For comedian Jermaine Fowler, family, with all its foibles and fuck-ups, is the foundation of hysterical standup. Whether it’s his father’s educational drive through a bad neighborhood in Maryland to observe crackheads or his grammar-challenged aunt’s Facebook rant against “hatters,” Fowler keeps his humor close to home.
A twin born to teen parents, Fowler started doing standup in high school. At age 20, he moved to New York to pursue comedy, and has worked in the industry since. In addition to writing and starring in TruTV series Friends of The People, Fowler was tapped by ABC to create a pilot for Delores & Jermaine, about a young man who shacks up with his grandmother (played by Whoopi Goldberg). ABC ultimately passed, but Fowler is now at work on another sitcom, a family comedy based on his life, for CBS.
We chatted with Fowler in anticipation of his “Give ‘Em Hell, Kid” tour, coming to the Turf Club on Thursday.
City Pages: Your family comes up in your standup act a lot. What was it like growing up with them?
Jermaine Fowler: I grew up with very young parents. It affected my schoolwork, because my dad and mom didn’t know much about my schoolwork. It was a tumultuous household, and eventually it crumbled. My mom left, and my brothers and sister had to pick a house to go live in. Luckily, through comedy, we can all laugh about it now. I found the positive in anything that happened in the house, whether it be my mom and dad arguing about something, not being able to eat, or not being able to afford a certain pair of shoes.
CP: Did that affect your opinion as far as when — or if — you want to have children?
JF: I don’t think I have the right genes to have a good family. I’ll have to adopt a group of kids who are already fucked up. Why would I put my sperm through that? You look at your parents and the mistakes they made, and all you can do is hope for the best and capitalize on whatever lessons they missed out on when you were growing up. I hope I can do a bit better than my parents did — not that my parents were bad parents.
CP: You started standup in high school. How did you know that comedy was a talent of yours?
JF: I was a funny kid. I had to be because I had such a weird house. I wasn’t much of a class clown, because my mom always taught me you don’t want to be a clown — you want people to laugh with you, not at you. I was a good kid, a good student. Very mischievous, but I was always looking for laughs. By 12th grade, I knew I didn’t have the money for a real good college, and I knew the moment I watched Eddie Murphy’s Raw that I wanted to pursue standup for the rest of my life.
CP: When did you know that comedy was a viable career option?
JF: You don’t. You just have to have faith. From the get-go, I knew — and I still know — I’m going to be one of the biggest comics of all time. Period. I didn’t get into this to be mediocre. I want to be great. No matter how long, no matter how hard I have to work, I’m gonna get there. I’ve always admired Eddie Murphy and Muhammad Ali and Michael Jackson, all these guys who changed the world. I’ve always been influenced by how adamant they were and how hard they worked. I definitely knew early on I could change something in this comedy thing.
CP: What sorts of changes would you like to see on the comedy scene?
JF: As comedians, we’re naturally gifted and have a vision. I feel like it gets diluted and lost because we believe whatever these gatekeepers say about our career. “You have to do a comedy special this way, you have to write a sitcom that way, you have to do your late-night set this way.” We forget we know ourselves better than anyone else. I don’t like watching late-night sets or standup specials anymore. They’re cookie-cutter showcases. We’re all trying to play it safe. That’s not what I want to do. That’s what I’d like to see change: for comics to take over and not have to feel so corporate.
CP: What about your sitcom Delores & Jermaine? Did you feel you had the freedom to express yourself while writing it?
JF: Half and half. It was my first sitcom. I didn’t even know what the fuck I was doing, but I knew what I wanted to make. I had to do it a certain way because the network and studios have their way of doing things. I made a pilot that I am very, very proud of, and I think it’s hilarious. Doing that sitcom was the biggest opportunity of my career, even though they didn’t pick it up. There’s no ill-will toward anybody. Some things don’t happen. You just can’t hold a black cloud over your head. You’ve got to move on and come up with the next best thing. That’s what I’m going to do with this next CBS show.
CP: What is that about?
JF: It’s a sitcom inspired by me growing up with young parents. I get to play a dad who’s raising kids at a very young age and he’s having a quarter-life crisis. It’s a show based around my parents, but I’m not playing my dad, I’m playing me. I got sick of me playing an adolescent kid in everything because I play so young. I thought it would be cool if I played an authority.
CP: Fast-forward 30 years. What do you expect to be doing?
JF: I expect to be doing the same thing I’m doing now, only richer. Nothing’s going to change. I’m not going to slow down. A lot of people get complacent and forget where they came from and how hard they worked to get there. I want to motivate people. I want to do everything that my idols never got a chance to do because they died too early or they were discouraged. I want to do this 'til the day I die. I genuinely love my job. I love my job.
IF YOU GO:
7 p.m. Thursday, January 14