Over the past few decades on the comedy circuit, Katt Williams has proven that he is much more than just a funny dude from Cincinnati, Ohio.
Sure, he boasts thousands of sold-out stand-up shows and a slew of successful comedy specials, but his lofty career is also freckled with acting, rapping and social activism.
Now, the legendary comedian is going back to what he knows best — making people laugh. Williams’ Great America Tour, which comes to Comerica Theatre on June 16, proves that he is not only still in the comedy game, but he’s determined to run it.
Though his live shows are often frenetic and irreverent, Williams is poised and polite as he talks about solidarity through belly laughs, what stand-up comedy and the stock market have in common and why you shouldn’t trust anyone who doesn’t have a favorite comedian. He is also candid about his love affair with Phoenix and his steadfast journey to have meaningful conversations and leave the world in stitches along the way.
How many cities will you be visiting on your tour?
I think we will be close to 90 by the time we get to you.
Let’s talk about the Phoenix show in particular. What can fans expect from that show and will you be incorporating any Arizona-centric comedy into your act? Can you give us a little sneak peak of some of your material?
The tour itself is the Great America Tour and the tour before it was the Conspiracy Theory Tour. We had a few conspiracies and things that we thought might be on the horizon that we put out for discussion and it turned out that some of those things weren’t so far-fetched after all, so this is the reminder that no matter what changes with America or what remains the same, we’re great because we’ve been great and we were built great and there are great people here; no one thing or climate can change that. We try not to miss Phoenix when we put a tour out but it’s so important that you already have it right by the time you get to Phoenix because it’s such a different demographic than most places, so it’s a pleasure to get there.
In your experience, what is a Phoenix audience like and how does it differ from say, a New York audience or an Atlanta audience?
It’s a lot of things that merge in a Phoenix audience that wouldn’t necessarily merge in other places. There are real American life struggles going on in Arizona that just aren’t existing in other places… nobody’s getting anything like you get there. You guys are in a fertile desert, which is an oxymoron already. It’s a beautiful place to go to; the weather is never like anywhere else, some of the finest women in the country are there, great educational places… It’s uncommon that you go somewhere and have all of that.
You’re from Ohio. Can you talk a little bit about where you’re from and how you think that’s informed your career and where you are now?
Growing up in Ohio, we dealt with racial issues, but not in an unspoken type of way; it was out in the open. I’m used to growing up where one neighbor is white and one neighbor is black and that’s how it was, so it gives you flexibility and a conversation that I certainly use to my advantage. So, when we come to Phoenix, just the fact of how diverse the numbers are, consistently over 20 years of coming there… a third African-American, a third Caucasian, a third Hispanic, all in the same place for that amount of time.
You mentioned that you’ve been coming here for 20 years, and you’re coming up on 20 years in the biz. What are some of the highlights and would you say it’s all been said and done or is there still something you want to accomplish that you feel like you haven’t yet?
Oh, I’m past that; I don’t count the first few because I wasn’t making it but that’s one of the greatest mysteries of life… You don’t know at what point your book or at what point your movie will be at. So, you’re taking it one day at a time, and you may feel like you’re in the middle or this could be the end. It’s really just about how much did you put out of yourself when you had opportunities to do it? And hopefully you have the track record and you have the necessary hardware to show what you did. It just depends on how you measure it. Stand-up comedians, we used to just measure it by stand-up specials but we know that Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy were able to be the greatest ever with just two or three comedy specials. We’re already on our seventh, getting ready to do our eighth comedy special, so you’re just trying to put out the best amount of work that you possibly can.
Speaking of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and really legendary comedians like that, would you say there was a heyday of comedy, where there were a lot of up-and-coming comedians on the scene? Is that time right now, is it in the past or is it still to come?
I think that it’s a consistent rotation, like everything else. I think it picks up and it has booms like the stock market, where it goes up and it’s everywhere and then as the quality picks up, the quantity drops down. Fresh comedians are the lifeblood of comedy, just like fresh nurses and doctors are the lifeblood of the hospital industry, so the more successful comics that are out there, the more comedy projects there are, the more people that fosters, but comedy is not a luxury in America, it’s a necessity. It’s important that we have social events that we can go to where free speech is the name of the game. We’re a great country because we invite that type of discourse. Comedy may look to be at a lower point right now, as far as stand-up goes, but an influx of internet comedy has taken up that vacuum and a lot of people that didn’t have the opportunity to show that they’re funny are now getting that opportunity on a whole different platform.
Would you say that the comedy industry is oversaturated at all? How do you continue to keep it fresh?
I don’t think it’s something that can saturate because the audience is the determining factor… If there was an amount of money that you could pay or a shortcut for you to take, then that would be one thing but it has to be agreed on by audiences of real people over a period of time. The saturation in the market is the percentage that sucks and you can’t really count them in, so they don’t become the saturation. They might bolster the numbers of the norm, but exceptional will always shine through either way; it’s almost a more the merrier type situation. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s something that seems so easy when it’s done right. It seems like all you’re doing is going up there and talking, so how hard could it possibly be? And because that’s the only interview process, and because you can suck as a comedian and still call yourself a comedian and have business cards and a website and a social media presence, then that’s what’s done. But saturation, no. There’s still too many women who are funny that haven’t gotten their opportunity. There’s too many young comics that are in their infancy who are still working on getting their point of view. And the entertainment industry lives on comedy. No other genre is more successful to Hollywood or the entertainment industry as comedy is, hands down. It’s not close — not horror, not suspense, not action. It’s comedy that remains the largest draw financially, so we don’t want that to change at all.
What would you say is the most difficult part of being a stand-up comic?
I don’t think there really is a tough part about being a comedian; it’s just not for everybody. But when it works, it works so beautifully that it’s hard to say anything bad about comedy. It’s been a wonderful craft and pursuit. I think if you find somebody that doesn’t have a favorite comedian or somebody that doesn’t have a favorite comedy movie or comedy television show, I think that checkmarks that that person has real problems. That’s probably a scary individual.
How would you describe your own show? What would you say to prepare someone who’s never seen you live?
There aren’t any fluff comedians, so there’s no, “Let’s listen to three sucky comedians so we can hear a good one.” From the very time it starts all the way to the end, you are laughing consistently all the way through with no breaks. We’re dealing with different topics from different angles and it’s a real pleasurable experience… Anything that brings together different factions, nationalities, races, genders and outlooks and we are still all laughing about the same conversation, that’s always indicative of a city’s movement. And Phoenix is fast and everybody knows it… Phoenix is a fast-paced society and I’m a fast-paced comic, so it’s a great time.
Can you speak a little bit more about the importance of stand-up comedy in today’s society and making light of heavy situations? Do you see it as a way to blow off steam and ignore all the turmoil in the world or as a medium to add to that conversation?
Comedy is the opportunity for a conversation to take place… that conversation on a nationwide level is just as important as if this was a political person, so the person trying to run for president or senator, they have to go from place to place as well and gather people together to have these conversations. These conversations are important and if it’s difficult for a conversation to be had in a governmental situation or a court situation, then there aren’t very many other options where we can get together and not just blow off steam, but heal ourselves by laughing about situations that otherwise, we’re not even having a discourse about. That’s why stand-up has been around for 1,000 years; kings had court jesters for a reason, because it was necessary that we not always be arguing and always be at war. It’s a place where conversation can be had and free speech is one of the main things that separates us from other places and it’s a key component to our democracy. When it’s wonderful, it’s the greatest thing for everybody; when it’s terrible, then it’s a Kathy Griffin situation, but regardless the conversation is had, and that conversation is very, very critical to what makes us American.
Katt Williams, Comerica Theatre, 400 W. Washington Street, Phoenix, 602.379.2800, comericatheatre.com, 8 p.m. Friday, June 16, tickets start at $50.