Growing up, comedian Kellye Howard felt invisible. Her parents showered attention on her two siblings, so Howard tried to steal it back. "I wrote stories and cried until my dad would sit down and listen to them," she says. "I'd interrupt very heated backgammon games."
Howard no longer relies on tears or game-crashing shenanigans. Over the last 11 years she has honed her act, becoming a staple in Chicago comedy and electrifying both north- and south-side crowds. When Kellye Howard shows up, other comics shrink to the corner of the bar. Nobody wants to perform after she destroys.
Though Howard has remained local, this fall she's targeting a national audience. She's recording her inaugural album live at Timothy O'Toole's on November 15. She's also finalizing the script for a webseries, slated to come out early next year.
Her parents and siblings forced her to become tenacious, and her new nuclear family now provides inspiration for her act. After living in the city until 2015, she and her husband and two 16-year-old daughters moved to the north suburbs for the calmer pace. The clash between what the family had known living in the city and what they'd been thrust into by relocating shocks her even now. From day one, as she started unpacking the truck, she says, "I was scared shitless when I saw a herd of Caucasians running; I assumed there were aliens chasing them. Or a tsunami."
Howard was discovered in a Foot Locker while studying theater at Columbia College. A promoter overheard her venting to a coworker about a family of customers who'd claimed to speak no English but were obviously fluent in the language. Within a week Howard was opening for Damon Williams at a Holiday Inn in Matteson, Illinois. She quickly moved to Los Angeles, imagining stardom on the stand-up stage. But at the time, she admits, she didn't even know what a set was supposed to be structured like, or how one was constructed.
Wilted, she returned to Chicago after two years and got to work. Howard was certain in her bombastic delivery style, but her material mused on the rest of the world rather than on her own insecurities as a black woman. Only recently, after encouragement from friends and a spiritual adviser, has she begun to recognize the power of her own voice.
Howard continues to reshape her comedy routine in an effort to be more honest and raw, steering into uncomfortable, emotionally charged areas. She's experienced the deaths of two of her infant children, one at seven weeks and the other at 15 months; coped with a multiple sclerosis diagnosis; and dealt with marital infidelity.
"I've overcome so much that I feel like I'm the unicorn of black women," she says, "someone that statistically should have fallen long ago but refuses to." v