Unspeakable Things Spoken: Katt Williams, Joke Cycles, and F-k Around and Find Out

: Comedian and actor Katt Williams being interviewed for the film Father Figures in 2018

Photo source: MTV UK

By Constance Bailey

It’s no secret that the internet is where nuance goes to die, so I should have known to take what I heard about Katt Williams’ interview with a proverbial grain of salt. As a scholar of African American comedy and humor, I was intrigued by Shannon Sharpe’s interview with Williams on his popular podcast Club Shay Shay Much like the interview itself, there were varying degrees of “truth” to the things I heard about the interview, but in true Katt Williams’ fashion, the interview did not disappoint.

Aside from some questionable illumanti-esque references, I, and many others, found Williams’ interview compelling. I won’t engage too much with the specifics here because those men make more than I ever will in my poor academic life, so I’m largely unconcerned with their petty shenanigans. What I will say is that unlike many others who sat enthralled for two hours and forty-six minutes, I did not detect vitriol in Williams’ interview.

I witnessed a comic who many felt disregarded the boundaries of professional courtesy by calling out others, but overwhelmingly, those critiques (if you can call them that) felt like they came from a place of hurt more than anger. Aside from a few misspeaks that he later corrected, Williams’ responses were deliberate, as he chiefly responded to comics who he felt should have “kept his name out of their mouths.” Do I think that everything he said was the literal truth? Certainly not. I assume, for example, this his claim to have read about 3K books per year from the ages of 8-12 was hyperbolic. If not, those must have been some short ass books. Either way, it’s apparent that Williams is extremely intelligent and probably has an eidetic memory, he’s both giving and compassionate, and he is deeply spiritual. Aside from the unwarranted attacks of other comics’ wives and bringing poor Bishop Jakes into his discussion, most of Williams’ discussion felt reasonable.

Even insulting women who had done nothing to him would have been justifiable if he were in a communal context and their husbands could clap back. Such seemingly offensive banter is similar to yo’ mama jokes when everyone understands the proverbial assignment and can launch their own verbal assaults and insult his loved ones accordingly. However, that was not the case during his one-man tirade that many have speculated was designed to generate PR for his upcoming tour. In the spirit of two things can be true at the same time, Williams might certainly have timed his appearance for the publicity. Still, if you mention someone publicly, don’t be surprised if they respond publicly, especially if the someone in question is Katt Williams.

For those who don’t think Williams should have “aired dirty laundry” in public, I’m with Katt on this one. Most would not have drawn his ire had they not come for him first. I have not had the chance to keep up with the in-group fighting among Black comics, so I’m taking Williams at his word, while conceding that I don’t believe everything he says is the literal truth.

I’m also with Katt on this one because so often when Black folks don’t want our “business” aired in public, it’s to the detriment of Black women. The idea that somehow we will gatekeep, censure, or even punish our own (i.e. Black men) privately is the very thing that has allowed sexual predators to run rampant through our communities, but I’ll save that soap box for another day. Williams’ appearance on Club Shay Shay went beyond a mere distraction from the dismal political landscape in the U.S. and ongoing humanitarian crises in Gaza.

It was also more than two Black men being messy as hell on national television, although let’s be clear, it was that too. Williams’ platforming young comedians and even praising some of his contemporaries like Wanda Sykes and DL Hughley is laudable. I do find it interesting that a large part of Williams’ criticisms of comics taking shortcuts is about them stealing jokes. When I saw Hughley tell a food allergy joke almost verbatim to the one that Chris Rock delivered a decade prior in Bring the Pain, I did not get the sense that he had stolen the joke.

Instead, I believed the joke was part of what we folklorists would call a joke cycle-jokes that have a recognizable and common theme and that often surface with years and sometimes decades between their appearance. Many joke cycles fall into this broad category but there are other joke cycles about specific events and places-9/11 jokes or January 6/Insurrection jokes, for example. Joke cycles aside, because I had the pleasure of interviewing Hughley when I was in graduate school, the thoroughness of his responses assured me that he could’ve written that joke, or any joke, for that matter. And this gets at the heart of Williams’ rightful indignation.

I like to think of Williams’ interview as providing teachable moments for the culture and for Black comics more specifically. For those who study comedy, Williams provides a clinic on how to be a great stand-up comedian. For him, there should be no short cuts-be they secret cabals to advance your career (that’s a joke y’all) or stealing other folks’ jokes. BUT IF you have the audacity to steal other comedians’ jokes, you should have the decency, or the good sense, not to publicly discredit them lest you fuck around and find out. You must write your own material, work your set, and hone your joke over time so that the delivery, and the joke, is yours alone. If that’s not the case, Williams will flame you publicly or at the very least, you’ll be memed to death on the Gram or Black Twitter cause nobody with any sense is calling it X. And the lesson in how to avoid social media notoriety is one that we should all want to learn.