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Comedian Lil Rel on Impersonating Kevin Hart and His New Special

“Jay Pharoah does one twenty times better than me, but I’m just being silly.”

Comedian Lil Rel
Comedian Lil Rel   Photo: Courtesy of Matthias Clamer/NBC

Stand-up comic and Chicago native Lil Rel Howery has had a busy, fortuitous few weeks. His first Comedy Central special, Kevin Hart Presents: RELevant, premiered two Saturdays ago; he just wrapped up the season finale of NBC’s new, highly rated sitcom The Carmichael Show (Howery plays star Jerrod Carmichael’s older, antic brother); and the sketch comedy series he’s a part of, Friends of the People, is in the tail end of a strong second season. A few weeks before he returns to town for the ChiTown Comedy Takeover on October 9, Chicago chatted with Howery to talk impersonations, how he met Kevin Hart, and his favorite local haunts.

You just wrapped up the season finale of The Carmichael Show. How do you feel?

 I feel great about it. Now we’re just waiting on NBC to give us a season two. It would be so awesome to come back. I think there are so many more things we want to touch on. We just got to wait and see what happens. [Update: After this interview, The Carmichael Show was renewed for a second season.]

The Carmichael Show is one of the few sitcoms that films in front of a live studio audience. What’s that like?

It’s a rush. As a stand-up comic, we perform in front of people all the time, so it’s like a dream come true to get all those laughs right away. The crowd is just so energetic and can’t wait to laugh. I’m surprised more shows don’t [film in front of live audiences] anymore.

What was it like watching your special on TV?

It was dope. I’ve mean I’ve seen the cut a million times going through the editing process, but it was more seeing people react to it that blew me away. I thought it was really good but I thought maybe it was me just thinking about my own stuff. But the reaction from people is what was surreal to me. There was so much love I got from all over the country about how great the special is and I still get it from people right now.

How did you and Kevin Hart meet?

Me and Kev have known each other for a while now. We met for real through my friend Na’im Lynn, he’s part of Plastic Cup Boys comedy and he opens for Kev a lot. He couldn’t do a show in Chicago and he called me and said, Kevin’s a big fan and he needs an opener.

How did you get him to produce the special?

I wanted my hour special to be presented by a big name comic. So I asked Cedric the Entertainer and Russell Peters first if they would do it and they both said yes actually. And then when I came to my agent about it, he said, ‘What do you think about Kev producing it?’ And I said I don’t know, ask him. So he asked Kev and Kev was excited. Collectively we made a decision to go with Kev because he’s on fire right now.

Did you always know you wanted to do the first special in Chicago?

Yeah, I mean I might even do all of them in Chicago (laughs). I don’t understand why people don’t do their specials from where they’re from. Everybody’s different but it doesn’t make any sense to me (laughs). Why wouldn’t you go to a place that liked you first, you know?

How did you get into comedy?

It’s an interesting story because, now I realize this makes me sound like a maniac, but the Sun-Times, every Friday they’d do something called The Weekend Plus, like a separate little newspaper that shows you what’s going on all through Chicago. I used to read that every Friday from the time I was ten until I became old enough to do stuff. I would think, ‘Some day I’m going to perform in one of those comedy clubs.’ What made me decide to start going to them for real was I did a play in high school my senior year and the teacher let us write our own scenes. Now Crane High School was a tough school, they’ll heckle you and stuff. I played the brother of this girl. I don’t remember the line but when I said it everybody died laughing. I was addicted after that. I knew; I want to do this for the rest of my life.

You’re known for your strong character work. Growing up, did you always do voices?

Yep, I was great at it. My friends were the class clowns, but I was the one in class doing Michael Jordan or teachers for no reason. I’ve always been amazing at impersonating real people too, rather than celebrities. I people watch a lot still. I go to places and I make up scenarios about people’s laughs.

What’s the secret behind a good impersonation? Take your Kevin Hart impersonation, for example.

That’s not even probably the best Kevin Hart impersonation; Jay Pharoah does one twenty times better than me, but I’m just being silly. People like Will Ferrell, he doesn’t sound exactly like George Bush but it’s just so silly and it’s funny. That’s what Eddie Murphy would do.

How often do you come to Chicago?

As much as I can. My kids are still here. I sneak in a lot. Because people don’t know I’m here, I’ll be here a few days, most people don’t even know. I’m actually sneaking home next week, nobody knows.

Where do you like to take people in Chicago?

Chicago has so many different places. I like Refuge Lounge. I go there a lot because I like hearing live music and I love seeing a band. I go to the South Side, Frances Cocktail Lounge. I go to a good ghetto lounge in a minute.

You’re performing in Chicago in October. Any plans for some hometown shows before then?

Jokes and Notes is my home court and the owner just asked if I could host something, but I don’t know if I can do that because it’s Emmy week in LA. This is the first I’ve been invited to all of this stuff. But you know, I’ll probably drop in on some places unannounced. But October 9 is the big show. I’m so excited about doing that show. Coming home after all the stuff I’ve been doing; it’ll be great to see the crowd react and to do it with Deon Cole and Deray [Davis]…Those are my big brothers. It’s going to be amazing.

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