“I realized,” he says, “I may not be anything.”
A few weeks later, his neighbor lent him a purple-sleeved VHS tape that changed everything: 1987's "Eddie Murphy Raw" standup special. Fowler popped in the cassette, and instantly, "it all came to me."
"It was the first time I watched a standup kind of talk to me, and kind of talk like me," says Fowler, who sports short, purple hair during a February video chat from his Los Angeles home. "And I realized I wanted to be a standup comedian."
Nowadays, Fowler is on top of his aspirations. On an idea board in his house, the 32-year-old actor and writer keeps a list of eight passion projects he wants to make before he's comfortable calling it a career.
Already crossed off the bucket list: working with Murphy. That happened with "Coming 2 America," in which Fowler not only shares scenes with his comedy hero — he plays the unwitting son of Murphy's Prince Akeem. Decades in the making, the buzzy sequel begins streaming Friday on Amazon Prime. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Amid a stacked cast — also featuring Arsenio Hall, Wesley Snipes, Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan and James Earl Jones — Fowler’s Lavelle is the narrative linchpin, as he grapples with his right to one day rule the movie’s fictional kingdom of Zamunda.
“It’s just insane to see him stand directly next to someone who pretty much is his idol,” says Fowler’s sister, Yashika. “He used to literally sit in his room and watch [Murphy] on TV and rewind and play, and was able to repeat it word for word. It’s the craziest thing.”
Fowler grew up alongside his sister and two brothers in a household where financial hardship and his parents' eventual separation kept everyone on edge. But his little sister fondly recalls that whenever she was feeling down, he would cheer her up with some sort of performance — perhaps an impromptu one-man play or a silly rendition of her latest favorite song.
“I always knew I wanted to make people laugh, and it had to have been because of the way I grew up,” explains Fowler, whose sidesplitting standup is largely autobiographical. “My parents were, like, teenagers when they had me, so we were all learning at the same time, in a way. They were kids raising kids, and things were rough sometimes, but it never got me down. The kids were always in between the parents, so I think that’s why I became a comedian, because I always wanted to ease tension with people.”
Even after bombing during a standup set at his high school talent show — he led with a feminine hygiene gag he now admits wasn’t entirely appropriate — Fowler committed to comedy and began working the D.C. standup circuit. His incredulous father then booted him from the house, so he spent two years living with his grandmother Delores, a former D.C. police officer, in a one-bedroom apartment. (That arrangement inspired the 2015 ABC pilot “Delores & Jermaine,” in which Whoopi Goldberg played his grandmother.)
After a two-week stint at Prince George’s Community College confirmed that higher education wasn’t for him, Fowler boarded a Megabus to New York on his 20th birthday to wade into life as a couch-surfing comic. He subsequently found lasting comedy companions in the likes of Lil Rel Howery and brothers Kenny and Keith Lucas while starring in the TruTV sketch show “Friends of the People” from 2014 to 2015. Following a slew of unsuccessful pilots, he booked the lead role in the multicamera sitcom “Superior Donuts,” which launched in 2017 and ran for two seasons on CBS.
A part in Boots Riley’s searingly subversive 2018 film “Sorry to Bother You” had further raised Fowler’s profile by the time he landed the audition for Lavelle in the “Coming to America” follow-up. While the 1988 original is Akeem’s fish-out-of-water tale, as the pampered prince travels to Queens in search of a worthy bride, the second installment flips the script by immersing Fowler’s Lavelle — a ticket scalper, college dropout and lifelong Queens kid — in the outlandish opulence of Zamunda.
“Everything about that character is the things that I’ve been through or things I’m familiar with and things I’ve struggled with,” Fowler says, “especially when it comes to identity and sense of belonging.”
Fowler went in for two auditions, rewriting his lines both times to deliver a dash of unpredictability. Convinced Fowler’s authenticity was right for the role, director Craig Brewer took the audition tape to Murphy to get the star and producer’s perspective.
“Eddie sparked to him,” Brewer recalls. “He goes, ‘Well, this guy, he knows comedies — he’s a comedian.’ And I was like, ‘Are you saying that because he’s being all jokey?’ And he goes: ‘No, no — comedians bring their essence. That’s what they are, and that’s what this guy’s doing. I don’t feel like he’s being false.’ ”
As Fowler got to know Murphy, he came to appreciate his idol's reverence for Richard Pryor. Just as Murphy passed through doors opened by Pryor but decided not to retrace his steps, Fowler plans to blaze his own trail. "Eddie is Eddie," he emphasizes. "I want to make a name for myself."
In a change-of-pace performance, Fowler also can be seen playing Black Panther activist Mark Clark in the weighty HBO Max drama “Judas and the Black Messiah.” His involvement, however, runs deeper than that cameo: The movie came about after he got wind of parallel Fred Hampton scripts — one from the Lucas Brothers and Shaka King, the other from Will Berson — and convinced the writers to collaborate.
Going forward, Fowler is set to star with Lil Rel Howery and the Lucas Brothers in “The Come Up,” a heist comedy film he conceived. He’s co-writing a Showtime series with comedian Moshe Kasher about the mystery surrounding Biggie Smalls’s murder. And he sold a semi-autobiographical animated series to Fox, about a social-climbing family that’s forced to move back to its working-class neighborhood.
“His lane is not so narrow,” Brewer says. “I really look forward to seeing what comes out of his mind.”
At home, meanwhile, Fowler and his partner, makeup artist Meagan Hester, are raising a 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. When they welcomed Mars Kevin Fowler last year, the child’s name was a tribute to two loved ones Fowler recently lost: his mother, Marsha, who succumbed to breast cancer in 2017, and Kevin Barnett, his close friend, “Friends of the People” collaborator and “favorite comedian ever,” who died of pancreatitis complications in 2019.
Although Fowler seems effortlessly open, his voice trembles when the conversation turns to those losses. Despite the pain, he plans to channel that enduring grief — as well as his closer-than-ever relationship with his father — into a comedy special on love and loss. Whenever he second-guesses that decision, he assures himself it’s what his mother and Barnett would’ve pushed him to do.
“Going through two really big losses have put me in a really dark place,” Fowler says, palming away tears. “Some days, I didn’t want to live. There were days I didn’t even want to go onstage. And there were days where I would go onstage, and I would just cry. In a way, I didn’t want to do the comedy special because it hurts so much to know that they aren’t here to see it.
“Then I realized the one thing we can at least all agree on is that we lose people, and we gain people. That is literally what keeps me moving forward — that I’m not the only one going through this,” he says.
With that mantra in mind, Fowler is driven to bring all of the disparate, deeply personal pitches on his idea board to fruition. Once he works through the list — which is positioned near a framed photo of his mother and a cutout of Barnett — he figures he’ll leave Los Angeles, settle down with his family somewhere quiet and perhaps try something new.
Like a good punchline, it’s an unexpected turn. But as Fowler points out, he’s never been one for the predictable path.
“My mom said something that was always profound,” Fowler says. “She said: ‘Jermaine, you’re different. It’s going to take a while for people to catch up to you.’ My mom knew how weird I was. She knew the way I thought was just different, that I’m not going to be understood, ever, or if they do understand me, it’ll be much later. And she was right.”