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.

And then I got heckled by this lady, right? Imagine me—I got no facial hair, I’m like a kid, I got a baby face, I was skinny. And she’s like, “You don’t know what you’re doing, get your blah blah blah offstage.”
 
I’m like, “Who you talking to, lady? You’re looking like Shanice without the makeup.” At that time, that was hysterical to me. But I think the crowd felt like, “Who’s this little boy up there disrespecting this grown woman?” That’s how they reacted to me. So they started going crazy with me, and then DJ Dolla Bill, who’s one of my favorite DJs to work with in comedy, then he played Wyclef’s song, “Someone Please Call 911.” And then Damon talked about me for like 10 minutes after I went up. I almost hated Damon.

What did you do after that?

This is going to sound so crazy. I was waiting outside for my homeboy ’cause we was going to a strip club for the first time. [Laughs] I really needed that experience.

Everybody left, and I’m waiting on this dude ’cause I guess he got out of work late. And it’s raining real hard. So Damon saw me standing out there, and he let me sit in his truck. And I imagine he’s sitting in there and he’s like, [sighs], “Now I’m forced to give him some advice.”

It was just, “Stick with it, brother, I wasn’t great all the time, you’ll be okay.” I don’t know if he sincerely meant that, but I appreciate him saying it. He wasn’t a terrible person; he was just mean to me onstage.

So my boy pulled up, we go to the strip club, we have a good time. But I remember just almost crying while I was getting a lap dance.

And your next gig?

I came up there the next week. Damon wasn’t going to host; he had Marlon Mitchell host. And I killed it. I had a great set.

So what did you do differently?

I think the biggest thing I learned was energy. And that first week, I went up [laughs] as Milton Howery; I was going by my straight government name. And I hate to say it but it sounds too lame and it’s not catchy. So I said, “OK, let me go with my regular street West Side name,” which is Lil Rel. Everybody said I was crazy, but I think that helped.

I wasn’t as dirty, neither. I changed my material—I had a lot of material from going to the Lion’s Den every week—’cause I was in front of an older audience, and they didn’t want me talking like that.

Much of your material comes from your experiences growing up on the West Side.

It’s West Side life and family life. I love doing the stuff about my mom, my pops. And you know, if I was all hood rat, I would not have gotten most of the stuff I’ve gotten over the years.

Who were your comedy influences?

Eddie Murphy is my idol—and that’s why I do my comedy a certain way. Keenan Ivory Wayans. But Bill Cosby has a whole bunch of influence on me. And the more I do comedy, the more I see that’s who I’m closest to. The only difference is, my mouth is a lot dirtier than his.

But I’m able to turn that on and off, too. If I see it’s a more upscale audience, I’m like, “All right, let me scale back,” because I don’t want to make ’em nervous. But believe me, with some of these audiences [laughs], you gotta throw out a couple MFs. Like, “Let me go and do that before I get beat up or heckled or shot.” But it’s easy for me to turn off the cursing ’cause I don’t have a lot of sex jokes.

So, then, what’s your favorite inappropriate comedy topic?

I got a joke I do about a hood rat joining a church. She did her first testimony, and it’s like the most ghetto-est testimony you ever heard. Saying, “All those bitches on my block been hatin’ ever since I found Jesus.” But she don’t know no better, she just joined church. She don’t know etiquette yet, she’s just talking from the heart.

I do, like, a valedictorian speech. A lot of these public schools are really not that…bright, education-wise and you can tell how bad the education [laughs] at a school is by the valedictorian speech.

And my dirtiest joke is about a man toy party. It’s one of my favorite jokes to do, but it’s so ignorant, though.

Do you know when “In Living Color” airs?

No, they haven’t told us our air dates yet. It was supposed to originally air April 22, but it took forever getting the rest of the cast so we didn’t start shooting till April. So hopefully, we’re looking at June, maybe July. I think we’ll know something in another few weeks. And then the crazy thing is, they might not even tell me first. I might see it in a commercial, like, “Oh, man, there I go.”

See him next: 9 p.m. Saturday at Outriggers Comedy Room, 15917 S. Harlem Ave., Tinley Park
Tickets: $15-$20; 866-998-8757; whatsfunnylive.com