Comic and actor Milton Howery, much better known as Lil Rel, is sitting in the front room of Jokes & Notes comedy club on South King Drive. This is where he started honing his act in earnest, and he comes back to perform whenever he’s able.
“This place is like my Chicago Stadium,” says Rel, 34, dressed head-to-ankle in black and sporting red high-top sneakers. “I feel like Jordan when I come here. And every time I leave here I feel like Jordan.”
For anyone striving to make it in comedy, let alone a guy who grew up with little money on Chicago’s West Side (the oldest of three brothers, he went to St. Mel’s and Crane Tech), Rel’s accomplishments of late are atypical. But to him they aren’t all that surprising.
Besides his standup success — in addition to his own club dates, he recently opened for comedic superstar Russell Peters at a packed Chicago Theatre and will host a Jokes & Notes showcase Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 — Rel is poised to get the widest national exposure of his career when he co-stars with the Lucas Bros. and several others on truTV’s “Friends of the People.” It’s produced out of New York, where Rel lived for many months this year, and premieres at 9:30 p.m. (Chicago time) Oct. 28.
A reboot of “In Living Color” at Fox for which Rel was cast might have helped raise his profile a couple of years ago, but the project got axed in its early stages. The gleefully absurd “FOTP,” whose first episode features such outlandish characters as a Jekyll-and-Hyde changeling named “Tracy Morgan Freeman” and interstitial shorts about recreationally murderous elderly folks dubbed “Old Killers,” has yet to announce a second season.
“TV used to look so unrealistic as a kid,” Rel says. “I was like, ‘How can you get on here?’ It was such a hard thing to imagine.”
The comedy bug bit him around age 10, and he soon became “addicted” to “Saturday Night Live” and comedic stylings of Chris Farley, David Spade, Adam Sandler and others. Stand-up comics Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Richard Pryor and several others were influential as well. While still in high school, Rel dedicated himself to a career in comedy.
“Everybody thought I was crazy,” he says. Well, not everyone. Whether he was performing in church plays or school shows, his parents were always there to cheer him on.
“In our neighborhood, everybody didn’t have both parents at home,” he says. “My father and mother participated in everything. It used to be irritating. Like, ‘Why y’all gotta come to everything? Nobody else’s parents come to everything.’ And I remember being checked by one of my gangsta friends. He was like, ‘Hey, man, at least they come see you.’ ”
The Almighty, too, was and remains a guiding force. Rel is unabashedly religious, seeking counsel from and giving thanks to God at every opportunity. The first time he made a crowd crack up at Crane Tech (“not an easy audience”) following a show he helped create, Rel sat alone afterward in the school’s auditorium and chatted with his maker: “Alright, God. This is what I want to do. I don’t know how I’m gonna do it. I don’t know where to go. But I know this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Now, roughly 17 years and much toil later, Rel has his first big showbiz shot. As the saying goes, God helps those who helps themselves.
“He makes a plan and he prepares for it and he goes after it,” Jokes & Notes owner Mary Lindsey says of Rel’s approach. “He doesn’t just kind of sit back and wait for it to come in. And if he wants something, he’s not afraid to ask for it.”
But neither is there a sense of entitlement, she says, and there’s plenty of that in comedy.
“He’s a very humble comedian and appreciates every opportunity that comes his way. And when people help him, he thanks them publicly, because he knows that it takes more than just one person to make something happen.”
Peters, whom Rel describes as “a big brother,” has taken the younger comic under his wing, providing valuable advice both personal and professional as well as upscale lodging when Rel is in L.A.
“Lil Rel is one of those understated, funny young comics who has the kind of jokes you repeat back to your friends and laugh all over again!” Peters says in an email. “He also has a work ethic that is [enviable], especially to a lazy-ass like myself!”
They’ve also shared their troubles, Rel says. Both are recently divorced fathers of young children (Rel has a 5-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter), and Rel lost his middle brother to cancer late last year. His beloved mother Nancy, who was “so, so supportive,” died in 2009.
For Rel, though, pain is no motivator. He’ll use it if he must, turning setbacks into set material (the deaths of his mother and brother, and his divorce have all served as fodder), but his humor isn’t fueled by darkness.
“The ones that do make it a fuel, you gotta watch them,” he says. “You should check on them, ‘cause that can drive you crazy. I don’t need that. Happiness does it, too.”
With a new show, a growing presence in the comedy world, kids he adores and a new girlfriend who’s “smart, giving, beautiful” and a dentist, Rel has lots of that in his life these days.
“I’m grateful, man,” he says. “I worked really hard for this.”