But in 2012, Powell pledged to take a break from serving others and campaign for himself. So he left politics behind and boarded the stand-up circuit.
“I said, ‘You know what? I’ve been giving other men the majority of my life the last 10 years. What would happen if I tried to make myself great?’” Powell says. “So I said I was going to try to do that for myself for five years and see where it took me.”
Within a year, Powell landed a spot on Shaquille O’Neal’s All-Star Comedy Jam tour. In 2016, he taped a set for HBO’s “All Def Comedy.” And he reached a new level of recognition in 2018, when he memorably played the scatterbrained barber Bibby in a Season 2 episode of the FX comedy series “Atlanta.”
Having recently returned from another stand-up hiatus — four years this time, largely prompted by the pandemic — Powell will take the stage this weekend at the Arlington Drafthouse. Speaking over the phone last month from Texas, Powell discussed his comedy roots, how his political past affects his stand-up and the “Atlanta” appearance that changed his life.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: Let’s talk about your origins in comedy. How did you get your start as a comic?
A: My family always knew I’d be some sort of comic or public speaker because I just always had it in me. When I was younger, my mom and her friends would be up playing spades late at night and she would wake me up to say, “Come tell them the jokes you told me today.” So I’d be performing in our living room for my mom and her friends. That happened for years. When I got to middle school and high school, teachers literally would bargain with me that if I would be quiet in class, they would let me talk for 15 minutes at the end of class. That became a good deal, too.
Q: Then you spent a decade working in politics. How much does that experience inform your stand-up?
A: Well, not a lot because at first I just wanted to be funny. I didn’t have the audience to rub anybody the wrong way, so I purposefully set out to be as neutral as possible. I think if you did a poll of my show, 99 percent of Republicans would say they love me and then 99 percent of Democrats would tell you they love me. So it didn’t inform it [initially], but it’s informing it more now because I’m in a position where I can be more brave.
Q: What do you remember from your experience playing Bibby on “Atlanta”?
A: There was fear every day at every moment. Other than a stand-up set, I had never been on a TV set in my life. I remember asking my wife the night before on the phone, and I said, “I don’t even know how loud I’m supposed to talk.” I had no idea how loud my inflection was supposed to be because I’d never filmed a television show in this way. But we just figured it out.
Q: That episode was essentially a two-hander starring you and Brian Tyree Henry. Were you surprised by the size of your role?
A: That was out of control! I don’t remember ever having a star calling somebody else and turning over their Golden Globe-winning show to a person. And I don’t mean having them on the episode or giving them a large role — I mean turn it over. I think I’m on-screen every second of that episode, except like 15 seconds. I can’t find another time when that’s happened.
Q: It turned out to be a particularly beloved episode that earned an Emmy nomination for writing. How did your career change after that episode aired?
A: I was able to give myself a little validation, and that helped me. It did something for me that I needed. I was thrilled when it did something for everybody else — that made it better, I will say. I always wanted to put a product out in the world that I thought was great. I think a lot about every word, every pause, every phrase, every ABC, and so much of what people do now is so haphazard. But I remember “Atlanta” fondly because it turned out great. It certainly made me more popular, and it showed people what I could do if given the right tools.
Q: You mentioned validation. At that point, were you doubting yourself in any way?
A: No, not really. I was doubting the process of comedy. We were going through a time where comedy was bending toward Instagram and YouTube comics. The club owners and improvs and Funny Bones and Laugh Factories, even they were bending to them. They don’t anymore, by the way, but they were at this time. It broke my heart to see something like that because I started at the clubs the right way. But when I got on “Atlanta” and [“All Def Comedy”], it reinforced that what I was doing was right and what I was doing was going to last.
Q: What can audiences expect from your set when you come to the Drafthouse?
A: Oh, man, I may get to change it because in D.C. I can talk about politics a little more than I can in some other cities. In some places, I just have to go straight to a different kind of comedy. But when I get D.C., I may get political. I’ll go through my life story, tell my side of some stories and then let things fall where they may.
Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse, 2903 Columbia Pike, Arlington. 703-486-2345. arlingtondrafthouse.com.
Dates: Friday and Saturday.