I don’t remember the very last words she said to me, but I remember the overall sentiment: “That was fun as hell.”
When I was invited to the live taping of HBO’s Lil Rel Howery Live In Crenshaw, I knew the perfect person to join me: one of my best friends, Bonique’a (We called her “Niq,” for short). I don’t throw around the term “best friend” lightly, but she certainly earned it easily when she picked me up from LAX the day I moved to Los Angeles (that’s real best friend shit) in 2015.
We sat on the benches at Susan Miller Dorsey Senior High School and watched director Jerrod Carmichael shooting B-roll of the audience (with Niq subsequently geeking out at the sight of him); Akua Willis singing the Negro National Anthem and the LA Youth Step Team hyping the crowd for the main act. Stepping out in a purple sweatsuit that cosmically matched the colors of the LA sky during sunset—like a real matchy-matchy Chicago nigga does—Howery proceeded to provide us with one of the best laughs of our lives.
The special had such a lasting impact on us, we sat in the car in front of my house for at least 30 minutes relaying our favorite jokes and giggling anew. I waved goodbye with a cheek-straining grin on my face, thinking, “Damn, I can’t wait until this airs so we can see ourselves on TV and reminisce about it together.”
Little did I know, I wouldn’t get that full moment because that was the last time I saw her alive, in person. About a week later, I received one of the most jarring phone calls of my life, informing me that Niq was found dead in her home.
I’m going to be honest. Having to reconcile with the fact that I previously had excited feelings about recapping this experience only for it to be replaced by anxious and grief-filled feelings is a special kind of torture. And yet, writing (and by extension, comedy) has always served as a therapeutic experience for me so this was inevitable.
In addition to my own history with Lil Rel as a fellow Chicagoan (I used to frequent his hosted stand-up shows at the now-closed Jokes And Notes in Chicago way back when), I was excited to see his come-up in Get Out and beyond so I was thusly happy for him getting his own special, a dream of pretty much every comedian. And for me, he absolutely delivered—I’ve never laughed so hard about a chicken nugget sauce flap in my life.
“I always think telling personable stories in comedy is what works,” Lil Rel told The Root, adding that he was able to name his children as consulting producers, which is pretty damn dope. “Yes, you can do topical things and things like that, but telling stories about family and the process of certain things, to me, is so funny. Some of my favorite comedians are just great storytellers. The way I structure my special is, in a lot of ways due to Eddie Murphy’s Delirious.”
The title of this special is sort of a meta-joke for Rel. Like many fellow transplants and other non-L.A. natives, mainstream television had us believing Crenshaw was its own city instead of the boulevard that holds its name. As a proud Chicagoan, Rel definitely warred with where to film the special. In an eerie turn of events, there came the subject of the late Nipsey Hussle and how Rel intentionally decided to use comedy as a much-needed salve for the Los Angeles area.
“It’s to let the world know that I’m funny everywhere, first of all, because sometimes Chicago is like, ‘We get your bits, but nobody else will!’ Rel told The Root in his patented cackling voice. “And that’s a little frustrating because these communities are all over the country. I’ve been blessed to tour and travel everywhere and see the light. As much as we think we’re so different, many black people got the same exact struggles. Also, this was a tough year living in L.A., especially with Nipsey passing. The pain is still there. Just watching people hurt from that, [I had to ask myself] what can I do to help them? I thought doing a comedy show in that community was the best thing because people needed that laugh.”
I needed that laugh, too, Rel. I needed it as I rewatched the special for this very piece, eagerly searching for me and Niq in the audience (we’re in there quite a bit, far-left on-screen near the stack of chairs) and feeling a complicated pang of joy and longing as I watched her exuberant face brighten as she offered live commentary to each joke—a thing she always did when we watched movies or TV together. If there was any image of her that I wanted to remain permanently in the ethos as a representation of her legacy, it would be that.
Because I’m neurotic like that, I rack my brain every so often trying to remember her very last words as we parted. Unfortunately, my memory has failed me in that aspect, but I do know one thing that brings me comfort—the last sound I heard from her was her laugh.
Lil Rel Howery Live in Crenshaw is currently streaming on HBO.