• Doug Williams: Standing up for comedy

    With the success of the third season of Starz’ First Amendment Stand-up, produced by Martin Lawrence, show host and veteran comedian Doug Williams is on the verge of a career breakthrough.

    For the past eight years, the country has been steeped in military quagmires, a flailing economy, and gas prices higher than the executive board members of the Cheech and Chong fanclub. Even the most truly American of ideals, the First Amendment, has been put to the test under the various indiscretions of the Patriot Act. (Wire-tapping = the new texting?) However, rising up from the ashes of the Bill of Rights is a hero that would have Benjamin Franklin wiping a tear from beneath his bifocals in a gleaming moment of patriotic pride.

    America, meet Doug Williams: husband, father, comedian, and champion of the all-important right to freedom of speech. As the host of Starz’s Martin Lawrence-produced stand-up series, First Amendment Stand-up, Williams is in the position to tackle such gasp-inducing subjects as race relations, the political arena, and even the ever-important conundrum of college life v. real life. (Hint: Graduation is totally overrated). On the road promoting the third season of Starz hit show, Williams checked in with Punchline Magazine to pontificate on the fine art of the comic touch, Barack Obama, and Michael Richards’ technical misstep.

    What drives you to do stand-up comedy?
    Well, stand-up comedy is like medicine to me. We’re a country that needs a good laugh doctor, so just to hear people laugh and have a good time— that does it for me. Whenever you drive by a gas station, you need a good laugh. Gas prices are so high I’m practically on house arrest; I feel like I should be wearing a [probation] ankle bracelet; I can’t go anywhere!

    Are you taking a “stay-cation,” just like every other American?

    Right, right.

    You’re veteran stand-up at this point. You’ve seen the good and bad times.
    Yeah, I’ve been doing stand-up for about 17 years, and you know, for the ups and downs, mainly it’s that you’re self-employed: sometimes you get paid, and sometimes you don’t. Every show could basically be your last show.

    How did you get involved with the production of First Amendment Stand-up?
    Starz was looking to do original programming, so my partner and I went in and pitched and sold them on the idea. We went in on a shoestring budget and they put the show on Black Starz at first. It did really well. I knew Martin from meeting him on and off, and I was an extra on his movie Life, and we developed a friendship. So I went to him and offered to show the pilot to him. I said, ‘How would you like to come aboard and put your name on it and godfather it’ and he was really open to the idea of giving back.

    A lot of the comics on the show, you don’t see their names on prime-time television, so we wanted to open up that arena again, and it’s been really, really great. If you recall when he hosted Def Jam, nobody knew who Chris Tucker was or who Bernie Mac was at the time, so he was really open to trying to do that again and open up doors for me and the rest of the comedians.

    What makes this third season of the show unique from the previous two?
    This is like a homecoming for Martin. We did it in his hometown and area in Washington, D.C. And it’s during an election year, we were in the capital, and this is an historic year in itself with Barack Obama being the first presumptive African American nominee for the Democratic Party, so everything just came together really well for this season. The show is tied to the First Amendment, and we pushed the idea of the First Amendment to the break.

    Have some of the goings-on of the Bush administration, such as the wiretapping scandal, influenced some of the material in the show, being that it’s First Amendment-themed?
    Yeah. You know, the election year in itself has kinda pushed some of those things. This is a historic year: you’ve got an African American and then you’ve got a senior, senior citizen on the other end running, McCain. I mean, I don’t want to offend any Republicans that read Punchline

    You mean all three of them?
    Yeah, there’s a lot of Republican humor in the show.

    Doug WilliamsAre there any cons to performing a politically-themed show during an election year?
    I don’t think there are any cons; they’re all pros. Anytime you get to do stand-up, you get to express your freedom of speech, and that’s all pros. Plus, everything’s done in a comedic way, and the world needs to be able to laugh at our differences. And even laugh at things that we don’t necessarily agree with.

    So being in the heart of it all, the Washington, D.C. crowd wasn’t sick of all the political bits?
    They were great. You know, the thing I like about East Coast crowds is that they’re really on it— they’re brutally honest. We’re playing at D.C.’s equivalent of the Apollo Theater, we’re sold out every night – 1,200 people per show – and about 12,000 total came over the three day period of filming. As for myself, I think I did really great, and my name is starting to get out there. This show is really a break-through for me.

    How much of a role does race play in the execution of the show?
    I think that race plays a role in comedy in general, especially with African American comedians, because a lot of times we come from a different world. We think differently based on where we are socially and economically, so I think that played a part in it. But like I said, just in the fact that it’s all humor and nothing was done from a heinous point of view, and as long as you follow things and do it with a comedic view in mind, you can just about get away with anything.

    The thing that was sad about the Michael Richards incident was that people saw how serious he was when he blew up onstage; he would have been able to get away with it, had he put it in a comedic context.

    That’s an interesting point; I’ve never heard anyone say anything about it other than ‘Shame!’
    Well, black comedians, we’ve really crossed the line a lot of times on racial issues, but we try to keep it funny, and that’s what allows us to continue talking about the issues that we talk about.

    You mentioned Barack Obama earlier. Has his presumptive nomination factored into the show’s material or the general media perception of the show?
    It definitely factored into the material. You have to understand, it’s important to know what he’s doing for us, especially for the minority groups of this country – Latinos and blacks. For the first time, I’m seeing little black and Hispanic kids wearing t-shirts that say “Future President.” It really has helped us embody the American dream, that if you work hard and you’re diligent and you put in the right amount of effort, then anything is possible in this country.

    To a certain degree, I think black Americans feel that there’s a ceiling in certain areas as to how far we can go, and Barack Obama has kicked down that door; and now that’s another door that we can walk into and embrace the American dream. A lot of the comedians [in the show] were really proud and happy for not only what he’s accomplished, but also what he’s put into the young black kids and instilled in them the fact that hey, you can do anything that you want to do if you just work hard.

    I think that a lot of that also has to do with his blue-collar upbringing.
    Exactly, and a lot of us can share the fact that we were raised without a father, or moving around a lot, having a step-father. That’s the thing about comedy: comedy’s all about connecting with the audience, and I think Barack Obama has connected with the comedians on that same level.

    You do a bit about leaving college. What do you miss most about college life?
    You know, I think what I miss about college life is that life was so much simpler then, and you don’t see it at the time because you look at life as such a burden, as in, ‘Oh, man, I have to study again!’ You get caught in the web of campus life and you wanna go hang out at this party, go out with this girl, but in the scheme of things, now in retrospect, you long for that because there are so many bills now and kids and you gotta make sure that this bill is paid and I’m going out on the road and this and that.

    It’s like, I wanna bring back the good old days of just having to study for a test and that was the worst thing that could happen: block out four to five hours to read something and then take a quiz on it. I think that’s what I miss most about college: the simplicity of it.

    Was it the college atmosphere that gave you a zest for comedy?
    It’s funny, because college was always a backup plan for me, because my parents were like, ‘You think you’re going to make a million dollars and become rich just from standing up, talking in front of people?’ If that were the case, everyone would be doing it.’

    My major was print journalism – you know, doing what you do – and I haven’t had an opportunity to use it yet just because comedy has been a nonstop thrill ride for me.

    Does the writing part of your educational background help you when you’re writing jokes?
    You know what’s really funny is that when you listen to me onstage, I don’t use perfect grammar, and I kinda bring out that southern dialogue of talking and not worrying about what I’m saying and whether things are formulated correctly or not. Offstage I’m really not like that at all. I’m really more of an intellectual offstage, but onstage it’s like I dumb myself down, and that’s not to say I do it to play to the races; it’s just a lot more fun. It’s a lot harder to be politically correct than it is to just say, ‘I ain’t going no place!’ It’s much more fun.

    I’ve heard that same thing about a lot of legendary comedians, like Lewis Black and even George Carlin, that they were or are nothing in real life like their onstage personas. Is that a trick of the trade?
    Yeah, and you know, I’ve been an admirer of both of those guys. I really love George Carlin’s stuff but I never agreed with his religious views, though I thought he was brilliant as a comedian. I loved his political views, but he was somewhat of an atheist, and I’m far from that.

    In what direction do you see your career headed?
    Hopefully up. Up, up, up! I’m starting to headline comedy clubs now, and a lot of times headlining comedy clubs is not based on how funny you are, it’s about who’s coming out and how big you are, and clubs are starting to request me. So I really do see myself going out, hitting the road, but the ultimate goal for me is film and television. I’m in development right now for a television show, and I’ve done a few films. The thing that’s really starting to pick up for me out here in terms of television and films is helped by being involved with Martin Lawrence and First Amendment Stand-up. I’m looking for bigger and better things.

    How will you know when you’ve really made it?
    When you don’t have to work for it. When you do it just for fun, and you’re able to say, ‘You know what? I’m going to take a couple of months off and go to the Bahamas, or I’m going to take a couple of months off and just go around Europe, or Africa.’ That, to me, is definitely one of the qualifications of being able to say, ‘I made it.’ You do what you want as opposed to having to do things.

    For more info, check out dougwilliams.net and the official site for Martin Lawrence Presents 1st Amendment Stand-up.

    Emma Kat Richardson

    Emma Kat Richardson is a Detroit native and freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in xoJane.com, Bitch, Alternative Press, Real Detroit Weekly, 944, and Bust.com. She’s enough of a comedy nerd and cat lady to have named her Maine Coon Michael Ian Cat. Follow her on twitter: @emmakat.

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