Comedian Lil Rel Howery lost a job when the NBC sitcom "The Carmichael Show" was canceled last summer, but 2017 was still the best year of his career. That's because of two words: "Get Out."
Howery - or at least his character, TSA agent Rod Williams - became a fan favorite as writer-director Jordan Peele's racially charged horror comedy went from box office surprise to pop culture phenomenon. For Howery, 38, the breakout role was the culmination of years of hard work, but the ride isn't over.
"You think about how last year was such a big year for me," Howery says. "This year is going to be even bigger."
With a Fox sitcom pilot ("Rel") and several movie roles and stand-up specials in the works, Howery is gearing up for the long term. "What people are gonna learn this year about me is you can't put your finger on exactly who I am," he says.
Q: What got you into comedy?
A: Just being a fan and a nerd of comedy and television and films. I remember reading Richard Pryor's first biography when I was 16. "Eddie Murphy Delirious" changed my life. Watching that, it was like, "This is amazing. This is what stand-up is? I gotta do this."
Q: When did you turn it into a career?
A: When I turned 21. I moved in with two other comedians and started doing the Riddles Comedy Club in Chicago. That's how I came up. I used to get paid $50 every Sunday to seat people and get five minutes (of stage time). People would say, "How can you do that, man? That ain't demeaning?" "No, I get to go up at the hottest spot every week."
Q: Your first stand-up special, 2015's "RELevant," is full of stories about your life and the characters you've met along the way. How has your comedy evolved since then?
A: It's the same thing - what happens is you just get more stories. I have four hours of material I ain't done on nothing.
Q: Is this material you're doing on the road stuff you've been sitting on or is it new?
A: It's funny you say that. The material I am doing now is for 2020. The stuff I'm doing now is preparing for (specials) two or three years ahead. It's a very crazy thing to say to people. "How's he doing that?" But I've strategically thought about it like that over the years. I'm a crazy person like that.
Q: Are you worried about any of it getting stale?
A: Nah. I think that's the best thing about doing stuff that's personal to you. I'm not going to say, "This is in the news!" The things that always stay significant is family stories and dad stories - those stories are always going to be the same no matter what year it is.
Q: Are you addressing "Get Out" in your stand-up?
A: Yeah, you do little things. You do get the elephant in the room out the way. You do it in the beginning and then take them on this ride of knowing who you are ... because there's nothin' you can do about that - they saw "Get Out."
Q: Early on, did you have any sense that "Get Out" would take off the way it did?
A: None of us did, but Jordan thought it would. It wasn't until the trailer came out and we saw how crazy it went, and other movies started changing their premiere dates (that we realized) this is about to be a thing, maybe, and you don't understand what that is until you experience it. I didn't know it would elevate me in this way where I'm like meeting stars and they can't wait to meet me.
Q: I don't think anyone realizes that before it happens.
A: How many times do you get a chance to do something that impacts culture? I don't know how many times you get that. You might do a movie that did well, or a Marvel movie - this was a very impactful movie. They study this movie in film school.
Q: "The Shape of Water" may have won the Oscar for best picture, but "Get Out" is going to be the movie everyone remembers from 2017.
A: Everyone still talks about it. Sometimes you never understand how award stuff works, but I do understand that maybe you can't kill a bunch of white people and drive off and think you'll win an Oscar.
Q: In some ways, you're the hero of the film. Do you get stopped on the street a lot now?
A: I get "TS motherf-ing A!" every f-ing day. Because I saved (Daniel Kaluuya's character Chris), people look at me as a friend. What I think was brilliant about Jordan was creating a hero out of a regular guy. He doesn't have any superpowers. All I did was pick him up. I ain't fight nobody, I ain't shoot nobody. I thought that was brilliant that he wrote it that way - that he's just a good friend.
Q: Do TSA officers recognize you?
A: All the time, but it's so funny, I made them way more confident in their jobs. It's not like they let me through - they're like, "Oh, we love you. Take your shoes off."
Q: Before that, your big TV break was "The Carmichael Show," where your friend and "Girls Trip" star Tiffany Haddish played your ex-wife. You were both scene-stealers on that show, so it feels like you were bound to break out.
A: We went to see "Birth of a Nation" together and a trailer for "Get Out" came on and I'm a chill guy but Tiffany is like, "Hey, y'all, that's my friend! He's sitting right here!" But that is our friendship. It's constant support. She was even at the taping for "Rel" - that's what we do, man.
Q: Why haven't you dropped the "Lil" from your name?
A: People told me that they wouldn't put that in lights or in credits and I just wanted to prove them wrong. They will do that if you're great and dope, so they done it.