname?
It's from playing basketball. My cousin name was named Darrell. Well, his name still is Darrell. That sounds like he’s dead, but he ain’t dead. At the time, Darrell was a popular basketball player around where I grew up, and played on varsity in high school. And when I started playing ball with all the older guys, they started calling me Lil Rel.

Now, after you found out that you didn’t necessarily have talent in basketball, is that when you made the transition to comedy?
Nah, man. I thought I was too damn short and not strong enough to play ball. Most athletes are funny, so it was a natural transition, to be honest with you.

Okay, so what was it that propelled you into comedy? What do you think happened during your time as a teenager going into that young adult [period] that made you go, "Entertainment and comedy is what I want to do"?
It was something I always wanted to do. I love acting. I was one of those dudes that was always in the plays in the church and at school. But it wasn’t until my senior year of high school. I did a play, and the teacher let us write our own material. I went to Crane High School, on the west side of Chicago, so it was like the movie Lean On Me. They heckle anybody. People come and give encouraging speeches, and they would be like, “Shut up, I don’t want to believe that stuff.” So, I was nervous: "I don’t want to perform in front of these dudes. Ain’t no tellin’ what they gonna yell out. They might hate me.” But I ended up rippin.’ To have someone laugh like that at something I wrote? I was addicted after that.

Wow. Wow. Growing up, what comedians inspired you coming up?
Oh, you know, the usual: Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Martin Lawrence. The honesty of my material and my being vulnerable was from Richard Pryor. He doesn’t mind talking about his life, which is why I think he was one of the dopest to ever do it. Eddie was a big influence, as far as wanting to do characters — Eddie and, like, the Wayans Brothers. He was like LeBron before LeBron was even made yet. He just knew how to do every part of comedy. Man, Delirious: I remember watching it with my friends, and we were just in awe.

You definitely have so many different cadences of so many different people, so you can tell that you’re well versed in comedy, in knowing those before you, what they did, and why they’re great at what they’re doing. The one thing that you do have is just such a great ability to storytell. But you also got the edginess. I’ve seen you, and I’ve thought to myself, He’s got that Bernie Mac edgy. One thing that Bernie Mac had that was so amazing was that he was so raw and uncut, but at the same time, he maintained a certain level of likability. You have that when you talk about your kids and you talk about your interactions with other people that aren’t necessarily great situations. Do you have any Chicago influences outside of the realm of major superstardom?
Oh, definitely. DeRay [Davis]. I always joke about this with people: Chicago DeRay was different from L.A. DeRay. In so many ways, he influences how I’ve promoted myself. To this day, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a comic that hit the streets as much as he did to promote his shows. That dude would stand at the train station and pass out fliers for a show that was already going to be packed every Sunday. I’ve never seen anything like that before. Then, onstage, he would just freestyle. Every week he hosted. Lots of times people shy away from hosting, but it helps you a lot. It makes you more personable when you deliver your material, and it gives you a chance to play. When you start doing your 45-minute headliner set, if you’ve been hosting all year long, you’re basically doing your best stuff. You don’t have to sit down and write a bunch of stuff. It’s already worked into a set.

Deon Cole was one of the first cats to give me tags all the time. When you see Deon and Corey Holcomb and DeRay or Damon Williams, who was like our godfather of comedy, the thing those guys did for me was display what the business of comedy is.

Also, you’ve done a lot as far as bringing back the old-school version of comedy. For a while, everybody had to have quick jokes — pah, ping, ping, ping, boom, boom, boom. When you came around, you started bringing storytelling back, and it made it easier for guys like me who wanted to tell stories and do characters.

So, here’s a question for you: Now that you’ve reached a place where you’ve put in a lot of work and blood and sweat and tears, this is your chance for people to get to see Lil Rel. This is your chance for people to see your style of storytelling, your style of comedy. What are you most excited about: about your hour special, about building a new fan base, about those who don’t know you getting an introduction to you? What are you excited about?
I love bringing people to my world: I love telling Chicago’s story. Like, New York comics don’t care. They talk about New York all day. Same thing with people from L.A. But when it comes to people from other cities, they think, Ah, they don’t care where I’m from because it’s not New York or L.A. People go, “It’s just local jokes.” Ain’t no joke local if you know how to explain it.

Also, I was telling somebody that this is my best set I’ve done because I’m an adult now. I’ve seen a lot of stuff. I talk about my kids and even divorce. I’m just putting it out on the table.

I’m excited for you, man. I’m glad that I could be a part of it. Was it difficult transitioning to L.A., allowing stand-up comedy to open up that door into acting and other levels of entertainment?
I look up to Eddie Murphy. I always thought it was all the same thing: You had to act; you had to write. I didn’t understand [how] people separated it until I started doing it. That’s what it means to be a comedian? That’s weird. So it’s been an easy transition.

The biggest adjustment was doing a sketch series with a single cam and switching to a multi-cam live-studio audience show [The Carmichael Show]. The timing is a little different. You get those instant, those right-away laughs, when those people are sitting there. Also, they change the script so much in sitcoms: You can literally learn the script one day, and the next day it’s a whole new script. You know what jokes work in a script, and the writers come out and put in another joke. That’s been the biggest transition, but I’m grateful to be doing both, and I never thought I’d get the chance to do both at the same time, but it’s been fun.

You know what? I love you. Here’s a question for you, a really good question: Where do you see Lil Rel in five years?
I really believe, and I hope it isn’t five, but I really want to start directing, man. That bug hit me doing Friends of the People. Bobcat Goldthwait was our director for a lot of sketches, and he let me sponge under him for a little bit. Directing is so dope to me, man, 'cause it doesn’t necessarily have to be your material. You’re making someone else’s material come to life. There’s something amazing about that. I love a lot of the young comedians coming up, and I’ve actually already started working that, quietly meeting with a lot of them, saying, "Yo, let me direct your short, man."

Not everybody gonna be in front of the camera forever, man. That’s impossible. Don’t get me wrong, I love doing that. But behind the scenes and the power is what I like. I like being in control. And maybe someday I'd be a showrunner.

Well, I will say this, Rel, from talking to you, you not only have a plan, man, but it seems that you’re excited. And that’s half the battle. You're excited about your craft, and you understand the possibility of longevity within your craft. I’m happy about being on the team, man. I’m happy that I was able to produce this special for you. I think it’s the first of many. Do you see yourself doing multiple comedy specials? Do you see yourself building a catalogue, or like you said, after this, are you getting into the other things?
I don’t know if I can ever stop, no matter what I’m doing. Even if I’m not popular like that anymore, I’ll still be shooting specials and doing a bunch of albums for whoever’s still alive. Stand-up is so therapeutic to us, man. Some people don’t look at it like that. A lot of us are already kind of crazy. Some of us are just absolutely insane. I will always do stand-up, man.  I love going onstage. I love making people laugh. I love changing people’s days. That’s what makes it a blessing. Comedy is our ministry, man. I can’t stop that.