The 69th annual Primetime Emmy Awards made history in a lot of ways: for Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ record wins as a performer, for the first African-American female writer to win for comedy series (Lena Waithe), for the first African-American director to win for comedy series (Donald Glover) — and for the first African-American announcer. “Superior Donuts” star Jermaine Fowler landed the coveted gig, thanks to his relationship with CBS, which broadcasts both his sitcom and this year’s Emmys.
“I grew up on television. It has a connection to me, and all of those people like Lorne [Michaels] and Don [Pardo] and Cicely Tyson and Julia [Louis-Dreyfus], they played a part in my life, so being a part of the Emmys was just the most exhilarating, full-circle thing that ever happened to me,” Jermaine Fowler tells Variety.
But his animated performance drew mixed reviews online, with some applauding his enthusiasm — while others found it a bit too exuberant. After his historic night, Fowler talks with Variety about how he got the gig, his response to the reaction, and where he’ll go from here.
The Emmys were on CBS, you’re on CBS, so it seems like a no-brainer you’d be involved in the show in some way, but how was it decided you’d be the announcer, rather than a presenter?
CBS has always supported and believed in me, and I’m about 11 years into my stand-up comedy career, and they’ve been fans of my stand-up for a while now. I think they saw my ability to perform on-stage and wanted to share that with a large audience.
How much preparation did you have to do for all of the pre-written pieces of the show, and how much did you get to ad-lib as the night went on?
I rehearsed for the Emmys for three days leading up to the show. The rehearsals were long days, and I had to make it fun for me and find ways to be myself and not just be a voice reading words off the paper. The producers gave me opportunity to run with it. The fun facts I was reciting about nominees, they were on the paper, but the enthusiasm and a lot of the jokes that were added onto it were all me. A lot of them were improvised in rehearsal, and some of them were done on the spot in the show.
What was one of your favorite moments?
Honestly when Donald [Glover] won, it was just sheer enthusiasm. I had been a fan of his work from 2006/7 when he had that sketch troupe on YouTube. They were like my favorite group of comedians, and that was my first introduction to Donald, so it was cool to see his trajectory from doing YouTube sketches to being an Emmy award winning actor. That was so amazing to me, and I genuinely felt so happy for him. A lot of the stuff you heard live on TV was me just being extremely excited about the whole event. And also, when I saw Lena Waithe on stage, that was amazing. She’s going to open a lot of doors for a lot of people, so that meant a lot. And it was so cool that Aziz [Ansari] gave Lena her room to speak. It was like, “This is your moment. Say what you have to say.” That was so classy.
What was one of the more challenging moments?
Reading off a teleprompter. I’m near-sighted, so I was very nervous I was going to mess up those lines. But thank God they had a big enough font so I could see. That was honestly the most nerve-wracking part of the whole event. I knew I couldn’t mess that up, and I’m glad I didn’t. The commercial breaks and telling people how to watch the show on Facebook or the other behind-the-scenes content on various social media sites I had to get in there, that was very important to the show.
This is the first time the audience has really paid so much attention to the announcer. How much have you been following the reaction online?
I was allowed to have my cell phone during the whole event, so I was watching the social conversation unfold. It was pretty beautiful. I saw the love, I saw the hate, and first of all, I’m a comedian, so I knew that there’d be a mixed reaction to my role. That’s just the nature of my job. Comedians play off of social commentary. This is a new format. CBS took a risk, and they changed the voice of the Emmys. It’s never been done before. I wanted people to be excited about what they were watching. I have a lot of energy, and as you get to know me, you will quickly learn that! I channel my energy into my acting, my writing, everything. I love making people laugh, and I felt so blessed to be on that stage and watch all of those people make history.
You mention seeing negative comments, but as a comedian you have to be used to polarizing an audience at times.
I’m a comic, we get hecklers every night! It’s really just part of the job. Award shows have always had traditionally white voices as the announcer. Someone you don’t see, but someone you can hear. This is the first time you saw one on the Emmys, and it was different for people – it was different for me! Usually the voice is calm, poised, and people get used to that voice playing from their televisions in their living rooms. When you change it up into an African-American comedian’s voice, people might be taken aback. And I think some were. But the Emmys made history this year in a lot of ways – with the first black announcer, and the first black man to win for directing a comedy series and the first black woman to win for comedy writing – and some people are going to resist that change, but we have to keep pushing forward because we all benefit when we embrace the voices of the diverse and inclusive artistic community.
You’re obviously very supportive of your fellow artists. What kind of support have you seen come back at you?
I don’t do anything for press. I do things for me and to make my friends and family laugh, and the fact that they were proud of me meant the world. I had my mom’s cell phone with me backstage as a good luck charm. [She passed away recently.] She would have loved to be on that stage with me, having the time of my life. That’s why I did it. I also appreciate the African-American community for having my back on social media. That’s black love. The passion of the community, you completely felt that that night. I think we’ve been misrepresented [in the media], so we know the importance of supporting each other, and we know the sacrifices we had to make to get to where we are. Whether you’re a comedian or you work retail or you’re a cop, you make sacrifices, and we put up with a lot of crap, we all do. As a comedian, I get to tell my story, and they felt that, and that’s why they all stood up for me, and it felt awesome.
What have you learned from the live experience at the Emmys that you may apply to the next season of “Superior Donuts” or even your stand-up?
To embrace the live audience more. At the Emmys I was feeding off the energy of that audience, and that’s why I was so excited. I have a newfound respect for all of the Emmy hosts and Stephen Colbert. Imagine doing the Emmys for decades and then this black kid from Maryland shows up, twists it up, and now all of these articles are written about him. I’m so appreciative of all of the others who came before me. They opened the door, they did such an amazing job, and I’m so happy I got to learn from them and put my own spin on it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.