Get thirty seconds into a conversation with Jermaine Fowler and it’s easy to see why he’s on the verge of becoming a breakout star. Fowler has an affable yet frenetic energy that he channels into a career-driven focus, the result of which has yielded him roles on Friends of the People (which he also co-created and writes for), The Eric Andre Show, Guy Code, and a currently untitled CBS comedy based on his life. Tonight Fowler’s one hour standup special, Give ‘Em Hell, Kid, premieres on Showtime, a network that holds some symbolism for the 27-year-old comedian. “I love Showtime. I appreciate that they bought my special. Dave Chapelle’s Killin’ Them Softly premiered on Showtime. I watched that special when I was in 5th grade and loved it. I was flattered that they wanted it.” The special, shot at Fowler’s hometown club, the DC Improv, peppers in documentary footage of his neighborhood, family and friends throughout the bits, bringing a unique sense of realism to the traditional hour-long standup format. I talked to Fowler about the creation of the special, his eclectic influences, and his three tips for young comics.
I was looking through some old interviews you had done and found one from four years ago where you said that by the time you’re 28 one of your goals was to have an hour taped for Comedy Central or HBO. You’re 27 now and you’ve got one on Showtime. Are you good with that?
Isaac, that’s awesome man. I feel great. I forgot I said that. Wow, damn. I’m a really goal-oriented person, but I realize that when I accomplish my goals I forget what I said previously.
It was cool to find that. The internet can work both ways. Sometimes you say things and then look back later and are like, “That was the old me.” But with this, you had been in New York for a couple of years, kind of coming up and were just genuinely excited about the stuff that was going on. It’s cool to see a younger version of yourself forecasting and then right on the eve of your deadline you have a special dropping on Showtime. You came in just ahead of schedule.
I’m so happy right now. I wanted to shoot this before I was 30. The material I have now… I’ve learned so much and I wanted people to catch me at a certain time, who I was at the moment. I didn’t want to shoot the special at a big theater or an arena at first. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to appreciate where I am and these moments. That’s how you build a fan base. I don’t want people to see me big at first because they can’t appreciate it. They can’t appreciate the goals and the actual come-up. That’s why I love Kanye West and Biggie, because you know those guys have struggled. They came from so much. Man, I forgot I said that when I was 28 I was going to do a comedy special. This is like a Nardwuar interview. This is awesome.
There was a lot of creativity in this special that I really liked: what you did with the camera angles, the intro, the animation, the cuts to your friends and family. How did the concept of this whole thing come together?
I’m a movie fanatic. I watch probably four movies a day, not because I’m a lunatic, but because I just love movies. I watch to learn. My favorite movie is Sleepy Hollow and that takes people off guard. But I love color, contrast, saturation, all of that stuff. When I was 17 or 18 I knew where I wanted to shoot my comedy special and how I wanted to do it. I just didn’t know how. I always had it in my head. I wanted to open up with a dope hip-hop beat that was universal. I wanted people to see my neighborhood. I love my neighborhood. I love where I come from. I wanted people to know that my grandmother was the reason why I did comedy in the first place. She pushed me to really get out there and pursue my dreams. I only had a limited amount of money to shoot it and a lot of people didn’t want me to shoot it. But I was so confident in how it would turn out. I already knew the jokes were funny. All I had to do was execute the look. I watched Richard Pryor: Live in Concert probably three times a month. He only had a few cameras. He walked onstage while all the people were sitting down. The lighting of the show was horrendous. It was so gritty and so beautiful at the same time. It was one of the most imperfect specials, yet the best special of all time because it didn’t have to be perfect.
A lot of people shoot their specials and it’s so cookie cutter and bubbly and poppy. They forget the grittiness of comedy. It’s lost in these new specials. I just wanted to make specials special again. We shot it with about four cameras for one show, then for the second show we shifted the cameras to a different angle to make it look like we had more cameras. We were doing movie magic. Even though it’s a special I like calling it a film because of the documentary segments in it. I love animation. I wanted my favorite animator – his name’s Sean Solomon, he illustrates the Lucas Bros. [Moving Co.] – to be a part of it because I love his work. One of my favorite hip-hop mixtapes was this guy Alex Wiley’s “Village Party.” I wanted his music to be a part of the special because I love his beats. I didn’t want a network or studio to buy my idea and then dilute it with their branding. Not to say that those networks are bad at it. I’m just saying that when you have them do stuff things get lost in translation and your vision gets blurred. I wanted to make sure that everybody got everything from my brain on screen. Sorry, I went off on a tangent.
You still have that same passion you had in that interview from four years ago. You’re still excited about your shit and you should be. The special looks good. The intro had the feel of the coolest 90’s hip-hop video.
Exactly. That’s why I grew my hair out like this. I’m a 90’s kid. I can’t wait until the day when more people start appreciating the 90’s. There’s an audience for this type of stuff. People miss this type of stuff. I want people to appreciate the things that I had come up with and enjoyed.
Watching the documentary parts it’s apparent that your support system of friends and family is incredible. But were any of them hesitant to be in the special? You tell these stories and do bits about them and then it cuts to them talking about it. Did anyone say, “You can tell the story, but I don’t want my face attached to it.”
There was some hesitation, but they trusted me with the material and everything they were going to do. The director did a great job of asking questions and getting people comfortable to answer them. There are people who don’t want their faces on camera because they’re nervous, but you’ve got to assure them, “You’re special to me. You’re special. I need you to tell these things so that people know where I come from. It’s imperative.” It’s all trust. It’s probably why The Jinx guy got caught. He trusted the interviewer. [Laughs] I do a lot of jokes about my family. They’re very personal. When I first started comedy my dad hit me up on Facebook and was like, “Hey, man. You can’t do these jokes about me, man. I just got a new job.” They’re very protective of their images. But they’ve got to realize that the best comics to ever exist question all those things. I have to say these things because you made me who I am. It should be flattering that I wrote a joke about you. If I don’t joke about you, you’re not interesting.
I want to go back to that interview again. You were reflecting on your initial couple of years in New York and you gave some advice to comics who were just moving to a big city. You said not to think that you’re better than open mics, not to cater to comedians even if they’re the only people in the room, and always poop before you go perform. Does all that still hold true? Would you revise any of those tips?
I still do those things. I still do open mics. John Mulaney told me when I first started, “If you have three new minutes, go to a mic no matter what.” I listened to him. Wherever a microphone is you’ve got to go to it. What was the second one?
Don’t cater to comics even if they’re the only ones in the room.
When comics are in the room, people have tendency to try to make them laugh. That doesn’t really make you funnier. It makes you a comic’s comic, but you aren’t going to get a fan base doing that. You have to perform like you’re in a bigger room. Dane Cook got a lot of flack when he got famous, but he got famous because he worked hard. Apparently he went to open mics and stretched and performed as if he was in an arena. That’s what he would do and look how big he was at one point. You have to perform. How can you get better if you’re only doing jokes for comedians? How can you go home happy saying, “I made so-and-so laugh today?” He’s not going to pay your bills. He doesn’t even care about you.
And I still poop before every show. It loosens you up. Pooping before a show is like the equivalent of drinking whiskey or wine before a show. I try to make it a point to not get drunk before shows. I make sure before every show that I’m empty, loose and relaxed. I’m funnier that way. You can’t feel funny when you’ve got to poop.