Lil Rel Howery is a National Treasure

Because if Abe Beame doesn't rhapsodize the Chicago comedian, who will give him his flowers?
By    March 4, 2020

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Abe Beame showed up to the Roc Nation Brunch in a salmon-colored suit.

To my great shock, chagrin and dismay, The Photograph, a movie that on paper sounds designed in a lab to take my money, is a slog. Or I should say, it is mostly a slog. Between cold and beautiful shots of cold and beautiful people, there are tiny rays of light, life, and humor. These godfingers take the form of the 5’6, stocky, bespectacled, salt and pepper bearded Chicago comic, Milton “Lil Rel” Howery Jr., a vat of charisma with arms and legs who seems very, very poised to make the leap in 2020.

Howery is 40, something of a late bloomer who has worked as a standup and writer for 13 years. He made his bones as an actor on The Carmichael Show, a ridiculously stacked Cosby Show throwback/remix, and his subsequent self-titled short lived sitcom on Fox. But having Rel spew stilted writers room quips over canned laughter is caging a bird. He’s a cheat code. Unleash him in your film with 2-3 minutes to riff and talk good-natured shit and watch your Rotten Tomato score rise exponentially.

With his doughy expressive face, and an instrument that vacillates between a raspy Chicago drawl when relaxed and a hilariously shrieky, Hughleyesque upper register when excited or agitated punctuated with a magnetic, mischievous chuckle, Rel doesn’t have to do much to make you laugh, but he does anyways. The eye for detail, his spot on impressions and narrative construction is remarkable in his HBO comedy special from the end of last year, Live From Crenshaw. In particular, an extended anecdote about going back to Chicago to bury his crackhead uncle should be taught in English seminars across the country. With all the agonizing Chappelle think pieces I felt compelled to skim every time he took a shit it’s a shame there was no room for a few hundred words on Rel’s special, because it was the best hour of 2019.

Howery presents as your cool ass older cousin at a party who’s already through a half rack of ribs and 3-4 Heinekens and can pretty much talk you into anything. He generally plays down to Earth and working class. In his own sitcom, he was a nurse. In Uncle Drew, he was a footlocker employee who coaches a Rucker Park team. In Insecure he was a nice guy lawyer who gets curved. He’s the guy at work everyone loves, who gives about half of a fuck most of the time, has a weed pen in his desk and is unusually funny in casual banter.

This is perhaps why Jordan Peele chose him for his crucial role in Get Out. The movie is a masterclass in subversion, and Rel is the audience surrogate. He in many ways plays the same part Jamie Kennedy did in Scream, a third wall breaking commentary on the absurd premise and its conventions. He watches the plot develop in horror, practically screaming the title of the movie at Daniel Kaluyaa as he gets deeper and deeper. What I believe Peele correctly identified is Rel is the perfect audience surrogate because he is the everyman for this moment. 

In The Photograph, Rel does a lot with a little. He’s a middle class father of two daughters who is the Greek chorus for Lakeith Stanfield’s romantic follies. He’s obviously perfect, capable of rendering the most casual small talk hilarious with the subtle raise of a sarcastic eyebrow over the rim of a trademark coke bottle eyeglass lens. You may realize after the film that his scenes were the only ones that made you sit up.

It’s a role, and a mantle many comedians have held over the years. Let’s call it the Mike Epps part, the friend, rival or neighbor who grabs his few minutes of screen time with the schtick and a few sharp one liner insults he’s been honing for years on the standup circuit. But in Brittany Runs A Marathon, Rel displays a skillset that may provide us with more than a few memorable sidekick appearances. He presents depth and warmth. There are dimensions to his performance as a brother in law/father figure to a troubled young woman struggling to evolve. Rel does more than steal a few scenes, he displays the type of chops you need to anchor a movie slightly more substantial than Uncle Drew

Rel has a stunning five films slated for release this year (Including something IMDB calls The Untitled Fred Hampton Project with Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield!) which would give pause to the likes of workaholics like his longtime scene partner Tiffany Haddish. With his across platform talent he could go in any direction from here: A Kevin Hart styled standup with his own annual hour of material and a national tour, another crack at a television show on a streaming service that will give him a little more room than a network television studio, a starring role in a feature film, or a steady diet of supporting parts that will allow him to keep murdering every second of screentime. I hope it’s some mix of all of the above, because at the moment there’s no such thing as too much Lil Rel. 

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