Kenny Howell told jokes at his grandfather’s funeral. He figured the old guy would have liked it that way.
“My father, grandfather, they were all funny,” Howell said. “I’ve always been the class clown.”
Howell headlines the Midwest Madmen of Comedy show on Saturday at Century II. Wichita comedian Roy “Uncle Bam” Gilmore will also perform, along with comics Lamont James, B-Rich and several musical guests.
Howell, who’s made several appearances in Wichita, has been doing stand-up comedy for more than 20 years and is probably best known for being part of Def Comedy Jam productions.
He grew up on Chicago’s south side and was a good enough basketball player to earn a scholarship to Illinois State University. He returned home after a career-ending injury, working in a store and then driving a truck.
He was 27 years old when he mustered up the courage to enter a comedy contest sponsored by Miller Beer, with a spot on the Def Comedy Jam tour as a prize. The competition was tough: Howell says Bernie Mac had won the previous year.
Howell made it through the preliminaries, only to get disqualified for staying on stage too long in the finals. He got picked for the Def Comedy Jam tour anyway. The next year, he returned to the contest and tied with Cedric the Entertainer for first.
While Howell didn’t achieve the fame of Mac or Cedric the Entertainer, he has been able to make his living telling jokes, appearing on TV and filling some small roles in movies.
He describes his comedy as a mix of observation and speculation.
“My imagination is basically off of stuff I’ve been through and I’ve seen. If this is the normal routine, then in my mind, I’m like ‘What if this would happen?’ I try to go somewhere where no one else thinks.”
Howell says he doesn’t write jokes, but rather comes up with a topic he wants to explore and just starts talking. He remembers the funny parts from show to show, building on them as he improvises at each performance.
“I do a lot of stuff about women, and my family, and my kids, and stuff about relationships that people have actually lived,” said Howell, who now lives outside St. Louis.
So what kind of joke did Howell tell at his grandfather’s funeral? He said it’s one he learned from his grandfather and still uses in his routine. Minus a few observations on various racial and ethnic groups, it boils down to one man telling another man that people shouldn’t be so proud of sending astronauts to the moon, he has a plan to visit the sun. When the second man objects that the sun is rather hot, the first man says: “I know the sun is hot. A brother is gonna go at night.”
One big fan of Howell is Gilmore, who started his professional comedy career about 15 months ago.
“Oh yes, I’ve got him recorded on my DVR,” Gilmore said of Howell. “He’s not as well known as some, but he’s hilarious.”
Gilmore said he’s “always been a clown” and finally tried his material out at the Looney Bin, quickly earning 20-minute slots of his own. He’s also performed in several clubs in Los Angeles and, he says, been interviewed by the Oprah Winfrey Network. “If I can come up with five minutes clean, I can get on TV,” he said with a laugh.
It doesn’t sound like he’ll be concentrating on clean material Saturday. One of his routines is “waging war on men in skinny jeans,” which ends up with him detailing in graphic fashion all the awful things that can happen as a result of wearing that attire. He also says he can be “as racist as I want to be” because of his own mixed African-American, Latino and Indian heritage.
But after noting that he “didn’t use to be a good citizen,” Gilmore said his comedy does have a serious purpose: “I just like to spread joy and also give a message to make people think about their actions, their consequences.”