Interview: Comedian Jermaine Fowler Brings Universal Humor And Charm In 'Superior Donuts'
"I was into everything, nothing was black or white, it was just the sh*t I liked."
Jermaine Fowler doesn’t hold anything back. The 29-year-old comedian steps into VIBE’s NYC headquarters, and he explains that it’s been a long day full of interviews. While his PR team acknowledges that he’s on a time crunch, Fowler makes sure that each answer to a question is as loaded as possible for the next 45 minutes.
He proudly shows off his Rick and Morty shirt, discusses his “awesome” newborn daughter, and talks about his famous neighbor, MC Lyte, among other things. It’s nearly impossible not to smile when he talks- he’s as magnetic as he is humor-filled. The sincerity of the comedian’s personality can also be felt in his comedy routine. As he describes, it’s the need to be universally appealing that attributes to that.
“I've always navigated my way around the comedy writing rooms, because I didn't want to cater to this side and that side, I just wanted to be liked by everybody,” he says. As he details, comedy writing rooms are sometimes separated by skin color.
“A lot of comics prefer to do one room over the other room, but there's a certain comfort I get out of doing this room, and I realize I can't get to comfortable, so I go to that room, so I can make sure everyone understands what I'm talking about. That's how I grew up.”
The Washington, D.C. and Maryland native stars as the lively yet naive Franco on the CBS series Superior Donuts, a comedy about a struggling Chicago-based donut shop that sees a cast of colorful, diverse characters walk through their doors each day. The show, which also stars television vets Judd Hirsch (Taxi) and Katey Sagal (Married...with Children, Futurama), explores themes such as gentrification and racism as the episodes continue. Fowler, who is the first black lead on a CBS television show in almost a decade, also serves as one of the show’s executive producers.
“I felt like you couldn't tell a story about gentrification and living in a place like Chicago, with police brutality and just the classism there, it reminds me of home,” he says. “I told them they could benefit by having my voice in this writer's room.”
Fowler explained that his at-times sticky situations growing up helped him realize comedy would always be there for him. His mother, who he described as a “free-spirited sweetie pie,” encouraged exploration of his creativity as a child, while his father was a lot more strict. Growing up, he sometimes felt out of place due to his interests, such as skateboarding and rock music, which weren’t all the way acceptable for a black boy to enjoy during that time.
“It's weird, because when you're black it's like, ‘you black, so you gotta listen to this, you can't listen to that,’” he says. “That's not true. We're black and we fought for the freedom to have a choice, why can't we express the freedom to do what we want to do? [That mentality] holds a lot of people back.”
“I grew up around a mix of a lot of people, so I got a lot of different perspectives,” he continues. “As a kid, I appreciated that. I think most people should do that, just get out of your damn comfort zone and go experience new people and things. I was into everything, nothing was black or white, it was just the sh*t I liked.” During this difficult time, he watched a lot of movies and television shows that shaped his humor and perspective on life. “
"I was into everything, nothing was black or white, it was just the sh*t I liked.” - Jermaine Fowler
I felt so contained at home. I always really felt like I couldn't be myself at home, so I was always quiet,” Fowler says of his growing pains. “I remember I used to sit in my room and listen to Bone Thugs, and close the door [Laughs]. I used to walk around a lot, just as far as I could go, to think, to figure out what I want to do with my life. I realized I like making people laugh and I also like creating stuff.”
When he was 17, he began to take stand-up comedy more seriously. While his parents and other relatives didn’t necessarily support his aspirations, his group of friends and his grandmother’s encouragement to pursue comedy persuaded him to go full throttle with the decision. Instead of attending his community college classes paid for by his aunt, he would do stand-up gigs.
“[My grandma] encouraged me to listen to Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx,” he says. “I needed that, because, if you don't believe in somebody, it don't matter. Give them some type of encouragement, let them fail by themselves. I didn't really have that with my family, but my grandma and my immediate friends from high school were very supportive of my dreams.”
He moved to NYC at the age of 20 and did stand-up circuits throughout the city, which eventually blossomed into stand-up gigs at clubs and colleges around the country. You may recognize him from CollegeHumor's live standup shows, MTV’s Guy Code, The Eric Andre Show and TruTV’s Friends Of The People. In 2016, Variety added him to their list of “10 Comics to Watch.” His career has taken off, and his aunt still hasn’t asked for her money back that she spent to send him to college.
“I still owe her about $1,000 bucks. I’ll Venmo her,” he laughs.
Superior Donuts’ first season popped off earlier this year, and the second season of the show premiered Monday (Oct. 30). What drew Fowler to the show was the script and the relevancy of the series to what’s going on in the world today.
"You can’t speak for everybody, especially in this f**kin’ country. We can be from different places, think different ways, but still come together and respect each other." - Jermaine Fowler
“The show is about a group of people from different parts of the world coming together to enjoy donuts at this donut shop,” he explains. “It just so happens that they're talking about things that are going on in the world. That's what's gonna represent the show.”
Being able to work with television legends like Hirsch and Segal has helped Fowler grow as an actor, however, he details that working with the entire cast throughout the show’s run so far has been beneficial as a whole.
“[Hirsch] is a master, masterful,” he says. “He knows everything. He's good, and he hasn't missed a beat. With Katey, I've learned how to command. When Katey speaks? People shut up. You can tell, any time she has a line in the show, it brings a certain gravity that just makes you want to listen. Working with the whole cast makes me want to elevate my comedic timing.”
His 2017 also came with an incredible opportunity through the Television Academy. Jermaine was the announcer at the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards, where he was given free reign to be his authentic self.
“‘They want you to be the voice of God at the Emmys!’” he says of the opportunity, which he found out about from his manager via e-mail. “We were rehearsing and I was talking to one of the producers on the show, and he encouraged me to be myself. I told him it wasn't gonna be like any other Emmys, because I'm a very sincere, excitable guy, and I love bringing energy to a room. He was like, ‘Good!’”
However, his enthusiasm while working at the event still came with detractors. Despite the slight criticism, Jermaine took the opportunity by the horns, and enjoyed himself thoroughly.
“It’s weird that a lot of people were taken aback, but I’m a positive dude,” he says while posing for photos. “They wanted something different, I gave them something different, and a lot of people are very resistant to different things. I’m not an announcer, I’m a standup comedian. That’s what you’re gonna get, that’s what I do best. I do everything with a purpose, and I don’t really pay attention to the negativity.”
As for continuing to produce and star in conversation-shifting content, Fowler says that he’s doing what he can to make sure Superior Donuts remains sincere and illustrates compelling stories properly.
“We're telling a story, and it's such a natural story to tell. It's an organic thing to talk about,” he says. “I just want to make sure that everything we're talking about comes from a sincere point of view, that we have our facts straight and that we're not preaching to people, that we're not drumming up conclusions for people. We're not drawing up ways for people to think. You can't speak for everybody, especially in this f**kin' country. We can be from different places, think different ways, but still come together and respect each other. You don't have to fight and kill and argue with each other all the f**kin' time, you know?”
“I think this show represents what I'd like our country to be, just be empathetic and understanding to each other,” he continues. “I can only speak for Franco's character, because that's who I relate to the most, that's who I'm playing. That's why the show is so f**kin' good, because we're all putting in our points of views, but at the same time, we make sure that we're telling the story. It's a very political show, but at the same time, we all come back home, which is the donut shop. Make sure we're moving the story forward.”