“How you all doing this evening, lovely people?” Byron Bowers asks from the stage of the Hollywood Improv. “Thank you all for coming out and supporting live comedy. It means so much. People up here baring their souls!”
He turns stage left, to a couple who told a previous comedian they’d recently immigrated. “So Cuba, huh?” Bowers enthuses. “You made it!” He remembers the 2016 passing of Fidel Castro. “First off, hey, it’s OK: He’s dead! Ain’t shit gonna happen!” He pauses as the audience laughs.
“I’ve been to Cuba. You know, in Cuba, you’ve got to buy the internet on the street? They flash the card, like ‘Wi-Fi?’ It’s like buying heroin! And they charge you, like, four dollars an hour. What they don’t tell you is the internet is slow, and it’s going to cut off every five minutes. And you’re like, ‘Man, I just got had by some old lady feeding birds in the park.’ Never buy Wi-Fi from an old lady in a park. Don’t buy Wi-Fi from anybody that, the internet wasn’t out when they was 18. You know this lady used to smuggle guns 20 years ago!”
Bowers has spent a decade as a Los Angeles up-and-comer. Fellow comics admire his casual fearlessness. The industry hasn’t quite figured out what to do with him. His material is conversational and free-flowing; he typically doesn’t write “jokes.” Sometimes, he doesn’t prepare at all, preferring to speak in the moment. He has, for example, zero Cuba material in his arsenal. But he still made a crowd laugh for 15 minutes about his visit.
On a 2016 episode of The Joe Rogan Experience, podcast host Rogan described his guest as "this sort of subversive comedian. You’re this open-minded, free-speaking dude who says wild shit onstage.” “If you know anything about my set,” Bowers replied, “you know I know both sides.”
"Jerrod Carmichael and I were both some of the most-booked comics in L.A., and we were both sleeping on couches.”
Currently playing enigmatic fixer Meldrick on gritty Showtime drama The Chi—recently renewed for a second season after airing only four episodes–he delves into his troubled childhood on Comedy Central storytelling series This Is Not Happening on March 9. Bowers spent his first six years with his father in Athens, Georgia. He was taught to fish, hunt and survive off the land. His grandparents raised chickens, grew vegetables and mulled wine under the house.
“It was calm,” he remembers. “You still drink and drive and live, you know? And church every Sunday.”
At age 6, Bowers was sent to live with his mother in Atlanta. He didn’t understand why. There, he says, things changed.
Vegetables came canned. Bullies picked on him. He had no curfew. When the state got called on his mother, he returned to Athens. Around fourth or fifth grade, he was sent back to Atlanta once again. Bowers continued getting in trouble. Then, one day, he took an advancement test and transferred to a “white” school through graduation.
He’d long suspected he was advanced for his age. Having sex beginning at age 10 certainly sped the process.
As he recalls in This Is Not Happening, his father was released in 1994 after two years in a mental institution. He picked his 14-year-old son up for dinner and a movie in a brand new coupe. Just one quick stop up the block first.
The house had a basketball rim out back … and a woman cooking crack in the kitchen. His father sent him to shoot hoops. Bowers had always stunk. He missed the backboard and thought about his father inside. There wouldn’t be any dinner, he slowly realized, or a movie. Through the arc of his final shot, he saw the coupe circle away.
Four years later, Bowers attended King College in Bristol, Tennessee, on a partial basketball scholarship. He was the first in his family to tackle higher education.
King College held about 800, including a dozen black students. The only thing nearby was a Nascar racetrack. Girls weren’t allowed in the male dorms. Bored and restless, Bowers shoplifted and resold textbooks. His pals hacked internet access, then downloaded and sold burned CDs.
“I was able to bring myself into Meldrick [on The Chi]. … By the time I shot the final episode, I don’t even know if I was acting anymore.”
He was also recruited to sell crack. By then, both his father and aunt were addicted. “I remember looking at a rock,” the comedian describes, “asking it, ‘What makes you so strong? What is it about you that makes a parent do the things you make them do?’”
He wanted to harness the power, to wield that same control. And he wanted the money. “I started living a triple life,” he admits.
Bowers acted like one of the guys with the basketball team jocks. He devoutly attended daily prayer meetings with his white “nerd” friends. “And at night, you go off into the black community and hustle. The traps was the only place where you mingle with your people, in a way. It’s a crazy way to do it,” he says of the paradox.
He started failing classes. He got shot at. Six months in, Bowers knew he was in danger of crossing a line. Violence toward others was inevitable. Depression turned to thoughts of self-harm.
Bowers quit selling and left Bristol for Atlanta. A speech class at Georgia Perimeter raised his GPA enough to attend Southern Polytechnic State. “That’s where I learned white-collar crime,” he says. His business-management degree landed him in corporate America, advancing the interests of a public-utility company. “It sent me down another deep end,” Bowers confesses. Depression again took hold. “That’s when I wanted to start doing comedy.”
His mother had introduced him to Martin Lawrence Live Talkin’ Shit in junior high. During high school, when his friends went on dates on the weekends, he stayed home watching Def Jam on bootlegged cable. He tried performing twice in college–a year and a half apart–and got booed down both times.
He tried once more in 2005, when a friend put together a “welcome back” show at a Jamaican club. It sold out, and Bowers never looked back. He moved to L.A. in 2008. “I want to be going at it hard,” he says he told himself. “No job or nothing to fall back on. Whether I ate or not, it was going to be all stand-up.”
He crashed with comedian Ron G. He spent a few weeks sleeping in his car. He crashed with comedian Neal Brennan. Power and control were a thing of the past. He learned how to ask for help.
“At that time, Jerrod Carmichael and I were both some of the most-booked comics in L.A., and we were both sleeping on couches,” Bowers marvels. “He was like, ‘Oh, that’s 'cause you’re funny! If you weren’t funny, you wouldn’t have a couch to sleep on.’”
Bowers’ family and his views on society were frequent topics. He wasn’t much for rules, established roles or for dumbing anything down. His rhythm absorbed a singsongy lyricism from the rappers he joined in Atlanta’s music studios, dance venues and gentlemen’s clubs. As he puts it, “I stripped it all down to learn how to communicate what I think is funny to a group of people. I’m just talking.”
He was finally “passed” (i.e., a paid regular) at Sunset Strip institution the Comedy Store, and was among the heat-seeking New Faces at 2013’s prestigious Just for Laughs Montreal comedy festival. At 2014’s South by Southwest festival, a car crashed through an Austin barricade where he and Hannibal Buress had stood minutes before. Four people died.
That night, Bowers performed at Esther’s Follies, reporting that friends who saw the news had checked in with him on social media. “They’re asking, ‘Hey, that looked scary. Are you OK?’ I told them, 'Yeah, I’m all right … but my car is fuuucked uuup.’” Groans, immediately followed by a long applause break. As he finished his set and left the stage, Buress whispered, “Man, you got some balls!”
Bowers’ current comedy resume includes The Eric Andre Show, The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail and Jimmy Kimmel Live. He’s performed in London, Israel, for American troops in Afghanistan and Bahrain, even in Mexico for a crowd that didn’t speak English. “But they still liked jokes about cops shooting black people,” he shrugs. “I still got applause breaks.”
Bowers knows he’s an acquired taste. A mainstream sitcom isn’t likely. He chuckles, remembering an acting class where he was asked to name his favorite comedy series. He offered Breaking Bad.
“'That’s a drama, not a comedy!’ [I replied,] 'Oh, uh … The Handmaid’s Tale?’ [They’re like,] 'What?!?’”
“They were literally getting mad at me,” Bowers recalls. He understood why actor friends warned him, “Don’t let acting class change you. Don’t let it lose your rawness.”
As The Chi’s Meldrick, Bowers provides calming, brilliantly underplayed comedic relief. Though he typically eschews auditions, casting director Carmen Cuba brought him in for Stranger Things’ second season after meeting him at a party. Bowers knew he wasn’t the right fit. He also understood he was being tested.
Cuba–the too-coincidental sign of her last name not lost on Bowers–wanted him for protagonist-antagonist Ronnie. He lacked the experience required for a lead role, but proved a natural Meldrick. Producers encouraged him to add bits and pieces of his stand-up persona accordingly. Thus, while Meldrick will wreak vengeance if crossed over guns or drugs, he’s also spiritual, a health nut and a dog lover.
Friends asked Bowers if he wrote his own scenes. The role his family–and personal–history plays is undeniable. “I was able to bring myself into Meldrick,” he defers. “I feel like I’m playing a version of myself as a Bowers, a version that could have been. Or, since I’ve got a cousin in prison—so what we are, in a sense. By the time I shot the final episode, I don’t even know if I was acting anymore.”
On stage, Bowers’ comedy stems from recognizing and overcoming intense situations. Fearful moments dealing with his father or being bullied ultimately became sources of strength. “Those moments are where your instincts come from to be funny,” he says.
Which is precisely why whatever future roles may appear, he’ll always prefer the freedom of live comedy. “With acting, the goal is for you to become someone else. With stand-up, it’s different. That’s where you learn to become yourself.”
This Is Not Happening airs Fridays at midnight/11c on Comedy Central. The Chi airs Sundays at 10/9c on Showtime.