Lil Rel Interview: Breonna Taylor Verdict, Naya Rivera, Comedy in Color

Culture

Lil Rel Howery and I are nervously laughing over the fact that no one in Atlanta seems to be taking COVID-19 seriously. “It’s almost shocking when you first get here,” he says during a recent phone call. “You’re like, ‘did I miss something?’ People look at you crazy when you got a mask on, like you’re doing too much.”

The actor and comedian is in the city to film “Vacation Friends,” a comedy he stars in with John Cena. On set, the cast is taking the pandemic extremely seriously—Howery says they’re tested three times per week. “So far so good,” he says. “I look at my results every day. People are like ‘well, if they ain’t called me, I’m guess I’m good.’ I be wanting to see mine. Make sure.”

Known for his supporting roles in films like Get Out and The Photograph, television shows such as The Carmichael Show, and a widely-acclaimed HBO comedy special last year, Howery has a string of movies waiting in the wings, including the highly anticipated film about the assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton, Judas and the Black Messiah, starring Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield. Howery has also branched out to audiobooks, hosting Laugh Out Loud Presents Comedy in Color, Volume 1, released this week.

Still, like most people, especially Black Americans, even a comedian like Howery has had a hard time finding anything funny about this year. GQ spoke with him about his support of the Black Lives Matter movement, his call to defund the police, the loss of his friend Naya Rivera and more.

GQ: You’re currently in Atlanta filming Vacation Friends. What has it been like working with John Cena on this project?

Lil Rel: I think people are going to be really surprised by our comedy chemistry. Yvonne Orji is playing my fiancée. Some comedies are overthought [but] so far this is hilarious.

It’s been really good coming back [to work] after COVID. Everything’s different. Things are actually cleaner than you would think. You can’t just put your hands in the potato chips when you feel like it. I think things are a lot smoother.

When the Breonna Taylor verdict came out, I didn’t feel like working. I explained it to my director and our producers [and] now we have a grief counselor on set. I think being in this pandemic, a lot of us have been home the whole time. We’re all just getting back to work [and] our mental health is very important. I appreciate them for really understanding there’s a lot going on, especially for Black people.

You recently hosted Jimmy Kimmel Live and Kimmel said you were one of his favorite hosts. You had an eight minute monologue in which you said “Everything is just not funny right now” and talked a lot about Black Lives Matter and police brutality. What was it like using that platform to talk about something serious and shift the tone?

I try to use the platform I’m on to just be honest. That’s one of the greatest things about comedy, too. But, also, I’m a person with a heart and I’m Black in America. I saw what everybody else was doing with their monologues and, to be honest with you, I thought it was kinda weird to be like ‘let’s do jokes.’ I’m like, I don’t want to do that.

It was also tough because I come from standup. I write my own material so when I told [the writers] I didn’t want no help, I think it made everybody nervous. But this is how I got here. I can come up with eight minutes. I honestly didn’t know what I was going to say until like the night before. I was still working on it.

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