Jermaine Fowler invests in himself

Chad White

Jermaine Fowler has been around the block a few times. From standup to TV, the Friends of the People star is making waves in the comedy community with his no bullshit attitude and fun demeanor. Recently, Fowler has been lucky enough to land a pilot, lose the pilot but land another. He’s also promoting his first special, Give ‘Em Hell Kid, a self-funded project that will air on Showtime on December 11. The guy has diligence, letting nothing get in his way as he tackles the world whether it’s ready for him or not.

Fowler wants to connect with the audience through his life experiences. I got the chance to talk to Fowler about his life in comedy, his experience in show business, and love of sitcoms. 

You’re doing a special. That’s great!

I am doing one man. Thank you.

How long did it take you to get Jermaine Fowler: Give ‘Em Hell, Kid ready?

I would say it’s been in the making for about five years. I’ve always wanted to make a special but, the only problem is I didn’t want a network to water down the vision of it. I knew I wanted to shoot it independently and I knew that it would take a little longer so I just waited until I had some money in my pocket.

[Both laugh].

So I took the money from Friends of the People to make a special as an investment. I wanted to shoot it by myself; I knew who I wanted to be a part of it. You know, family, friends and fans and to do interviews. I knew where I wanted to shoot it – UCB Improv – I just needed the right weekend for it. Then I got the right weekend. It all came together, man!

That’s probably the smartest thing I’ve ever heard a comedian do. Just save and scrimp in order to shoot their own special. Not many people do that.

I guess not. I don’t know why not. I’ve always been into rap and, you know, Logic has always been one rapper I love because he’s a millionaire but he’s a self-made one. He’s using his money to finance his tours. And not just tours but, most labels do normal tours at normal venues but what he does is he puts his own money together and his own personal tour bus and he rides around meeting great fans and doing listenings of his albums to make it more personal. He uses his money for his own personal gain. He’s smart with it. If you have the resources, then utilize them. I definitely had the money to shoot something. I didn’t want to use Comedy Central, HBO, Showtime or Netflix money to shoot something that I already kind of knew what I already wanted to do with. That’s what you use those people for. You use them like “Hey, do you have money to make my thing look good?”

I was like I already knew what I wanted to do. I don’t want anybody to dilute it It can be lost in translation. Not like those networks are bad but it’s just I’d rather be in the edits; I’d rather have less middle men. I’d rather have micromanagements. When I’m in those edits I’m – I’ve been a big fan of cinema and film for years. I knew what I wanted forever. I just knew if I got in that edit and I got the right people to help me make this thing come together it’s going to be great and that’s exactly what happened.

You want to control the vision of the project. You don’t want anyone else with their grubby little hands touching all over it so that’s why you’re just like Logic. You’re going out there and kind of self-promoting it. You’re out there talking to the people. You’re being a friend of the people.

[Laugh] I guess I am, man. I’ve always been inspired by so many people with the DIY approach to careers. Tyler the Creator, Kevin Smith, Kanye. People don’t realize Kanye still funds his projects. He has to; he’s a lunatic. People don’t understand what the fuck he’s talking about in the room, I’m sure. He has to put his own money together. That’s what he does and it all works out. It never stops, you know? It just never stops. You’re your best investor. You know more of what you want than anybody else in the room with suits. I’ve been in so many pitches…I’ve pitched so many shows. I’ve pitched so many ideas to people and I have experience of people not understanding what the hell I’m talking about. I get it. Doing a comedy special it was like one of those things here I pitched the idea to my management, to my agents, to companies and they just weren’t on board with it. They just weren’t. And I was like “Eh. You ain’t gonna stop me.” So I did it myself and not just to prove them wrong it was just to…I just knew it was the right time to do something.

I don’t want to be doing these jokes next year; that shit is dumb. I want to show people my progression. I know at the age of 28 or 29 when I shoot my next special that I want to be doing it in a theater or an arena or something. I had to have people see me at my current stage in my career right now and that was imperative. I had to shoot something at a club; that’s what I was performing at the age of 26. It just made sense to me to have that documented.

Much like Jerrod Carmichael, his special was also at a club. Very intimate, very small. Which made it feel very, very special – excuse the term – with his audience because he was so close to them. He was able to get his life experiences and connect with the audience and have fun with it.

Yeah. Listen, me and Jerrod and people of my generation, we’re 26, 27, 28 years old. Me, Kevin, Jerrod and people in that age range still pour into clubs. Why would you do your first special in a big theater if that’s not what you’re used to performing at? You’re going to be more nervous. That’s not what you’re comfortable with. You have to shoot for places you’d be comfortable with. Kevin Hart. His first special was in a theater. I think it was in the Gramercy – I forgot where it was but it was like a decently sized theater for Grown Little Man and he murdered it. Because he’s used to that shit. And the next special he blew up and did Seriously Funny in a big ass theater somewhere in Ohio. Then the next special he did it in fucking – didn’t he do it at the Staples Center or some shit?

Yeah, he sold out Staples Center.

I think that’s what it was. In that fucking ugly ass grey suit he wore? Then the next special he did at fucking Madison Square Gardens. Fucking fire! That was the natural progression; that’s why you do it. You can’t have your special be somewhere you’re not used to. Unless you’re ready. I’m not trying to stop anybody. I just know that fans appreciate the progression. I love Kevin Hart. I appreciate his progression. His lineage. All that. You appreciate it more as a fan. That’s why people follow him. For him it’s like “where do you go from here? Where do you go from there?” When you put all your eggs in one basket or one venue for your first project and that special doesn’t work out, you’re kind of back to doing small things. Alright, I’m going to use Dane Cook as a reference. Remember when he did Madison Square Gardens and then the next special was a a fucking club? It’s like “Oh yikes!” [Laughs] I’m not knocking him or anything like that. Dane Cook’s, when he first started, [first two albums] were fucking awesome as shit. Fucking funny as hell. But he did Vicious Circle and it kind of put him back because it wasn’t that good. And then he was back doing smaller shit.

You just have to be smarter about your booking and what venues you want to play next and when you want to document them or whatever. I just appreciate Kevin Hart and Louis C.K. and Bill Burr and that progression. As a fan you want to see the person you followed for years – I’ve been following Bill Burr since 2005 and I appreciate where he’s been going man. You just want to see that. I just know I appreciate Jerrod doing his at a club. That was the first club he performed at. Was that his first club ever? I think that might have been either his first club in LA or his first club ever. And he shot it there. That’s the sentiment. And that’s why I did it at the  UCB Improv. That was the first comedy club I performed at. So I had to do it there.

What’s special about Kevin Hart, Louis C.K., Bill Burr and to some extent Dane Cook is that they’re all able to grow and then cash in on their newfound fame with Louis having a huge show on FX and able to take off as many years as he wants. And then Kevin starring in movies that sometimes aren’t good like [The Wedding Ringer] and then others that are great like Get Hard and the next thing that he’s doing with The Rock called Central Intelligence. If comedians are able to do this and move on to the next big thing, what’s stopping you from having the best first special of all time?

Exactly. When you’re a visionary, you get to see things from a different perspective than other people can see them. That’s why Louis is so great. He sees shit that other people don’t see. Beyond filling out shows and doing dope ass venues and shooting specials. The guy has innovated the way you sell tickets and how you package the special.

You’ve pitched two shows. One didn’t get picked up which was Delores and Jermaine and then the other was just recently picked up by CBS. They both take huge aspects of your life. Are you willing to go out there and out yourself out there kind of like how The Carmichael Show did and have these real stories about what it’s like to grow up with [young] parents or growing up with an aunt who’s a hard core cop.

Yeah, I mean, that’s all I know. All that real shit that I go through has changed me as a person to be the comedian I am today. I have to talk about it. If I didn’t talk about it, I’d be a hack. If there’s a comedian who’s been involved in so much life in such a short period of time, or even a long period of time, and all he’d do is jokes about camping and going to Ikea it’s like “Nigga, who are you? What are you hiding?” I’d be a lunatic if I couldn’t talk about his shit. This is my therapy. I have to talk about it; it’s all I fucking know. It’s funny to me. That’s why I am a comedian. I find the funny in my parents’ divorce and [all that shit]. I just find you’re supposed to. It doesn’t hurt me anymore because it’s so funny to me.

The thing is, that shit is so normal to me that when I pitch it in rooms people are like “You got to do a show about it” and I’m like “Oh, really? That was just some shit that happened on Thursday.” The [ABC] show came about because we were in a room and I was just talking to an exec. I was talking about my grandma or whatever. The CBS one came about when I was talking about my parents being very young when they had me. I told them stories about how it was growing up with us and they loved it. They were like “We want it” and I was like “Wait, that wasn’t a pitch.” So we just pretty much got that idea to be developed by CBS and we’re writing the script right now. It’s in the development phase. I’ve pitched so much shit that I just want the scripts to be funny at this point. Even if it doesn’t get picked up, I just want people to read the scripts and be like “Oh man. How come [they didn’t] pick that up? What are they crazy?” Pitching ideas to networks takes years of perfecting and getting it right. It took Jerrod about three years to develop his show on NBC. His patience and persistence – it worked out. This is my second network try and, who knows, I might fail at this one or I might not. I just know I want to make the shit funny.

CBS could use a leading black show at some pint. They’ve got a ton of shows with leading white actors.

I fucking know. AS a child, I would watch CBS and wouldn’t see no niggas on CBS. I just wouldn’t. And I brought that up to CBS before I even signed the deal. I didn’t say “Hey, y’all ain’t got no niggas on TV;” I said I was concerned with the lack of diversity on the network. I did say niggas on there. They probably appreciated it. I genuinely was concerned about that. Not that that steers me away from anything. I like being the different look in a place that has the same look. You stand out when you’re the only black show on a network. Or you might not. Who knows? I know that intrigues me the most. I could possibly be the different show on the network. They want a black show -- hopefully they want a black show. I just know that was a concern. That might steer people away but that doesn’t steer me away. I genuinely saw that as a challenge and I like challenges. And so I signed with CBS. I’ve always wanted a network show on TV. I’ve always wanted that.

After the ABC project didn’t go, that didn’t stop me at all; Nothing really stops me. I just fucking kept going. I’ve always been in the market of like The Fresh Prince and even the shitty shows like Homeboys in Outer Space – I love that shit! I’ve always wanted a show on TV and I bit my pride and said “Let’s do it again. Let’s fucking try it again.” We’re working with [CBS] right now and it’s been such a smooth process right now and hopefully it stays that way. I hope the show gets on TV. It think [the script] is fucking hilarious right now. We’ll see what happens when it gets translated correctly.

With the new show and your special and with them talking about huge parts of your life, are there any kind of chords that you’re trying to strike? We just talked about there not being any black shows at all [on CBS] and us being two black comedians and creators, that’s kind of disheartening but you love the challenge. Are you trying to pick up any types of themes with this show? Kind of like any other [black] show out there? Like The Fresh Prince for instance.

The show was inspired by me growing up with very young parents. In spite of my dad and my mom, I wanted to do a show where I got to play a 27-year-old dude trying to raise these 10 year olds where all these responsibilities have been put on his lap at such an early time in his age and how unique young parents are these days. I didn’t want to do that in a hacky way. There’s a lot of young dad shows or hip parent shows out there but they aren’t really honest. They don’t touch on any true situations young parents go through. I wanted to do an honest show where I took the experience of me and my parents, growing up with them and translate that into an actual show with some depth and heart to it.

And that’s honestly what I wanted to make; I wanted to make a sitcom with some real stakes. And that’s what I think was missing these days with some sitcoms --- a real honest show. I just think people don’t really get the feel out of family sitcoms with a real family dynamic in it with the exception of a few shows on TV. Me and Jerrod, we talk about that all the time. We were like “Yo, we’re sick of these family sitcoms and how they are. My family don’t act like that.” I just wanted to do a show where I really just got to tell my story and some of my experiences growing up with my parents. I just wanted to make it real, just true to my comedy. That’s all. Yeah there are going to be goofy moments in it because I’m a goofy ass motherfucker – I love Martin. But there’s also going to be those heartfelt moments you get in Fresh Prince. There’s also going to be those dark moments you got on Good Times. I’ve always been inspired by those moments on TV. They really happened to me in my life and that’s what they’re gonna get on my show.

It sounds like the writing process should be very easy for you. Not a linear road but you’re going to have so much to say. How are you going to narrow it all down?

Yeah, that’s the thing. When you do a pilot, you gotta squeeze so much exposition into one episode. That’s the downfall of most pilots. People talk too much about exposition. It’s like yo, just do the shit. It’s all about finding the happy balance. I have a lot to say, I truly do, and the trick is just finding the right time to do it. Maybe save that for later episodes. Maybe trust that won’t go there right now. Maybe that’s a full episode, that joke. It’s really not putting all your eggs in one basket and just telling one simple ass story while at the same time saying some shit.

The first episode of Titus, I don’t know if you’ve watched Titus but it’s one of my favorite sitcoms. The format is just brilliant first of all, I fucking loved his format for a multicam. He did so much in each episode for a multicam. I thoroughly enjoyed that shit. He gave the audience other character details about other people. I just thoroughly appreciated that and how smooth he made that. Or you can do a pilot like Martin which was very straightforward but at the same time the dynamic when he plays these other characters. Or you can do…The Fresh Prince has so much heart to it, you could do something like that where you do tell one story. Very straightforward story. Kid has to go live with his richer relatives on the other side of the country. And they don’t real understand who he is but, at the end of the episode, Uncle Phil sees Will playing this song on the piano and he’s like “It’s something about this kid. There’s more to this kid than I thought there was. And that’s what the show was. Phil had so many layers to his character and that pilot showed. And that’s why you want to watch the next episode. “What is he going to do next?” There’s so many ways you can do a pilot. There’s a happy medium you have to meet. Hopefully this one does that and has that criteria for it.

I have one final question. This is the one question I’ve been waiting for a great answer for. Are you able to still tell the difference between the Lucas Bros?

I fucking am! I still am! And I’m not going to tell people right now. I’m not going to say the name, I’m just going to say the difference. One has a tiny chipped tooth and the other does not. Boom!

Now I have to figure out which one’s which!

Exactly dawg. Before they used to wear different types of glasses and now they have the same glasses. One’s glasses was broke and the other one’s wasn’t. And now they fixed them. It took me a while to figure out which one’s which. So now the other one I talk to more via text message, that’s Keith. And Kenny is the one who is married. I think that is the fucking difference. Yeah…yes that is the fucking difference! Boom, bam, bang bang! One of them has a wedding ring and one doesn’t. How about that shit?

Ever since you guys got that truTV money, they can afford to fix all the glasses they want.

Yeah man, truTV pays out the ass! They’re my brothers, man, I love those dudes. 


Give 'Em Hell Kid airs on Showtime on December 11. Follow Jermaine on Twitter.