Lil Rel may be back in town after taping the pilot for a new “In Living Color” TV series and his big club gigs around the country, but when asked where his fellow Chicagoans can see his next live local performance, he pauses.
“I’ve been laying low, to be quite honest with you,” he tells RedEye during a phone interview. “I got a wife and my kids, three and two. So when you gone for pretty much a month, you don’t realize how your kids miss you. They’re little, they don’t even understand I’m going to work. It’s like, ‘Lookit, you want diapers? I gotta go, man.’”
But laying low isn’t Rel’s style. The Chicago native—who in his early days hustled open mics and showcases with his friend Hannibal Buress, landed work as a house MC at Jokes & Notes, and has appeared in numerous TV and films—didn’t get to where he is by sitting still for too long.
So it’s not surprising when, the very next day, I get an email with details for an impromptu Saturday show. Before that, though, we catch up Rel’s life and work.
How’d you get cast for the “In Living Color” reboot?
I was discovered by one of the producers, Shauna Garr, who was on a site called The Laughing Barrel looking at another comic. So after watching whoever she was looking at, one of my YouTube videos popped up. She sent it over to Keenan [Ivory Wayans]. And Keenan was like, “Okay, well this is what’s up, now let’s find him.” So she Googled me and found my manager’s number, called him on a Sunday night—I’ll never forget it.
It was already a crazy day for me. A lady had backed into my little Saturn Ion; she had a big old truck. I was at the gas station—I don’t know who backs their car up in the gas station. I couldn’t even honk at her, I was so much in shock. [Laughs]
I called my manager to find some dudes that drive around fixing people’s cars [laughs] to bend it back for me. So I thought that’s why he was calling me.
How was the filming?
I was pinching myself every day I went on set. Because it’s like, wow, this is really happening. I’m sitting in rehearsals with Keenan Ivory Wayans. I’m going over a sketch with this dude. This dude loves my material. Is this really happening?
I mean, it might not be a big deal to other people but I grew up on the West Side of Chicago and I watched the show all the time. And this might sound corny, but if you grew up not in the best neighborhood, TV seems so far-fetched, like a fantasy world, ’cause you don’t know anybody who’s been on there—besides the news. [Laughs]
What was it like to work with Keenan Ivory Wayans?
Man, it’s just—it’s more than you’d imagine, how dope he is. He’s literally a comedy genius. He could stop you in the middle of a sketch and know what joke should go there, just like that.
When did you start performing comedy?
I was maybe like 19, 20, at a place called the Lion’s Den on Irving Park Road. I found the Lion’s Den looking in the newspaper. On the weekends, you guys [Chicago Tribune] would have the entertainment section, and you’d just have a list of comedy clubs. I used to read it all the time before I even started. So I was like, “Man, one day, when I get a chance, I’m going to go to one of these.” And so I actually just showed up at one. [Laughs]
I remember thinking the Lion’s Den was huge. And then I went there maybe a few years ago. I was like, “Damn, this place is tiny. I could’ve packed this in with two text messages.” [Laughs] But it’s funny how when you start, things always look so much bigger because you’ve never done it before.
How did it go?
To me, it was good. When it’s your first time going up, you almost don’t even care what the audience thinks. I just wanted to get through my set. I don’t even know if I got laughs or not. [Laughs] I just did my jokes, and I got out of there.
What’s the worst show you’ve lived through?
Damon Williams had a spot, which is now the Red Bar and Ontourage. That first time going up in there was horrific. That was my first time doing—as crazy as it is—an urban audience. When I first started, I did mostly the mainstream audiences, the North Side. So it was like “Def Comedy Jam” and wooh! They kicked me, boy.
What went wrong?
Well, two things. There was a joke I used to do about things being all good. Now the problem with that joke is Damon Williams did the joke on “Comic View.” Honestly, I didn’t know that or subconsciously I didn’t.