Detroit’s Howie Bell is still in the game after years on the comedy stage. According to the veteran comedian, he’s on his third run and recently just dropped off his newest comedy album, “What Happened To The World”. We caught up with Bell to discuss everything from his career, the late comedian Rasheed Thurmond, Diddy, and the plight of the black comedian.
*This interview has been edited for reading purposes*
CH: What’s Howie Bell’s story?
HB: My original introduction to becoming a performer was from stage plays. When I was real young, elementary school, middle school, high school…those plays kinda gave me my foundation as far as acting and performing are concerned. Even in college, I did a play called Jesus Christ Superstar. I started doing comedy in ’95 and the skill set I developed as a performer…I felt like I had an advantage. I got my First television spot in ’98 doing comic view, and they were paying $150 a spot back then. Just working up the ranks and then did several more years doing Comic View. Then I had a development deal with Overbrook, Will Smith’s company. Had the chance to go on tour with cats like Jamie Foxx. We were performing live, this was pre-social media. Then I moved on and started getting success with the Bad Boys of Comedy on HBO, and Robert Townsend. I almost feel like I got my third wing. I’m on the road now. Been with guys like Katt Williams, and I’m on tour with Cedric the Entertainer.
CH: Back in the day, it was that one big look that everybody needed to kind of pop. I look at Tiffany Haddish, she’s been out here and she’s had her one big moment. Have you had any roles that almost was and if not what do you think that looks like for Howie Bell?
HB: Tiffany’s been working for a long time, I’m going to give her 15 years at least. You are going to be given an opportunity and you have to be prepared for. It can be one thing you’ve prepared for your whole life. For Tiffany, it was ‘Girl’s Trip’. But she was already on that level for Girl’s Trip. For me…it’s whatever God blesses me with. It’s whatever comes along that people like. There were some roles that I did that didn’t make it to the big screen and I felt like I did a good job on that would have shown a different side of Howie Bell.
CH: Do you think there is a responsibility for veterans in today in comedy? For a guy that is a veteran in the game, what is their position? Do they educate? What do you see?
HB: I think there’s a lot of responsibility. Not just in the people but to yourself. That’s to remain creative. If that’s what you are. You are an artist I think there’s a lot of responsibility. Not just in the people but to yourself. That’s to remain creative. If that’s what you are. If You are an artist, You have a responsibility to create and to give your gift of creation to the world. Whether you paint, draw, swing dance, act, Comedy, art is art. You have to be true to the form no true to the craft. And I think that’s your main responsibility. If you do that, I think everything else will follow. I also mention a couple films or at least one more I did before independence with them. There’s another movie I did called “Howie Won’t” and I had to mention that because of the late Tommy fort that passed away. It was actually my first time I had the opportunity to work with him. I felt like had that movie came out too, it would have been much different.
When you get back to responsibility it’s a lot of independent filmmakers. A lot of people that reach out to a lot of us. Give those guys a chance. Give those guys an opportunity to get their projects off the ground. I think we have a responsibility to contribute to the arts and crafts of those guys. Even if the money is not up to standards or what you think it’s supposed to be. Maybe it’s not a project that’s going to go to the big theater. You know, it’s not going to do black panther numbers. It’s a film that’s important and it’s an important story that these guys are trying to get out. I think we have a responsibility as vets to help those guys get their stories out.
CH: You know, with your stand up, you were able to touch some really big platforms. Did you touch Comic View at all?
HB: Yeah, when we originally started talking my first cable television was on BET Comic View in 98.
CH: Did you do Def Comedy Jam?
HB: I never did Def Comedy Jam. I’ve done sketches in the past for the show that aired but I never did actual stand-up on the show.
CH: What platform did more for comedy? Was it Comic View, Def Comedy Jam, or Bad Boys Of Comedy?
HB: Not Bad Boys, I would say BET Comic View. For sure
CH: Loved to know why
HB: It’s the original platform. It was an opportunity that a lot of guys in the nation didn’t have a chance to showcase themselves on a television show. I mean, you had other things going on. Of course, HBO has been doing comedy specials for a long time. You had other things with other opportunities but BET Comic view gave a platform and a voice to comics nationwide. You weren’t able to hear what this guy from Tuscaloosa, Alabama was talking about or what the guy from the Bronx was talking about or the guy from Flint, Michigan or somewhere in Arizona or Seattle. You had guys coming from everywhere and gals to do this show. I think that alone was more impactful than any of these other shows. Because you have to remember those other shows came after. You know what I’m saying? BET Comic View and Def Jam were kind of running neck and neck at one time but I feel that Comic view opened it up. It gave a bigger platform to comics overall. To urban comics actually. And not to mention the fact I did it 6 times and it boosted my career early. So I have to give the credit. I know a lot of comics that wouldn’t have half of the juice they have if it wasn’t for BET Comic View.
CH: One thing that’s going on. You were on Bad Boys of Comedy. Diddy remains to be so relevant, a part of our culture. You being around him, just kind of seeing him through the years. How do you think he’s been able to keep relevant so long? What do you think makes him different?
HB: Well Diddy. You know, come on man. You’re talking about probably one of the if not most influential, entertainment moguls of our lifetime. And probably in entertainment period. I wouldn’t put him in a category of being black or white or any of that. I would say he’s probably one of the most successful entertaining moguls, period. You got Jay-z in there. That list is short. So, as far as moguls, to answer your question a person like that, anything they touch is [going to] turn to gold. He touched Bad Boys of Comedy and that’s why it was so relevant. We only did two seasons of Bad Boys of Comedy but people still remember it. And that was fifteen years ago. It was so impactful, you know what I’m saying. So people like him and guys on his level, when they decide to put their attention into a project, they’re going to do a top notch job. I’m not surprised. You know what I’m saying, with his longevity because it comes from a person that’s a hard worker. I’ve been around Diddy and I’ma tell ya, the brother don’t sleep. I had an opportunity to be one of his writers when he hosted the VMA awards. [I was] down in Miami with him for a week. I tell ya man, I didn’t see him sleep. We would leave his house, sometimes 2 or 3 in the morning and we would meet up at the venue like 7 or 8 in the morning and he would already be there rehearsing. So that was crazy to me.
CH: Maximizing his hours.
HB: Yea. I was like I know I’m sleepy and I’m not even hosting the show. I’m not working half as hard as he is. Never saw him sleep. People like that, they just have a built in the drive of success. He’s one of those kind of people. Those people are rare.
CH: What is the most offensive joke that you felt you ever said? What is a joke you feel like, you may have been nervous to say it but you went on and did it anyway?
HB: You know what, I think when I start digging in deep and talking about my family I get worried about what they’re going to say (laughs). I don’t really worry about controversial topics. I’m more so worried about the repercussions when I start talking about my momma or my aunt.
HB: I’m more worried about them than anybody. But I don’t think I really got nothing that’s been too rash. I come from a fun place in comedy. It’s nothing wrong with being controversial or having shock comedy jokes. Or things that you know are going to make people talk about it. That’s cool. It’s all part of comedy. Comedy is built on saying things that people don’t say. But, I come from a place where I just like have [ease* 17:07] I’m going to make you laugh. My goal is to make you REALLY laugh. Not just have you giggle or laugh at a joke or say, “that was humorous.” I want you hurt. I want your stomach to hurt. I want to make you laugh like that. So when you making people laugh like that, you got to really dig deep. And a lot of times those political or controversial bits don’t really do it. They just scratch the surface. They make you giggle. You really want to make somebody laugh, you got to talk about something they can relate to. Really dig in personally, touch their soul.
CH: You being someone that’s been in the game for a long time. We lost comedians. Last name Hannah.
HB: Yea, James Hannah. He’s from Chicago. We lost him a while back.
CH: Then we lost Ricky Harris recently. Tommy, who you just mentioned. When you see that, do you reflect on your own, just taking care of yourself, your health?
HB: Absolutely. We lost Daman Rosier. That was a brotha in a wheelchair and a very funny guy. Todd Lynn. We’ve lost my brotha, comedian Lord from Jersey.
CH: Matter of fact. We also can tie that into comedian Rasheed’s passing.
HB: Rasheed Thurmon is his name
CH: Can you break down any knowledge about him and just that energy if you were there during the performance? I’d love to know more about his story
HB: You talking to one of his best friends. That’s one of my best friends in the world. I did a documentary about him a couple years back in New York. I didn’t produce it. I was actually in the documentary. I couldn’t stop crying during the documentary. You talking about a guy who from Brooklyn. Probably one of the funniest cats and down to earth dudes ever in the comedy game. We lost a really, REALLY strong person in comedy and I don’t even think we realize it. The world doesn’t realize what we lost. This guy was probably…you know how people talk about “Ay if Pac was still around a lot of these dudes wouldn’t be doing this and this in hip-hop.” That’s how Rasheed was. If Rasheed was around a lot of these guys and a lot of shit going on in comedy wouldn’t be going on. You talking about one of the real strong voices in comedy at the time. I mean, just super-duper funny but very real and one-hundred with ya. And, you don’t get any better than that. I still talk to his mom’s until this day. Her name is Liz Thurman. And we still talk all the time. Great guy man.
CH: So, were you there at his taping when he did that set?
HB: Yea, I was there.
CH: Why do you think that made such an epic set? What he was talking about particular to that crowd at that moment.
HB: You got to remember we were taping in Brooklyn at the Bam theater. So, probably seventy-five percent of that audience knew who he was. You understand what I’m saying. That was Brooklyn heights time. Comedy Hype type. And they know how funny he is and how strong he was and his jokes were highly relatable to that crowd. You got to understand, New York is diverse. You got Dominicans. You got the Caribbean’s. The culture. The African American Culture. Italians. New York is a melting pot. Indians. Asian. So, when he came with the different cultures and all those different types of things he hit the nail on the head. His timing couldn’t have been better.
CH: What do you think comedy is missing today? Just looking at it since you’ve seen it come in different forms
HB: Comedy is just like you. It’s all preference. You may want to put on some classical and just relax and just enjoy the sounds or you may want to put on some rock n’ roll and some head banger music and really get in. It’s all taste. It’s all preferred taste and what you want. But sometimes, comes along a song where everybody loves. No matter what type of person you are, age or race. I want to treat comedy like that. Where I want everybody to laugh. I want to make everybody laugh. I don’t want to offend these people over here just to appease this group over here. You know that Donald Trump stuff, you know. Let me talk to my base and make sure my base is happy and not worry about everybody else. You can’t do that. That applies to comedy. Be funny to everybody.
CH: I like that you mentioned that with the Trump and talking to different audiences. One thing I do understand is that I heard the term “funny is funny” but in my view, it does appear there are separate audiences. As a black comedian, it doesn’t seem like black comedians get the same opportunities as white comedians. Have you kind of process that as far as why that happens and why does that appear to be the case?
HB: Well, a lot of times, black comedians travel a different road. So even though they may be more humorous, they’re not in a position that a lot of some of our fellow, white brother comedians are. They’re performing in clubs where executives are showing up, they’re opportunities are going to increase. If the brothers are only getting booked where only black people are showing up and no executives or industry presence, they’re just making people laugh and they’re not getting any residual benefits of the show. I think it’s all about opportunity and putting yourself in position to get those type of chances. You understand what I’m saying? I don’t necessarily think it’s a matter of white people get more because it’s easy to pull that race card. But the real deal is, what black comics are going to do more of the mainstream rooms? Where are you doing your shows at? Are you just doing chicken and wing spots or are you really going out to the mainstream doing comedy clubs? Really putting yourself out there. Putting your package out at those spots where the industry is present. I say THAT’s where the line gets blurred. A lot of the times, it’s not racist. It’s about putting yourself in a position to win. You understand what I’m saying?…. It’s across the board. A lot of black people don’t put themselves in those positions to receive those opportunities. We’re so comfortable with staying in our quote, unquote lane that we’re not switching lanes. We’re not conforming, or adapting to other parts of the American culture, American lifestyle. Because we feel like we’re confined or were apprehensive to do it which is understandable and reasonable to some. A lot of us are afraid to go into one of those environments because we feel like we’re going to get rejected. But you still got to take the chances. And especially in entertainment you have to be willing to put your neck out there and you have to put yourself out there and you can’t be afraid of rejection and just go ahead and do your thing. So, we put ourselves in a better position to receive those opportunities, I think that will change.
Along with his new album, Bell has joined Cedric The Entertainer on the road. You can catch him and Cedric performing this Saturday at the Chicago Theater for The Aries Birthday Bash.