Quick wits, sharp tongues and hilarious insights into the human condition are all things that come to mind when thinking about stand-up comedy. Chicago-based writer/speaker/actress/comedian Kellye Howard has ample amounts of all these qualities, and what truly sets her apart is her mindful approach to performing, along with an unquenchable drive to present her most authentic self every time she takes the stage.
“Sometimes you have to punch a story up to get the laugh, and for me – I’ve been doing stand-up for over 11 years – I’m past simply trying to get the laugh,” Howard said. “I want to feel good every time I step on that stage. With comedy what I try to do is to be as authentic as humanly possible.”
Through practicing the art of meditation for over a year, Howard has discovered a desire to rid herself from the aspects of her personality that may be based on the perception of others rather than truth. In turn, she has embraced an authenticity that is rare in life, especially in the entertainment business. What has emerged in her performances is comedy based on personal anecdotes that not only creates copious amounts of laughter, but also connects audiences through shared human experiences.
“We’re all connected yet separate, and we all live very similar things,” she said. “The underlying truth of most of our stories is the feeling, the emotion, behind them, whether it’s joy or fear or nervousness, anxiety, excitement, whatever. When I’m telling a story about my daughter and frustration, there is a parent in the crowd who can relate to that even though their daughter has never done what I’m describing my daughter as doing in this moment.”
Howard’s family often serves as inspiration for her in life and comedy. She explores aspects of motherhood that aren’t often talked about and, in her hands, the result is utter hilarity. “I’m a 35-year-old mother of two 16-year-old daughters, and the truth is there is a lot of jealousy there,” she said. “I’m still trying to figure out how to live my life and I’m looking at them and they’re carefree. I like to talk about that on stage because I’m being authentic and honest that this is what I feel. Of course, you’re always happy for your child, but sometimes you still have that sense of ‘Damn, if I only had that when I was growing up.’”
Motivation and inspiration have become the cornerstones of Howard’s work. Whether she is discussing “Black Girl Magic or Voodoo” with Blair Christian on her popular podcast “Kellye Talks,” or sharing life experiences as the host of Comedy & Coffee at Kafein in Evanston (every third Friday of the month), Howard seamlessly combines comedy and contemplation. She is even taking her unique brand of mindful motivation to the next level by offering a “Live Less Petty” workshop in hopes to encourage others to embrace positivity.
She explained, “The workshop is about overcoming and finding the right tools to continue to grow and live the life that you want. I think that’s one of the biggest issues we all have, that we don’t have the proper tools. Especially people like me, who come from homes like I did.”
From her childhood growing up in Harvey, to losing two living children, to residing in the northern suburbs with her “hilarious family” and working as an entertainer, Howard refuses to let any one aspect of her life define her on or off the stage. She said, “I strive to tell true stories that will change lives versus stories that are just funny.”
Final Five Questions with Kellye Howard
My 16-year-old daughter. One time we were driving, and there was a Starbucks and all these new buildings going up. The Starbucks was right next to a JJ Fish & Chicken, and you never see a JJ Fish in Evanston. It’s a South Side of Chicago thing or a Harvey thing. So we saw this Starbucks right next to this JJ Fish and my daughter said, “It looks like they’re trying to gentrify, and we stopped it.”
I just thought that was so funny. For a kid to even think on that level and to say that. She says funny stuff like that all the time.
Do you have a favorite joke either that you do or you love from another comedian?
I don’t know if I’ve ever really thought about my favorite joke.
One of my first jokes that I thought was pretty cool was me talking about my daughter and her imaginary friend Amaya. I had to really play into it because it was either that or discount her feelings as a kid. So, one imaginary friend started to evolve into Amaya’s whole family.
I conjured up this joke where I talked about them having to pay rent because sh*t kept disappearing from out of our the refrigerator. The end of the joke revolved around me taking my daughter to the doctor, who recommends that I treat these imaginary friends as real people. The joke gets to a point where I’m fighting imaginary people, and I have to leave the house to take a breather. An officer pulls me over and asks what would make me leave my five-year-old daughter home alone and I say, “She’s with Amaya’s mom and them.”
That was my first joke where I put so much energy into it. The joke kept evolving to the point where I ended up in jail and getting robbed. It’s a ridiculous-ass joke, but it’s a fun one.
What establishments or landmarks would you recommend for someone to visit in Chicago?
This is super fattening and now that I’m a vegetarian and I’ve cut sugar out of my diet it’s difficult to recommend this place, but The Bongo Room and their caramel pretzel pancake is the sh*t. It’s the best. That’s the best thing that I’ve ever tasted.
That and I would make sure to tell people to go to Giordano’s, definitely. That’s another place everyone has to eat.
Do you have any comedy recommendations to share with the world?
In “The Standups,” Deon Cole was super, super funny. I really enjoyed that. I also really enjoyed Kevin Hart’s new book. It was great. Not only was it a journey through his struggles as a comedian, but it was also very motivating and empowering. He wrote it in a way that was super authentic. That’s what I got out of it. You could tell he was just being himself and also inspiring you at the same time, which is super dope because who doesn’t want to not have to change who they are in order to change the world?
Tiffany Haddish is another one. She’s a good friend of mine, and when I see her on TV, she’s just the same way as when I see her in person. She’s never been any different, which to me is very admirable. Coming from the hood, and being raised a certain way – and later realizing that way doesn’t suit me – and having to find a new way to be has been such a challenge. And so, the more I grow away from who I was, it gives you an uneasy feeling of am I changing because this is good for me or am I changing because I don’t want to be like that? Do we look at that as being bad? Like I don’t want to be hood, I want to be good, but what is good? Evanston? There’s a lot of conflict there.
So, when I look at people like Kevin Hart or Tiffany Haddish who aren’t too removed from who they’ve aways been, it’s super admirable.
What makes you Rebellious?
Maybe my mindfulness is what makes me rebellious, because I had been instinctive for a very long time and I would respond just to respond. What makes me rebellious is going against the grain on what I should do to be happy and what works best for me.
I do think that has everything to do with mindfulness and being self-aware and being considerate of not only myself, my time, my needs, my wants, but others’ selves, time, needs and wants as well. Especially those people close to me. It’s important to consider that.
*Photos used with permission from Kellye Howard