Meet Jermaine Fowler: The Comedian And Sitcom Star Paving His Own Way

Madeline Berg
Written by Madeline Berg

Jermaine Fowler
Jermaine Fowler (John Sciulli/Getty Images for Vulture Festival)

If you watched 2017’s Emmy Awards, you may have noticed something—or rather someone—a little different. That someone was Jermaine Fowler, the show’s announcer, who did more than just read aloud the names of the glittery presenters. Fowler cheered on “Master of None”‘s Lena Waithe, gave a shout-out to Winston Churchill and jabbed at Don King for the “Michael Douglas Show.”

But there is much more to Fowler, a recent Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree, than his Emmy voiceovers (which were the first ever done by an African American). He is a stand-up comic, a creator and an actor. Fowler stars in and executive produces CBS’ “Superior Donuts,” and is the first black sitcom lead on the network in a generation. He also has a recurring role in HBO’s “Crashing.” Next up? His big-screen debut alongside Armie Hammer and Lakeith Stanfield in “Sorry to Bother You.”

It wasn’t overnight success for the 29-year-old Maryland native, who dropped out of college and moved to New York with just a few pieces of luggage to pursue his dream of being a comedian. Almost a decade later, the risk has paid off. Forbes sat down with Fowler to discuss his journey, diversity in Hollywood and his new baby daughter.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Forbes: So, I first found out about you at the Emmys, when you served as the evening’s announcer. You were hilarious. How did that come about? Why did you decide to take risks with the gig?

Fowler: I was really flattered—I love that ceremony. At first, I thought they wanted me to be a normal announcer. But they said, “No, we want you to be yourself.” I said, “Are you sure? I get hyped really easily. I’m excitable and not afraid to hide my emotions.” They said, “Yeah, man, we want you to be you.”

And so the night of the show, I started getting really excited for all of the nominees. When Donald (Glover) won, it was just this rush of happiness that I had for him. I saw him backstage; he was so shocked. Seeing Issa (Rae). I’ve followed most of these people’s careers since I first started stand up—I knew how much it meant.

Forbes: Any highlights from the night, other than those wins?

Fowler: After the ceremony, Dave Chappelle was at the dinner—this huge post-Emmys dinner—and he was eating dinner next to me. We are both from Prince George’s County. He said, “Hey man.” I told him that I’m from Hyattsville, Maryland and how he is my hometown hero. He said, “You did the voiceover right? I loved it.” That made me so happy to hear that and when he shouted out DC public schools.

Forbes: Of course beyond the Emmys, there’s Superior Donuts, which is in its second season. Tell me about what it’s like to be on a broadcast show—especially one that has been so well-received and highly rated. How was the transition from stand up?

Fowler: I’m still growing as an actor, so I’m a sponge. You can’t get better if you’re not watching and learning from someone; it’s how you stay inspired. And on the show, I’m around great company.

Stand up and multicam also marry really well. I’m so used to doing shows in front of a live audience, so that part was seamless. Knowing what jokes will work is second nature; you just feel it. And acting in a multicam has made me better at stand up. I’m more fearless now; I go deeper into the material. I can be my dad or my aunt or my mom because I’m used to acting in front of the live audience.

I’m having a lot of fun. I love to help create things that I’m acting in—being behind the scenes and in front of the camera. I’ve been doing that since I was 16: I used to make short films with a video camera my grandma bought me. Turning that dream into Superior Donuts—you can’t ask for a better show, and I’m glad CBS gave me the opportunity. I just love my job; I really love my job.

Forbes: The fact that you’re starring on CBS is a big deal. The network has been criticized for lacking diversity, and you are the first black sitcom lead on the network in a generation. How does that feel? Do you see a change in an industry that has, for so long, been a predominately white one?

Fowler: First of all, I’m the first black lead on a CBS multicam sitcom in 10 years—that’s a long damn time. I feel that I have a certain responsibility to not play a stereotype and to bring a certain level of originality to the Franco role. I want to open doors for a lot of people. I hope that me killing this role as an executive producer and as an actor will help bring some positive change to the network in an organic way.

I don’t want it to be forced: I’ve earned this spot. I’ve earned every opportunity I get, and I want them to respect and truly see us as players in this game we call Hollywood. We have a unique voice, point of view and background, so it’s beneficial not just for CBS but for the world in general.

It’s about time people start opening their eyes and start including us in these roles. In everything, everybody—black, Asian, Latino—at least deserves a shot. And the fact that CBS gave me a shot says a lot.

Forbes: When you were 20, you packed up and got on a bus to New York to pursue comedy. What were those first years like? What was your big break?

Fowler: Aw man, it wasn’t easy; it wasn’t supposed to be easy. When you chase a dream and no one understand or has your back except seven friends from high school and your grandma, it’s not going to be easy. When you’re leaving to go to New York City with a DVD player, three bags of luggage and one pair of shoes, it’s not going to be easy. That portable DVD player, I used to watch [Tim Burton’s] Sleepy Hollow over and over again.

Dreams are fuel, man. You forget how hungry and sad and lonely you are, but it was hard. It was really hard. I used to sleep on an air mattress with bed bugs in it. I don’t know how they got in it, but it was disgusting. I did open mics every—I’d hustle my way into comedy clubs and pretend the bookers knew me or told me I could perform.

They were tough years, but I was around a lot of people who pushed me, and I’m still working my ass off trying to better myself as a comedian and as a man.

A lot of people are finding out who I am; they think someone just picked me up from some nursery and put me on television. But I worked my ass off, and I don’t see a lot of my friends or my grandma as much as I should, and I miss them.

Forbes: What was your big break—when you realized you had finally made it?

Fowler: I had two. One was a pilot I did for a remake of “In Living Color” in 2012. Someone saw me perform at Peoples Improv Theater, and that was supposed to be my big break, but it never broke; the pilot never got picked up.

Instead of being in the dumps about that whole process, I thought that if my sketches wouldn’t be put on TV, I’d put my sketches up on YouTube. Kevin Barnett and I came out with a show about homophobic, in-the-closet gangsters. These super machismo and sexist guys—sort of a social commentary about hip-hop culture and masculinity in general. It went viral.

It also started the do-it-yourself approach to my career: Everything that I have been in, I’ve created. A comedy special that I funded for a pretty penny, I sold for triple the price. That’s the business model I want to follow for the rest of my life.

Forbes: And now that you’ve officially made it, what’s next?

Fowler: I want to star in an action-comedy, like “The Rock” or “Con Air.” Those are the movies I wanted to star in since I was a kid. That’s what I watched on VHS and would fall asleep to. Nick Cage is so underrated. Or maybe I’ll be the first black dude to star in a Tim Burton movie—”Sleepy Hollow” is still my favorite movie.

I’m taking the necessary steps to get there, starting in indies and building myself up. “Sorry to Bother You” is the first film that I’ve done, and it’s so funny, so insane. so creative. I’m so happy for the shot.

I’m also shooting my next special, and I want to make it a classic. It’s inspired by Richard Pryor and Eddy Murphy. Stand-up comedy is the reason why I’m here. It’s why I’m talking to you; it’s my baby, my first love. It’s my therapy; it’s the first thing I did after my mom passed away. It’s my passion. It would be wrong to turn my back on it, and I’ll never stop doing it ever, ever, ever.

Forbes: So stand up may be your first baby, but you recently had another baby—a baby girl. What advice would you give to her?

Fowler: I would tell my little girl to never take anyone’s negative criticism of your dreams to heart. Some people are just projecting their own insecurities on you, and a lot of people will tell you it’s stupid or it won’t happen, but you have to follow your own heart.

And don’t take any handouts—work hard—because it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Just like it was when I moved to New York; looking back, that’s what I appreciate.

 Posted with permission of Forbes Media LLC.

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About Madeline Berg

I am a reporter at Forbes covering media and entertainment with a focus on TV and new media. That means covering everything from YouTube stars to Broadway for the magazine, while writing about cable news, Hollywood scandals, comedians, reality stars and media stocks for the website. I also work on 30 Under 30 for the U.S. and Europe, where I zoom in on the youngest stars of media and entertainment. A graduate of Brown University, I have also covered media, food and education for the New York Observer and written about the New York shopping scene for Racked. Follow me on Twitter @MadelinePBerg. Have tips? Send them to me anonymously at forbes.com/tips, and submit sensitive documents anonymously and securely at SafeSource.forbes.com.


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