At a recent comedy festival, Jermaine Fowler was followed by his friend and collaborator Kevin Barnett, who, after acknowledging that he was drunker than he expected to be, promptly declared Fowler a sociopath. He launched into the story of a prank they pulled on Josh Rabinowitz during production of their TruTv sketch series Friends of the People. I won’t bore you with the details—especially since you can watch Barnett tell them here—but the gist is that he received a, er, racially insensitive email from Rabinowitz and instantly knew Fowler had hijacked the account. Rather than let it slide, the two of them tormented their friend by acting as though the message were genuine. It was a funny story and better prank, unless you’re Rabinowitz, who was rightfully devastated by the affair. But Fowler recalls the scheme as one of his finest. “A sociopath? I think clinically I might be,” he tells me during a phone call. “But I just love pranks, man. They’re great. I don’t understand why people don’t do ‘em more often.”
Fowler, a devilishly charming comic whose special Give ‘Em Hell, Kid premieres at 9PM tonight on Showtime, is no small-time mischief maker. His hourlong set, filmed at the DC Improv, is largely a catalogue of capers committed from his early childhood to his early days as a stand-up—from the time he replaced his father’s eyedrops with bleach, to the night he and his friend robbed the Quiznos they worked at, spray-painting “KKK” on their boss’s car in an act of (successful!) misdirection. These stories are typically as unbelievable as they are funny, and boy are they funny. Skeptics should prepare to temper their skepticism, however. Fowler’s set is broken up by interviews with his friends and family, who testify to the veracity of his more outlandish hijinks. “I got sick of people asking if my stories were true,” he says, “The jokes are really fantastical—people want to meet my aunt Cathy, they want to meet my brother with the fat tongue. So we did the interviews to get their side of things.”
Beyond offering a dose of authenticity, the interviews have a powerful grounding effect. Fowler was born to teenage parents who split up; his father eventually kicked him out, and he moved in with his grandmother. He grew up poor, was the first in his family to attend (and drop out of) college, and moved to New York at 20 to pursue comedy. This is great fodder for jokes, sure, but his family’s presence offers a depth of humanity we rarely see in televised stand-up. For consumers, the breezy economics of comedy specials is a blessing and a curse—a blessing because we get lots of ‘em, a curse because they generally conform to a stale model: someone talks for an hour to a live audience that is clearly having a better time than we ever could. Give ‘Em Hell, Kid is a refreshing diversion. By taking a documentary approach, Fowler lets us into his head—indeed, his life—with surprising heart. “I like whatever I’m doing to have depth,” he says. “You don’t expect to be touched by comedy. But when it happens, it’s beautiful.” It might take some getting used to, but in the end this is one of the most touching specials of the year—perhaps of any year.
It is also a triumphant achievement for someone still early in his career. Despite a string of impressive credits, Fowler, 27, remains relatively under the radar. This is not for a lack of output. If you don’t know Fowler from his appearances at clubs like the Comedy Cellar or the Hollywood Improv, you might know him from his appearances on MTV’s Guy Code or The Eric Andre Show. Maybe you saw his viral hit “Homo Thugs,” which he made with Barnett. Or perhaps you were one of the lucky few to catch Friends of the People before its cast split off into bigger and better projects—in Fowler’s case, a pilot he’s currently sscripting for CBS. When ABC axed his previous pilot, Delores and Jermaine, he didn’t pause for a second. “I know the game,” he reflects. “Things don’t get shot and it’s fuckin’ fine.” The ABC pilot followed Fowler as he moved in with his grandmother, played by Whoopi Goldberg. The new show is still inspired by his upbringing, but switches things around—now he assumes the role of the father who kicked him out. “This is different for me,” he says. “I am who I am, and me playing a dad character is new. I hope it works out—it’s fuckin’ funny.”
Fowler’s explosive sensibilities are well-suited for a sitcom. Generally speaking, his stories find him confronted with bizarre circumstances which he follows into more bizarre circumstances—say, burgling a Quiznos and blaming it on white supremacists. He spins tales that feel both expertly structured and completely uncontrolled, swapping out emotions and characters with terrifying ease: one second he’s a kindly old woman, the next he’s a furious bus driver, screaming at his passengers to give up their seat. His manic exuberance could easily fill an arena, but for Give ‘Em Hell, Kid—which he completely self-financed—he insisted on a more intimate space. “I didn’t want to shoot it in a big theatre,” he says. “I wanted to shoot it where I’m at in my career. This one’s in a small club, the next’ll be in a bigger venue, and the next in a stadium. I want people to be able to see my progression.”
There’s also the nostalgia factor: Fowler grew up in Maryland and cut his chops in the DC comedy scene alongside Rory Scovel, Aparna Nancherla, and Seaton Smith. When he moved to New York, he fell in with Barnett and the rest of the Friends of the People crew: Rabinowitz, the Lucas Bros, Jennifer Bartels, and Lil Rel Howery. That show ran for two seasons, but two seasons of sketch comedy is a serious boot camp in writing and acting. “I’d been writing sketches since high school,” Fowler recalls, “but Friends of the People really taught me about structure—how to wait out a joke, how to stick with it for a while. It also made me more confident onstage as a performer. When I first got to New York I was engulfed in stand-up and didn’t get into acting until later. Now all I want is go up there and do characters forever.”
More immediately, of course, he wants people to watch Give ‘Em Hell, Kid. “I just want people to enjoy it,” he says. “And if you don’t enjoy it, fuck you!” He cackles his signature cackle. “No, just kidding. But like it or not, I made it myself and it’s who I am.”
Seth Simons is a Brooklyn-based writer, performer, and birdwatcher. Follow him @sasimons.