Talking to Lil Rel Howery About ‘The Half Hour’, Staying in Chicago, and ‘Legions of Goons’

For the past 15 years, Comedy Central’s half hour specials have showcased the future stars of standup. Looking back, the early years of Comedy Central Presents included memorable sets from the likes of Mitch Hedberg, Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Dane Cook and dozens more. Re-branded The Half Hour in 2012, the series continues to feature the best up-and-coming comics in the country.

For many comedians, it’s that history that makes doing a half hour special so significant. While a half hour may once have been a comic’s first major exposure, comedians now have many ways to build an audience. Almost everyone who taped a special this year does non-standup comedy as well, branching out into the worlds of podcasting, sketch and improv, web series, acting, and more. In this new series, I sat down with each of this year’s 16 Half Hour comedians to talk about their specials, their careers, and their generation of comedians. Each interview will also feature an exclusive clip from the special. All the interviews can be found here.

Chicago-based comic Milton “Lil Rel” Howery was named by Variety as one of 2012 Top 10 Comics to Watch; he’s also appeared on Chelsea Lately, and featured in the cast of the rebooted In Living Color. I got the chance to meet up with him in the swanky lounge of the Times Square W Hotel to talk about building buzz in his hometown and why Comedy Central is the best place for comics.

How did your taping go?

It went well, for the most part. I’m kind of a bad judge of saying how good I’ve done, because I get in a weird zone and blank out the audience. It’s my own little thing. But from my manager, my family, and my friends that were there, everybody liked the show. They thought it was great, and Comedy Central seemed extremely excited about it. I went back on set the next day and everybody was quoting my stuff. That’s usually a good sign, I think.

What did doing The Half Hour mean to you?

It meant a lot in personal ways. I grew up watching the Comedy Central Presents. Wanda Sykes. Dane Cook’s was a classic. Patton Oswalt. Mitch Hedberg. Kevin Hart had a really good half hour, people forget that. So I wanted to make a classic, and honestly that was my goal. Because to be honest with you, even the last few years, you kind of see comics kind of just, “Oh ok, it’s a half hour.” Because people get used to it, it’s just a half hour. For those guys, it was a *special* for them, that’s how they looked at it. And I think comics kind of got away from that a little bit, just looked at it as another taping. And I didn’t look at it like that. This is something I really had the goal of getting. I remember telling them that I’m looking to make a classic. I’m not just looking to tape something. I want this to be in the Biography episode. “This is when they kicked it off. That Half Hour started it.” [He laughs.] So for me personally, it was a big accomplishment. And after I taped, it took me a couple of days to take it in and I’m really grateful for doing it. This was a big deal; a kid from the west side of Chicago who had a dream of having a special have one day. It felt great.

What’s your normal gig like these days?

Some of everything. I’m on the road, doing the Improvs and one-nighter stuff. In Chicago, I’ve done a great job at learning how to make money at home. For real, like not just a couple of dollars. I know how to really make money. I don’t even deal with promoters there any more. I do my own everything. Door deals and that’s how I do it. I know my crowd; I know my draw. What’s the point in me having somebody pay me what they want? I can put the same work in and pack it in and get all of the money. So still out of Chicago, hustling.

I did a really good job of creating a good buzz in Chicago, which has actually gotten me all these other things. Making sure that I established myself at home. And that advice actually came from Jamie Foxx’s [former] manager Marcus King at a festival called Laffapalooza that Jamie used to do, and that’s what he said. I remember I used to go to all them little sit-downs and symposiums and stuff and take notes. And he was just like, “Look man, if you able to make your city yours, it’s going to create a buzz for you. That’s how you’re going to learn how to make money for real. It’s gonna give you the confidence you need. Run your city in comedy.” And I took that to heart, and that’s exactly what I did.

So you think you’re gonna stay in Chicago for good?

As far as living, yeah. Because I keep getting stuff, and that’s what I keep telling people. They like, “Yo when you gonna move?” I don’t have to. I’m taping everything y’all taping. You living in LA, I ain’t gonna do that if ain’t got to yet. [He laughs.]

I know you were in the cast of last year’s In Living Color [which wasn’t picked up.] Can I ask what happened?

I think a lot of stuff. Keenen [Ivory Wayans] put out a statement a few months ago saying that he didn’t think it was enough to last for five years. And that’s his goal. He didn’t want to do a show for a season. It had to be five years. If he doesn’t feel like it can be the best of what it can be, then he’s not gonna do it. He said the pilot was great, he said we were great, he sent us an email and let us know that he thought all of us were gonna be stars, and don’t worry about anything. It’s them and the network, it’s no big deal. It’s the game, you know. I think the big deal was because it’s such a big show. It’s not just any pilot. And to be honest with you, I wish they would have still aired the pilot. I think, I know it’s better than anything else on the TV schedule right now. We would have killed everybody. So, I dunno. It is what it is. It was one of the greatest experiences I ever had and me and Jermaine Fowler are real good friends now. And Jennifer Bartels, she did the show. We’re actually working on a sketch show for Comedy Central called Legion of Goons. So that’s the cool thing that came out of this. There was a lot of anger. I was at [the Just for Laughs Festival in] Montreal like, “Man, they don’t want to bring In Living Color back, that’s cool man. We do our own show.” And I didn’t know it could happen like that. They were like, “Okay.” 3 Arts don’t play. They’re like, “That’s what you guys want to do?” Yeah. And now we’re in pre-production for our sketch pilot. [He laughs.]

That’s awesome. Comedy Central is the place to go for sketch these days.

Not just sketch, for comics. I think Comedy Central took it back to the old school. The networks have gone away from doing stuff with comedians. They are finding comedic actors instead of straight comics who have the voice, who have the material. And Comedy Central is smart by taking guys in. And that’s why the shows are killing right now. Like The Ben Show is hysterical. I love Ben Hoffman. I’d never heard of him before. It’s a great show. And Kroll Show is great, Key & Peele is great, Nathan For You is great.

That’s our home court, and I was telling some comics that—it might have even came from your guys’ article last year, right when Comedy Central switched up the head people. The writer was like, “I dunno what they’re doing over there.” I mean, he really went in, and the next thing you know, you see all these amazing shows coming up. And I thought that was ironic, that my man went in on the Splitsider article, and now Comedy Central’s actually doing exactly what he said they wasn’t doing. And yeah, it’s a different time. I love Comedy Central right now. You just want somebody who’s gonna give you a chance to feature your voice, and I think that the Comedy Central network is gonna be my network. I want to do what Chappelle did for it, where you draw in a whole other audience. Which is why I’m excited about The Half Hour. I know they have their audience. That’s what they tell you, our audience is gonna love you. But wait until you see everybody else I’m bringing over here. So I think that was kind of my game plan. I wanted to do a Half Hour to prove that I do have a following out there, even if it’s underground, and bring that urban audience along with the mainstream audience, all in one thing so we can stop segregating everyone. And I think that’s what the game is missing, that one person that brings it all together. And that’s why I’m excited.

Do you have a background in sketch?

I wasn’t trained. I grew up watching Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, In Living Color, the Wayans, Damon, Keenen, and they were doing characters. And that’s what I wanted, that’s the type of comic I wanted to be. Eddie Murphy’s really my huge influence. The format of his jokes is the exact way I do it. You know, you tell a story, and you act out each character in the story. So that’s how I thought you did comedy anyway. And then later on, I got into J.B. Smoove. I learned how to commit to a joke the way he does. J.B., especially early J.B., he would milk it. You would see him do one bit for like 30 minutes. He milked that joke, he just committed to whatever that premise was, and brought out everything it could bring out.

As a kid, I was a big Saturday Night Live fan, especially that 90s cast that was more or less my generation. Chris Farley, David Spade, Phil Hartman, Adam Sandler. They had a good run in the 90s. And I used to watch a show called Kwik Witz. Before Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Wayne Brady was on a show called Kwik Witz. It used to come on right after SNL. So this is what I used to watch on Saturday night—and I used to have to be in bed. We’re a church family so we had to go to Sunday school the next day. I’d be up late, I’d watch SNL, then Kwik Witz would come on, it was a little improv thing, and then after that Louis Anderson had a standup show that came on. So I used to be up as like 10, 11-year-old just watching all this stuff like a crazy person. Then I started buying books, reading Richard Pryor’s biography and all this great stuff. I’m a real student of this. And that’s why I think most people, you feel like they just jump in it just to be jumping in it, because it looks fun or whatever. I think at some point, you’ve got to – not saying take it serious, but just learn more about it.

So what’s next for you?

Besides being excited about The Half Hour, Legions of Goons is next. We’re gonna shoot the pilot, and we’re just praying that it turns out great. It’s gonna be something a little different. It’s not gonna be the ordinary sketch show set-up that you’ve seen from other shows. It’s almost gonna be two shows in one. It’s gonna be interesting. But it’s gonna be hilarious. It’s almost like an all-star team. It’s the Lucas Brothers, Kevin Barnett, Josh Rabinowitz, Jermaine Fowler and Jennifer Bartels. Whatever happens, happens. And that’s the mindset we got. I think Goons is gonna be classic. I keep telling them, I want to win the Image Award. That’s all I care about, I don’t want no other big award, I want to win an NAACP Image Award.

Lil Rel Howery’s Half Hour premieres on Friday, June 7 at midnight. He’s on Twitter at @LilRel4

Elise Czajkowski is a contributing editor at Splitsider and comedy journalist in New York City. She tweets at @EliseCz.

Talking to Lil Rel Howery About ‘The Half Hour’, […]