Elaine Montilla is the founder of 5xminority , a TEDx Speaker, and the Assistant Vice President...Read More
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Netflix
Katt Williams recently released World War III on Netflix, his second special for the streamer and his 12th overall. It’s a level of output that speaks to how incredibly prolific Williams is and how he approaches his career. The comedian sees himself as having one long conversation with his fans that shifts based on what he and they are dealing with in the world and at home. It’s a uniquely close relationship, built through his personal ups and downs, that has allowed him to continue selling out large theaters and arenas for nearly two decades.
On Good One, Williams discusses why he doesn’t work in clubs, how he’s maintained such a close relationship with his audience, the real story behind his name, and how he became the sex-joke master. You can read an excerpt from the transcript or listen to the full episode, below. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.
The way you opened your last special, Great America , has become a legend among comedians — specifically, how you started by doing 12 minutes on Jacksonville . How does a comedian come up with 12 incredibly specific minutes about a place he doesn’t currently live? And how do you make that material work for audiences across the country? With each special, I’m trying to showcase and utilize a different comedy skill set. That particular special was me trying to get closest to the being I was when I originally started, where I was overwhelmingly impressed with every place that I was going. I would be in your town for three to four days. I got to do two shows on Thursday, two shows on Friday. I’m here, I’m there. I’m at the best restaurant. I’m at the barbershop, at the club, at the strip club. I’m everywhere I need to be to do the stand-up thing I do in real time.
So even though I’ve done specials that could be lofty, that special was about taking it back down to its real essence. That is kind of my calling card, comedically, because I can’t guarantee everything I say is going to be the funniest thing that you’ve heard about this subject. What I’m trying to do is guarantee that all of my conversations will be original conversations that only I, singular, as a comedian, am having with this base — right or wrong, funny, not funny, thought provoking, stupid, whatever it turns out to be.
You recently talked about not working your material out in clubs . When did you make this decision? It was a natural evolution. I loved working in the clubs and being a club comic. The part I had a problem with was that even though the other comedians were friends, and I thought they were funny, I didn’t like listening to a lot of their takes on things, because it influenced my takes. So I quit.
I had been so victimized, like other comedians, by joke thieves and people who will let you work out a set for a couple of years and then take it from you. They’ll take your premise and setup and add a different punch line. It was the wild, wild west. I didn’t want to accidentally be involved with any of that on my end. And then later, once I had success, if it took me five months to work out material in clubs, I’d be hearing my jokes around the country before I was ready — this comedian from here and this comedian from there all doing a version of a thing I’m working on.
In general, you have a way with words — of how you say specific words. You’ll say the word everything, and it’ll be like five syllables long. How do you approach that signature part of the way you speak?
I might have read 30,000 to 40,000 books in my life. If you’re a lover of books, you know there’s a cadence and movement to good material. Even in the social-media age, if a tweet comes from somebody we all know, we can hear it in their voice. As a comedian, I’m a journalist and I’m a chronicler. I’m from Shakespeare. I’m from Mark Twain. I’m from musical storytellers. I’m from the griots. You’re supposed to be able to live within what I’m presenting because I talk for a living. That means if I say eh-vuh-ree-thing, you understand it means all parts of it. If I say it correctly, you’ll know the difference between that and ehv-ree-thing.
This is your 12th special. Why have you oriented your stand-up around filmed hours? I’ve been in the business 24 years, and I have 12 specials. It’s not Why do I have that many specials? It’s Why don’t other comedians? When I started in comedy, comedians had an hour. They would do that bitch for ten years, the same hour everywhere they went, all across the globe. And they hired bum comedians to open up for them so they could look better. But they were telling the same jokes over and over and over and over and over again.
I got tired of complaining, so my comrades and I decided to break the cycle: Every time you see me, it’ll be a new hour. Now you can’t do your old stuff anymore because the precedent has been set — the audience won’t tolerate you doing that same boring, weak set you had before. We were the creators of that, so we’re very proud of it. And it meant we had to be consistently putting out a televised hour that we wrote and successfully toured.
World War III is the first special you directed. Why did you choose to direct it? How did that change your approach to it? I’m always just trying to do something different. If you tell me that it was a strikeout, I won’t take it personally. I’m the league leader in strikeouts, and I’m okay with that because I’m the league leader in home runs as well. That comes with having more specials than anybody else. I’m putting out the work to be judged and criticized, liked or disliked, to be viewed or unviewed, however it goes. In this business, the customer is always right. It would be an honor for me if I put out a shoddy special, because that’s the only type of special I haven’t put out yet. So now I’ve got a shoddy one too. It’s great.
You’re describing a real trust between you and your audience. Was there a moment where you realized how close you were with them? Well, for two decades, unlike most comedians, I’ve sold all of my tickets from one place, which delivers all the analytics. Ticketmaster tells me who bought every ticket, how many they bought, where they live, and a whole bunch of other stuff that one would need to know. So when I tell you that I got more females in my audience than any comedian in America, I’m not blowing smoke up your tail. I pride myself on the fact that I can say to my audience, “Where’s the white people?” And you’re going to hear a roar. “Where’s the black people?” And you’re going to hear a roar. I can hit any one of them, and you’re going to hear the representation.
I want to ask about that. First, the women — that you’re very proud of. What about your life experience, do you think, set you up for that? I think you can do anything that you try to do on purpose. Anything that matters to you, you show that it matters by how you are. My mother was a woman. I’ve raised daughters. If I have to pick my favorite thing on the planet, it’s a woman. So I can be biased that way. It’s a blessing to be biased that way and to feel like that way and have 80 percent of your income be driven by women. That’s all. I still got males. That’s not the point. The point is that I would think that for a male, the most important thing to him, too, would be a woman.
You have been open about your successes and your shortcomings with your audience. What does it mean for you to be open about your failings? We’re all flawed. There is no such thing as the person that cannot fall down. There is such a thing as a person who did not get back up. I’m showing you trampoline skin. This is something I’m trying to foster and be a part of: Your Instagram is a lie — you are only posting when you’re feeling good and looking good and everything’s great — so now your timeline is a collection of times you were great. Well, that’s fine, but that’s nobody’s real life. Life is hard. And since I’m in a job where I criticize other people, or their situations, and offer my stupid, meaningless opinion about things, I am obligated to be transparent.
You’ve closed every special talking about sex and/or vaginas or things in that area. You’re a master at it. Allegedly, hearsay, objection.
No one humps a stool like Katt Williams. Williams lifts up his hands in celebration.
What about it has allowed it to continue to be such a muse for you? You know how in the great movies, before they get to the end, there’s this part where everybody sings, and dancing happens — and if it doesn’t happen in the movie, we do it in the credits and the bloopers? Who doesn’t want to leave the audience dancing on their way out? Every time I end a show that way, what I am encouraging you to do is have sex later and laugh about the fact that you’re going to do it.
What is the secret to humping a stool? When I am talking about sex, it’s not about the stool. It’s about the fact that I am qualified to talk about sex. Because every woman watching knows that I do know how to participate in the activity — that I’m good at it, and that just like in comedy, I work very, very hard, and I think the customer is always right. I’m only talking about intent when I talk about it, and I only talk about how magnificent it is. And yes, sometimes I consensually share with the stool whatever I’m trying to sell. But women will not allow a man to talk about sex for extended periods of time if they don’t believe that he is any good at it. In their head, women will go, What would you know about pussy anyway?
If that alone was my brand and signature, I’d be proud of that. I no longer talk about family things or everyday interactions in my stand-up. I’m only looking for difficult conversations.
Why exactly did you stop talking about famil y in your stand-up? Well, I was able to hide ten kids without them being on the internet. Plus I didn’t want to have to deliver any downers. Like, I might have been telling jokes about a child, and that child might have passed away. For some comedians, they got two kids. I got ten kids, and seven of them are adopted. If I start talking about family stuff, I’m just going to be the family comedian, and that would lead you to knowing who they are and stuff about them as people that in no way should be comic fodder, you know? So that’s what made me steer away from some things. Then I just made a list of things that I cannot talk about, because this is everybody else’s lane of conversation. It has to pass my criteria to make it to my set that I don’t think anybody’s saying this or talking about this.
I’m interested in comedians who give themselves different stage names. In The New Yorker in 2009 , it was said in the ’90s, your son dropped a bottle on you, and it knocked out your two front teeth, which made you start wearing a hat that would cast a shadow over the front of your mouth, which inspired you to go by Katt “In the Hatt” Williams, which got shortened to Katt Williams. Decades later, who is Micah, and who is Katt? This is really important. Almost all of that is true. And yet, together, none of that makes any sense or could possibly be true whatsoever. I was conceived at the Catskills Mountains. They went to the Catskills and they went to the Sierra Mountains. So that is how “Katt” and “Sierra” are both my middle names. I stopped going by my first name because that was my son’s name, and he’s not a junior.
I was Katt in the Hat the entire time. I got a cease-and-desist letter from Disney before I had ever made $10,000 in stand-up and was considering quitting because I couldn’t make a living. They sent a broke comedian a cease-and-desist from the biggest corporation in the globe. And I said, “If Disney even knows I exist, I’m gonna make it.” But they were very clear I couldn’t use “Katt in the Hat” or any variation of it, which is why it just went to Katt Williams. It is on my identification and on my birth certificate because that’s my name. I was trying to have a stage name, and they wouldn’t allow me to have a stage name.
How that goes to the teeth thing, I’m not sure. I had an interviewer say that he thought I did cocaine the whole time, and I went, Well, how many studies do I need to go to before I overdose? But yes, my son was 9 months old and that happened two weeks before I had to do my very first movie. But I used the money that I got to get it fixed. But even today, there’s a whole story, like, “Oh, you used to be broke and didn’t have any teeth.” No, I don’t have any recollection of that.
I heard you in an interview talking about accepting your status as a legend during the pandemic. Growing up, who were legends to you? And what does it mean for you to be in the conversation with those people? Part of how I feel is based upon the fact that I never wanted to be a comedian. I loved comedy, and I loved people who I thought did it well. But I didn’t even know that you could make a living telling jokes until I was 22 years old. I’m from Ohio. We knew Jonathan Winters. Later, I find out how magical this dude is and what he’s having to do.
At that point in my life, I probably had read a thousand biographies already because, until I was like, 20, I only read nonfiction. I didn’t need to know anything about your life to read your 400-page autobiography. So there’s only love in my comedy upbringing. I thought Richard Pryor was exactly what he was. If he did cocaine or who he slept with or who he married — none of that mattered. I understood that he had to be that in order to have those conversations; I got it. I understood what I was seeing when watching Eddie Murphy do nine characters and one production and then produce it and act in it and write it. So I learned from all of the greats comedically that I could come in contact with, in person or physically. And I didn’t make it because any comedy guy saw me and put me on tour, or anybody put me as part of their camp or any of that. I was just attempting to be the best comedian that I could be.
It didn’t take the pandemic for me to understand. It was the fact that my humility is not for no reason. My humility allows me to continue to do the best job that I can do. Even if I was just successful, the humility means I got to be successful again. Or if the last one was a failure, the humility goes, Yeah, it was a failure. Your failure. Do better so this next one is the best one you’ve ever done.
I’ll end with an easy one: Do you have any advice for a person who wants to do comedy? Yes. No one pays you other than the audience. That is your allegiance. If you are funny and the audience has told you that you are funny, you find out what it is they find funny about you, and you service them to the best of your ability. If a joke may not be funny, try it anyway. If it’s not funny enough, make it funny enough.
You are writing these jokes. If you’re at a point going, Okay, bam, funny and you’re stopping, you’re the creator — you’re supposed to stop at that punch line, then go further. Then you try to figure out: Now if a person hears this, how would they take it? Okay. Well, if a smart person hears it, what would they say? Okay, what if a racist heard it — what would they say?
This is part of your own quality control that they don’t tell you as a comedian. You are your product, so if you focus on your customer and your product, even when you fail, you will fail spectacularly; it’ll be No. 3 in the country and you’ll do better next time. But you want to be a champion no matter what the score is, if possible. That’s my advice.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Williams’s first name is Micah.
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