The subject is almost sheepish about his own accomplishments, preferring to chalk his success up to his honest nature and the kind words of a stranger after his first open mic. His truth-telling has made him a hit on shows like Guy Code. However, his tenacity shines through in his refusal to be ignored—he recognizes his unique talents, and he refuses to settle for “class clown.” When pressed about his motivations for revealing personal details for comedic effect, he likens the act to therapy; censorship is the enemy for today’s guest, and his veracity has paid off in the form of a development deal with CBS and a new standup special on Showtime, Give ‘Em Hell, Kid. Jermaine Fowler‘s affability is undeniable, but his standup sticks with you because of the singularity in his comedic voice.
Tell me about your first time doing standup.
I think I did my first open mic at a coffee shop in Silver Springs, Maryland, and I bombed really bad. I was doing a bunch of jokes about George Bush bringing slavery back, and nobody liked it. It was a poetry open mic, so nobody was expecting me to talk about this stuff. But I remember one guy was like, “That was pretty funny man, you should keep doing this,” which was probably why I didn’t give up.
Did you always want to be a comedian?
No, I knew I was funny, but I didn’t think that I would do standup until 12th grade. I would terrorize substitute teachers, play pranks with my friends and stuff, but I didn’t think I could do that as a job. And then I realized that I didn’t want to go to college, so I decided to start doing standup full time after watching Eddie Murphy Raw.
Looking back at your childhood, were there any hints that you’d have a career in the entertainment business?
Nope, with reference to the school play thing, I was in drama class and I was too shy to act on stage, so I did the spotlights for all of the shows. I wasn’t in front of the camera or anything like that, but my grandma bought me a video camera when I was a little kid, and as a kid I made sketches and short films with it, and so I thought I’d be an actor or director. I didn’t think I’d be a comedian though. I guess I was sort of a class clown, but even then I hated that term, because I remember my mom told me, “You don’t want to be a clown, you want to just be funny.” After they voted me class clown for our school superlative, I got defensive and told the principal “I am not a clown, I am not a clown, I want to be class funniest.” So they named me class funniest. I was a very ambitious person.
In your special, you talk about your parents raising you when they were teenagers. Do you think teen parents have a better sense of humor?
They do. My parents had a very good sense of humor. They were so young, and they wanted me to be educated by life. They weren’t strict at all, really. They let me figure life out. They were hilarious, looking back on it.
In general, your childhood is a huge part of your standup special. Does your family know they are source material? How do they feel about it?
They didn’t know they were going to be a part of the special. I think I let them know that probably a few days before we shot it, maybe less than that. They knew that I talked about them on stage, and they didn’t like it at all, actually. But then I guess they finally just got over it; they finally came to see me live and they said they liked it. I think they just realized, “Yeah, we are kind of crazy.” So they just kind of gave up on trying to censor my act.
You’re working on a pilot for CBS about being a teen parent, do you ask them for advice?
The show is inspired by my parents being young parents when I was a kid, but I won’t be playing my dad or anything. No one’s playing my mother. I’m playing a version of my mom, in a way, but it’s all inspired by my childhood. They trust me, they’ve seen my act. My parents are the reason I am the way I am, so they can’t say anything about it.
Do you have any comedic influences?
Well in my standup, you can see that I love Eddie Murphy. You can see that I love Richard Pryor. But at the end of the day, my standup has always been pretty autobiographical—no one can really tell my jokes. But of course I went through that growing stage, where I tried on different personas of my comedy heroes until I found my comedic voice.
When you’re on stage, do you feel like you’re playing a character, or does your standup resemble the real you?
I think it’s pretty similar to who I really am. I try to be as open as possible. I feel like my favorite stand-ups are the ones who are open. I don’t really lie on stage, I am who I am. Usually the fucked-up shit I say on stage is warranted because it’s so honest. I just like to open up to people and bring them into my world.
After they voted me class clown for our school superlative, I got defensive and told the principal “I am not a clown, I am not a clown, I want to be class funniest.” So they named me class funniest. I was a very ambitious person.
Of all the comedic mediums—improv, sketch, writing—why standup?
With standup it’s unfiltered, it’s just you and the audience. That’s your therapy; you, a microphone, and an audience. There’s nobody to tell you what you can and can’t say, there’s no network in your way, there’s no YouTube comments to make you feel self-conscious the next day. It’s just you and the audience. I got into standup so I could act more, and they both feed off each other. Because I like acting so much, I add more acting to my standup routine, and because I like doing standup so much, I like writing my own material when I act. So they marry each other very well. I don’t feel like I chose one of the other, I do it all. I love doing sketch, I love doing short films, I love doing standup. They all help me improve.
When I first did standup in D.C., Bill Burr came to town and told everybody that if you want to get good at this, nowadays, you have to get involved in everything—standup, film. And look at him, he’s gigantic now, he’s doing everything. So I took that advice and I ran with it. I’ve always been able to multitask well. Even Richard Pryor and the legends, they didn’t just do standup, they had to learn how to sing, play piano… because back then, that’s how you entertained the audience and keep them warmed up for headliners. I have so many other talents that I feel like I’d be cutting myself short if I didn’t explore them. I do everything.
You’ve written for Friends of the People, as well as your own sitcom, do you approach writing for television differently than you approach standup?
I first started writing sketches. Then I started writing really crazy, nonsensical concept sketches; those were my favorite kind of sketches. And then with sitcoms, I pretty much learned that you have to really add layers of heart to the characters in it. That’s what I learned writing for ABC and CBS. And then I would add my own twist to the show—this is where you can add your sense of humor, your unique point of view. I would kind of treat my sitcom writing kind of like sketch, but with added layers. I love when sketches build comedic tension, and I wanted to add that to the sitcom world. I get bored easily, so I don’t want to have the same boring sitcom. I feel really comfortable in the sketch world, where you can push things a little outside the realm of believability. I’m trying to bring that no-holds-barred, say- or do-anything mentality to the sitcom world.
How has comedy affected your mental health?
I don’t particularly do comedy to make myself feel happy about my life. I’m a happy dude. Most people need comedy to feel happy but I’m happy either way, with or without it. I just love doing it. I feel like when I’m on stage, I can say and do anything. I feel like it’s an extension of myself. I feel like when I’m on stage, I just want to talk about what happened the night before. I just like talking to people. I love expressing myself, and why not do it for money.