- Lil Rel Howery, an actor and comedian, was in “Get Out” and “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
- He’s also the comedy head at the Black-owned streaming service KweliTV.
- He told Insider about his plans to help redefine Black comedy.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Last summer, the actor and comedian Milton “Lil Rel” Howery grabbed his phone and scrolled through Twitter. An ad for the Black-owned streaming service KweliTV stopped him.
Enamored of the premise of a Black-owned media company, Howery downloaded the app and binge-watched indie shorts and feature films for two days. He reached out to KweliTV through a direct Twitter message, and DeShuna Spencer, KweliTV’s founder, responded.
“I was already in the mindset of wanting to jump into the streaming game,” Howery, 41, told Insider. “So I told her I’ve been watching everything and I was a fan of what she was doing.”
Founded in 2017, KweliTV has over 40,000 subscribers and offers over 500 films and shorts from independent Black creators, including dramas and documentaries. After several conversations with Spencer about the state of Black media and new techniques for content creation, Howery became the head of comedy at KweliTV in October.
Howery, who is scheduled to host the Oscars preshow on Sunday, has made a name for himself by appearing in films and TV shows such as “Get Out,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and “Bad Trip.” With his new position, Howery is reassessing the role of comedy in Black culture.
He’s greenlighted nearly 30 projects, including an animated series, “The Matumbila’s,” about a Tanzanian immigrant family adjusting to the social mores of the US.
“Our business model is built around shifting the Black narrative, helping to dismantle implicit bias, and increasing the visibility and economic inclusion among Black creatives,” Spencer told Insider. She added that after the first few conversations with Howery, “I became excited about what we could build together.”
The ’90s are often referred to as the golden age of Black television, with sitcoms such as “Martin,” “Living Single,” and “Moesha,” among others. But some of the creators of these shows didn’t have equity in their work. That’s something Howery and Spencer can change – and they’re eager to do so.
Allissa V. Richardson, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California, told Insider that now there’s a need for content made for Black people, by Black people, especially in comedy.
“People are turning away from things that don’t make them feel good,” she said. “They want to escape into a world where Black life is limitless, fun, and funny. And our entertainment typically does that.”
“It is a blessing in disguise that we weren’t accepted by all these networks and studios,” Howery added. “It’s forced us to do our own stuff.”
‘You can create your own table’
Howery has trained for years to be a comedy executive. He’s attended Hollywood pitch meetings and executive-produced his own work. On every set, he asks “a million questions.” He’s diligently observed how producers strategize, how directors lead, and how editors craft.
Grasping both the creative and the technical aspects of the entertainment business gave him an open mind when selecting content for KweliTV, he said. During a time of social and political unrest, Howery wants to offer content that makes people feel good.
“Everything can’t just be about slavery. It’s OK to talk about, but we have more stories than that,” he said. “There are different types of Black people all over the world doing different things.”
Each Sunday, Howery goes through content submissions with Spencer and calls creatives to talk through their ideas. One of the hardest parts of the job is saying no to creators, he said, especially since he knows filmmakers are emotionally and financially invested in their work.
“When it’s bad but shot well,” he said, “that’s irritating – it looks beautiful, but it’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen in your life.”
One of the projects Howery has greenlighted is “Love, New York,” a short directed by Dionna McMillian that follows a struggling actress on her way to a big audition. McMillian told Insider that, as she’s an independent filmmaker, much of what she’s able to accomplish is through the willingness of others to invest in not only her work but her brand.
“When your film receives a stamp of approval from an established comedian, people tend to be more willing to watch your work and believe it’s actually a funny film,” McMillian said.
Sean Bartley is the creator of the TV series “Connect,” which chronicles the lives of four friends and their entrepreneurial journeys; the second season premiered in February on KweliTV. Bartley said that the benefit of having Howery greenlight content helped him realize that creators don’t always need major networks to greenlight projects.
“You can create your own table and state your own claim,” he said.
Zulfiqar Manzi, the creator of “The Matumbila’s,” agreed. “Even though the family comes from Tanzania, there is still relatability,” Manzi said. “Howery understands anything that’s funny first can work.”
Creators get paid quarterly and based on minutes watched of their episodes. The payment to producers such as Manzi is split 60/40: Manzi takes home 60% of the royalties, while KweliTV receives 40%.
Howery is aware there are other Black-owned networks, such as Diddy’s Revolt and the Black News Channel, cofounded by former Rep. J. C. Watts. “We don’t have to compete,” he said. “Maybe at some point we can figure out a way to combine forces and turn into these big players out here.”
Describing himself as “hands-on” with creatives, Howery said that connecting with others as a comedy head had inspired him to invest more in carving out a space for himself in Hollywood. Similar to the producer and actress Issa Rae, Howery believes it’s important to connect with next-generation talent, especially as more creatives become their own executives and streaming services continue to overtake traditional media.
Aside from Howery, Spencer runs the company alone. Howery brought on an assistant, who helps him look through submissions. The next step for the platform is to increase its presence internally and to double down on making it a “safe space” by introducing more wellness topics, Spencer said.
Though he’s carving out his own path, Howery hasn’t forgone traditional Hollywood. He wants the industry to pay attention to the app to find up-and-coming talent to work with. Even he still works full time as an actor and comedian – he wants more Black creatives to continue to rise in Hollywood, paving the way for others who want to do the same.
“Have your hand in everything while building your own tools,” he said. “After that, figure out how to build a home.”