Why Lil Rel Turned Down A Bigger Bag From Netflix To Work With HBO

“I wanted Black people to watch this special and feel like it’s theirs.”

To say that Lil Rel Howery’s career has taken off is an understatement. It seems like he’s been everywhere giving memorable, scene-stealing performances.

Returning back to his stand-up roots, he recently released first special for HBO entitled "Live in Crenshaw." Draped in a purple Champion sweatsuit, Howery gives his hilarious insight on dealing with his newfound success, being the new go-to money person for his family struggles, raising his kids in the suburbs, white people touring the hood, and being an unapologetic Black man who just wants to make his people proud.

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What makes Lil Rel such a great comic is how he uses his brand of observational humor, especially when referencing his family, to make his life relatable to his audience. As he’s done in his previous stand-up specials Lil Rel: RELevent, Rel can find the funny in the everyday, ordinary things of life. 

Since he first began as a comedian on Chicago's East Side, Lil Rel is now one of the most popular comics on the scene today. He made his national television debut in January 2007 appearing on the television competition Last Comic Standing. Along with an ensemble of comedians, he starred in a reboot of the legendary comedy sketch show In Living Color on FOX in 2012. 


Howery went on to work as a writer, producer and one of the regular cast members of the truTV sketch comedy series Friends of the People. In 2015, he co-starred in the role of Bobby Carmichael on the NBC sitcom The Carmichael Show with the show creator and his creative partner, Jerrod Carmichael. In 2018 on Fox, he starred in his own sitcom, Rel, which was loosely based on his life as a divorced, single father.

On the big screen, Howery landed starring roles in Get Out, Tag, Uncle Drew, Bird Box, Good Boys and The Angry Birds Movie 2, voicing Alex. caught up with Lil Rel to talk about him being a self-professed nerd of comedy, his very busy 2020 and his first, hilarious HBO stand-up special Lil Rel Howery: Live in Crenshaw.


Lil Rel Howery and family speak onstage during HBO's Lil Rel Comedy Special Screening, Panel and Reception at NeueHouse Hollywood on November 21, 2019 in Los Angeles, California
Lil Rel Howery and family speak onstage during HBO's Lil Rel Comedy Special Screening, Panel and Reception at NeueHouse Hollywood on November 21, 2019 in Los Angeles, California

BET: Being a comedian of your status, you could have chosen to have your stand-up special at a large venue. Tell me what was the idea behind taping your stand-up special at the Susan Miller Dorsey High School in Crenshaw. I don’t think that has ever been done before.

Howrey: Yeah man. I must give credit to Jerrod who directed the special. He called and said he had this crazy idea that we should shoot the special in a gymnasium. I was like, “What?” He told me to go check it out. I went to see it and the inside had a big window with light coming through and it was just beautiful man. The gymnasium represents a lot of the old spots I did early in my career. Like those gymnasiums, Masonic Halls, random places I did comedy on the chitterling circuit. That’s what that felt like and made me so excited.  When you hear the word Crenshaw you automatically think Black and real. The energy in there was crazy. Also, giving back to the community was important to me. 

What’s crazy is I was getting into it with some people on Twitter who were saying  “that’s a BS destination for the special” but I'm like, I never saw people talk crazy to me for putting money back into the community and they don't do anything. I didn’t have to do that there. I didn’t get paid to do it there. I gave them my budget. We could have gone to a bigger venue with the fireworks in all that but that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted Black people to watch this special and feel like it’s theirs.

Again, Jerrod, who has directed a couple of stand-up specials, knows what environments best fit each comedian. I just asked him to make sure the energy was right. He had a DJ from Chicago who he just met two days before and he flew him out there. We sang the Black National Anthem and that set an ambiance of its own. I wanted it to feel like a rally. I was inspired by so much like watching Whoopi Goldberg’s special and Beyonce’s Lemonade. I wanted Black people to understand that I did this for us.

DJ Sean Mac spins HBO's Lil Rel Comedy Special Screening, Panel and Reception at NeueHouse Hollywood on November 21, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.
DJ Sean Mac spins HBO's Lil Rel Comedy Special Screening, Panel and Reception at NeueHouse Hollywood on November 21, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.

BET: Speaking of Jerrod Carmichael, how did you two begin to start working together?

Howery: Well, Jerrod walked up to me in some comedy club. He was a skinny kid with a nappy Afro with no line, and he had a hoodie on -- HAHA! He was too excited, and I probably was mean to him at first. But as he kept talking, I found out that he was a real comedy guy. You know, some people do this but they’re not nerds of it. After talking to him, we had some of the same friends. 

The moment we got close is when I was in New York and he was in New York. We just walked around talking and laughing. I don’t even know why we were hanging out that day. From there, we decided we had to work together. That’s when he got his deal with NBC and all of the executives knew who he was. We started having these long conversations about life and became brothers. He’s hard working and brilliant. I think for our generation, he doesn’t don't get enough credit for what he does. He needs to be on all the "Most Influential" lists that I see going around.

BET: A number of legendary comedians made their name and fame because of their HBO stand-up special. How did it feel for you, being a self-proclaimed comedy nerd, to add your name to all of the legends of stand-up?

I knew I wanted my next stand-up special to be with HBO. I talked to Jerrod about it first because he did two specials. Plus, I already had a relationship with HBO because of Insecure and a couple of the things I've done. Netflix made me an offer and it was for more money. But one of the biggest determining factors was that I wanted to give my kids a producer credit. Netflix said no. I'm just being straight up. HBO was willing to give them a production consultant credit, and I was like, “Aight.” 

Outside of me wanting to go to HBO anyway, it was tough because Netflix got the bag. I was like, “You wanna give me what?” But the look, the feel, only HBO would have been the right home for what we created.


Lil Rel with his kids.
Lil Rel with his kids.

BET: Chicago, and to a larger extent, the state of Illinois, has a long history of producing notable Black comics, including Richard Pryor, Bernie Mac, Deon Cole, De’Ray Davis and yourself. What makes the greater Chicago area a major spot for Black comedy?

Howery: Because it’s so segregated and racist. You gotta make everybody laugh. You can’t just tell bodega jokes. Nah, you gotta make everybody laugh. And you have to come from a real place. That’s why Deon Cole’s "Cole Hearted" special is so hysterical. I was just telling him that it’s time for Chicago to take these gloves off. We always been bringing it. I think we had to get in the right position. Now I think people just want funny. Gut-wrenching, funny. No gimmicks, just funny. That’s what Chicago comedy is about. 

BET: Since you first began doing stand-up you have done so much work with so many accomplished comedians and actors. What would you say is the inspiration of your comedy now?

Howery: I just think now that I’m coming into my own as a comedian, and I’m starting to let everyone know what kind of Black man that I am.


BET: What kind of Black man is that?

Howery: I was talking about it last night. I’m a strong father who would do anything for my babies. I like being smart. I’m articulate without having to code-switch. I love wearing a suit and a chain. I love that! I think Black women are amazing. I believe in protecting them. Even with that, I got to an age that I apologized for the times I didn’t. I didn't even know how to protect them. I didn’t know they needed it. So I'm just saying that's the type of man I've grown to become. I ain't perfect.

You know, because young people need to know it's OK to make mistakes. You're young. It's tough, because we don't get a chance to make mistakes because it’s life or death for Black people. White people can get a slap on the wrist, but Black people can’t even have a mental health problem without getting shot. I know who I’m representing, and I just want my people to be proud of me.

BET: "Live in Crenshaw" is out now, but what other projects do you have in the works? 

Howery: I got these films, man. I shot eight this year, which is insane. 

BET: Eight films?

Howery: I did eight damn movies. I was only gonna do four, but the scripts keep being so good. I got a really good team that does a good job with the scheduling, but it is crazy. I had to sit down and say, “Did you really just do eight movies?” I got The Photograph coming out on Valentine’s Day with Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield, A Bad Trip with Tiffany Haddish and Eric Andre coming out in April, Fatherhood with Kevin Hart also comes out in April, and then my big movie is Free Guy coming out on July 4 weekend with Ryan Reynolds. It’s gonna be crazy! I feel like this is my Independence Day. When Will Smith did Independence Day, it was a game-changer. I believe Free Guy will be my Independence Day.


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