Maybe you’ve never been kicked in the face by your cab driver. Or watched a senior citizen get roasted by teenagers on the bus. If not, Lil Rel Howery just might make you feel like you have. He came up in Chicago alongside comics including Hannibal Buress and Kumail Nanjiani, but he evokes the West Side in his act like no other comedian. He eschews jokes in favor of true-to-life stories about his family and the characters he encountered growing up, and he finds universal themes through his specifics. You may not have an uncle who’s a pastor or know what “shibbity dobos” means, but Rel may convince you that you do.
Rel is now known for playing the comic relief in Jordan Peele’s horror-comedy Get Out, Jerrod’s brother Bobby on The Carmichael Show, and a version of himself in his own Fox sitcom Rel. That doesn’t mean he stopped thinking about or performing stand-up. In this episode of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them, Lil Rel talks about his hometown and the development of his comic voice. Rel’s mother, who regularly featured in his act, passed away in 2009, and Rel has struggled bringing her back into his act since. Note that this conversation was recorded live at Vulture Festival L.A. in November, before the unexpected death of Rel’s friend and Rel co-creator Kevin Barnett in January. Listen to the episode and read a short excerpt of the discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
What was the story behind recording this set for Starz’s Martin Lawrence Presents: 1st Amendment Stand Up?
The funny thing is I wasn’t supposed to be on the show. I remember being pissed too, actually. ’Cause they came to Chicago, they picked all these people, and I didn’t get picked. I was like, “What the fuck is that about? Dude, I’m killing out here. Why the fuck I ain’t on this show?” And I saw my man, I forget his name, but he’s the one that developed the show with Martin Lawrence. And he hit me up, I’m like, “Yo, you told me you was gonna put me on the show, if you ever come to Chicago.” He was like, “Man, I’m sorry man. I feel bad. Blah blah blah.” Somebody missed their flight. I was already downtown because Tiffany Haddish was taping and I was just down there to support Tiff. And while I’m down supporting her, they’re like, “Rel, you wanna do the show?” I had to go shopping downtown. That purple shirt was some shit I bought at the last minute. That would have definitely not been my TV outfit. I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I just happened to have this phone conversation with [my brother] Matt about “Can I have, I want.”
When did you realize your parents were funny?
I didn’t realize how funny my mom was ’til I got old and started doing comedy. Before she passed, we became friends. The first time I ever did that bit was in front of her. She passed in ’09; we did that in 2010. My little brother Matt is my muse, and we was on the phone just talking about mom. It was like, “Yo, you remember she was like, ‘Can I have, I want.’” She used to say it all the fucking time. “Can’t have shit to myself.” I could just be having phone conversations with my little brother and I’m like, “Aw, I gotta take that to the stage. I forgot all about that.”
How do you develop the vocal and physical qualities of your characters?
I just do it. It’s like whoever in my life I’ve seen and met, I figure out a way to implement. Any time you see me do a pastor, that’s my uncle. That is exactly him. It’s just a weird, nerdy kid thing. I mean, maybe I’m creepy. I people-watch a lot. I’ll go to club by myself just to watch people talk, watch ’em do shit. And I try to implement that in the character stuff I do.
So, is that what your parents sounded like?
Yeah, my momma’s voice was raspy, man. My dad still sound like that. Now he’s older – like old older. When people get old they just start telling you new stories and shit. Apparently he said he killed somebody. We don’t know if it’s true. He keeps bringing this shit up. He’s like, “Motherfucker, I stabbed the shit out of that motherfucker.” “What the fuck? Stop telling people this story!” It’s like, I hope you ain’t murdered nobody, man. My mom used to complain about certain shit and we didn’t understand. We were like, “Why you picking on dad?” But now, we like, “Aw, yeah, we get it. This motherfucker’s irresponsible.”
For a joke like this, with a lot of act-outs, you’ve said that you can get deeply into character.
I blackout in character. That’s why I can’t do this joke anymore. I remember the last time I did my mom onstage, maybe a couple of years ago. I’m doing it, but then I started missing her at the same time. I was about to cry onstage. And people were just laughing and shit. They didn’t understand. I was like, “Fuck, I can’t do this. I miss this lady.”
You do a little bit of your mom in RELevent.
And it’s just a little bit, ’cause I couldn’t. There’s other stories, but I’m like, Am I ready to? This was when she just passed, so more or less, I was celebrating her. I think it’s therapeutic, to be quite honest with you. But as years have gone, I’ve missed her, like, especially in these moments. You start going to the Emmys and all this other shit and you’re like, “Damn, this is who I would love to take with me.”