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Katt Williams on the Current Culture Around Comedy: "We Should Be Protected"
We spoke with Katt Williams about his career, cancel culture, why comedians should be protected, and his new standup, World War III.
Since his debut in the mid 1990s, Katt Williams has built a cult following for his hilarious blend of physical comedy and truth-telling. He, undeniably, is one of the most unique voices working in comedy.
Despite the fact that he's had memorable appearances in popular properties — like Friday After Next, The Boondocks, Scary MoVie, and Atlanta — Williams is known more as a cult standup figure (and for numerous run-ins with the law), building up the moniker "the underground king of comedy."
But he's been quiet recently. Williams hasn't released a special since 2018, when he dropped Great America. That changed last week when Williams released his 12th stand-up special and his second with Netflix, World War III. The standup was filmed in Dolby Live in Las Vegas earlier this year. It was tumultuous time — with Omicron cases rising — and his subject matter matches some of that dread and uncertainty, with the comedian tackling everything from vaccines to the end of the world.
We spoke with Williams about his career, cancel culture, why comedians should be protected, and his new standup, World War III.
When did you first make the connection that you wanted to be a comedian?
Katt Williams: Honestly, it connected with me as soon as I asked God specifically to present me with something that would keep me out of the street. At that time, the trajectory of my life was getting ready to be different. I was a new father and I needed something that I could do well where I could flourish for my family. The connection was instantaneous but the work still had to be done.
Early on, who were some of your comedic influences?
I loved Tim Conway. I was familiar with Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby. I loved comedy as a craft but I didn't understand that you got paid for these jokes. So when I understood that this was a part of my destiny, the first people that I was performing with were Larry the Cable Guy, Jeff Foxworthy, and Richard Ginny so I was immediately thrust into greatness. I understood early on that this could really be something. I was probably one of the last comedians to actually get real comedy training from real comedy masters.
After launching your career on that circuit, how was it to transition from performing in white rooms to doing comedy in Black clubs?
This was when Larry the Cable Guy was still down with me. These guys were headlining all over the country and I was the opener. So my job was just to learn and I thought all guys were as professional and worked as hard as these guys did. It took me maybe five years to understand that comedy rooms weren't set up the same way. There was a difference in the product that was being delivered and the product that was being received in both ways. I was really able to put things into perspective when I got to the Chitlin Circuit.
I understood that there was a way that you talked to mainstream America [versus] when you were dealing with the urban community. It was the same conversation but it couldn't be the same conversation. So after traveling the country with those guys, I went to Sacramento because I wanted the ability to have both sets of audiences. I wanted to work white rooms and I wanted to work Black rooms as well. Once I felt like I had achieved that, I moved to Oakland for like three years to put myself into the belly of urban comedy to make sure that I had the same dominance there that I felt like I had in the green rooms. Once I felt like I had those together, then I moved to LA to do the proof is in the pudding part. To this day, it's still a battle that has to be fought by every comedian. If you don't do it, then you can't truly make it you know what I mean? They say all comedians have to cross over but not Gary Owens [Laughs]. That's why I keep that underground king thing going. They keep saying that I’m not known to the mainstream but I am and they know better. So on Saturday Night Live, they’ve had people parodying Katt Williams so we know, everybody knows who Katt Williams is. But they've never invited me once, you see what I'm saying? But they've hired four people from my staff to be on Saturday Night Live. Yeah, so it's those types of dynamics.
Recently, there have been some physical confrontations between audience members and comedians. Of course, there was the infamous Will Smith and Chris Rock incident. Then Dave Chappelle was assaulted on stage at the Hollywood Bowl. What is your view about the attacks on comedians and/or their comedy?
A lot of the time I'm at the forefront of these things and I should be able to communicate better so that people can know what's happening. I've got to get better at doing my job as a public official. But when we allow the situation where I was talking with a comedian and we were roasting each other — even though I didn't call her out of her name or do anything degrading — it was still okay for her 400-pound husband to come later with a gun and try to end my life. Because I didn't have that man go to jail and ruin that family, it starts to create a culture where it says you can hurt these people. We should be protected. So I wasn't able to voice it appropriately and when things are in the atmosphere and they don't get tended to, it’s a snowball effect. So now a comedian is somehow being deemed as deserving of it or, “Oh, well, you said such and such so that equals this,” but we don't have any words or collection of words that equal violence. We don't have a society that’s set up like that but in real life that's how things go. So I don't think that it's comedy being attacked but freedom of speech. What that means is always evolving. It’s at the point where, if this group of people doesn't think the election results were right, then they'll storm this building because “We are the people.”
What I find interesting is the idea that stand-up comedians are being targeted by “cancel culture.” In previous interviews, you have a different view of cancel culture than most of your contemporaries. Could you explain your perspective?
If you're a basketball player, the refs may change the rules and they may do it, specifically, to combat you. The fact that they let James Harden practice out these moves and for years it worked like clockwork with this dude is getting 40,50 points guaranteed. Overnight, you change a specific rule that only affects him and then you say, “What's wrong?” So as a comedian, the rules are always changing and we understand that because in comedy every single comedy show is different than the one you had before. There are different people, different things have happened and you're different. So as comedians, when they move the goalposts, that don't stop the game for me. Adjust and who adjusts first and most cleanly are the best ones.
Your latest stand-up special World War III couldn’t have a more fitting title. For this special, you’re also directing for the first time. How was that creative process for you?
On the creative side of it, the goal and the hurdle for every set is whether it’s timely and makes sense. It can’t just be funny today but nine months from now, I'm gonna still have to be married to this conversation. Will the conversations still have validity and poignancy nine months after I've written them? So that means that I have to be speaking about current events but not so current that the event has already changed if that makes sense. You can't have written something nine months ago about who you thought was going to be winning in the playoffs if those teams don't make it to the playoffs. So it's a dance of making things current but discussing them from an original place. So it takes a lot of work for a comedian to be able to be original at this level. It means that I don't get to consume the amount of stand-up comedy that I would like. It means that I don't get to go watch the inner workings of other comedians in their craft and I don't allow other comedians to be involved in that on my side. It means that I have to pay enough attention to all the comedy being delivered just to make sure that you're not saying what I'm saying.
I think I was the executive producer for every special I did. If I didn't, I was trying to give that credit to a Black woman or I was trying to make sure my assistant had the most executive producer credits in the business at the time which he did that time. But the directing part was a further extension because generally, I don't have any help in these specials. I was determining if they're good enough to be presented, then finding the place to film, paying who you have to pay to make these things happen to make a product that looks TV worthy. But in 2018 for Great America, that was my first time being in partnership with somebody. That was the first part of the partnership between me and Netflix and because it worked so well and was so enjoyable for both parties, we did it again,
What do you want your fans to take away from World War III?
This is a transition for me as a comedian to a world power. So Ukraine used to have a really funny comedian over there named [Volodymyr Zelenskyy]. At some point, it wasn't a comedian they needed, they needed a president. That same Zelenskyy was able to transition from jokes to not a joke at all. So this is just another point in this transition for me. I think my conversations reflect a larger, more global take on things. So it's my biggest blessing to have this conversation that I've been able to have with people since 1995. It only works because I'm never condescending, I'm as dumb as everybody else. My job is to find out the information and to tell people the information. Even if you don't respect the message, I'm a messenger nonetheless. So, each of these conversations is a different part of the message. In the message when I named [my] special Kattpacalypse, it was because the Mayan calendar was ending and there was the possibility of the world ending you know what I mean? So it's those types of discussions that I've been able to foster comedically. So this is the point that the fans have brought me to and that stuck with me when people thought that there were other ways to go comedically, these conversations remain between me and my core audience.
If you've ever read the Harry Potter books or any of these great collections, the reason it works is if you're involved in the story and know how it's set up, you're able to easily follow along. With me, you see the softening of my attitude about certain things because I learned new things. It’s a true body of work so I think that's what I'm most proud of. It's based on the people that I've been able to have these conversations with. There needs to be no expectation on this. It’s probably my best work but that's just because I'm probably better now than I've ever been.
Rashad Grove is a writer from NJ whose work has appeared on BET, Billboard, MTV News, Okayplayer, High Snobiety, Medium, Revolt TV, The Source Magazine, and others. You can follow him at @thegroveness for all of his greatness.