The Genius of Katt Williams Has Been Hiding in Plain Sight
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The Genius of Katt Williams Has Been Hiding in Plain Sight

We’ve too often disregarded his gift. He’s actually no joke.

This weekend, clothing label Supreme dropped a promotional video that Spoke To the Moment. It wasn’t the first; days after the killing of George Floyd, the hypebeast favorites posted a clip of jazz legend Pharaoh Sanders playing sax in a box-logo tee, next to a boilerplate corporate statement about standing with victims of police brutality. But this one hit different: comedian Katt Williams, his signature perm dyed and plaited into a Tekashi 6x9ine Fruit By the Foot spectacle, doing a six-minute monologue about everything from the “perfectly suitable clown” in the White House to Black Lives Matter.

Much like Dave Chappelle’s recent special, 8:46, the stand-up routine was short on jokes; even when there were punchlines, there was no crowd to laugh at them. But it was long on jewels. At one point, Williams said that “civil unrest is what happens every time a place is ruled by the people and the people’s needs are not being met,” which was so astutely put I had to Google to make sure that he wasn’t quoting someone else. All of it was a reminder that Katt Williams is one of the most brilliant comedians to have ever lived — which is a fact that we’ve too often disregarded. That could be due to our own preconditions about his voice and gimmick, or his own tarnishing of his legacy over the past decade. Whatever the case, it’s past due time to acknowledge the man’s genius.

In 2011, HBO aired a one-off show called Talking Funny, a conversation between Louis CK, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and Ricky Gervais. The show, which went viral in 2018 after people rediscovered a clip of Louis and Ricky dropping N-bombs while Chris Rock laughed along, was little more than four legendary comedians talking about the art of stand-up. It’s a fascinating show to watch in hindsight. One of the parts that always stood out to me was a discussion about the difference between jokes and “a bit,” the latter being just a series of gimmicks comedians do for attention and cheap laughs.

That’s his brand: physical comedy mixed with astute observation and a political analysis that sneaks up on you. It’s signifying at the highest level. A phantom punch that knocks you out while you’re looking at his offhand swinging in the air.

“So many of these young guys, they think it’s all attitude,” Rock said. “But it’s gotta have jokes under this weird persona and your crazy glasses and this crazy voice.” I don’t know who Rock was talking about specifically, but I read his comments as an indictment of Katt Williams, who had made his name as a permed faux-pimp with a squeaky voice. So much of the laughs he garnered came from the way he executed the lines. Sure, like the rest of the world, I’d laughed at his Pimp Chronicles Pt. 1 and It’s Pimpin Pimpin, playing the specials at kickbacks and reciting “this shit right here” and “don’t worry, I’ll wait.” But it was easy to see him as his “pimp” persona, catchphrases, and little substance. Maybe Katt Williams was more gimmick than brilliance?

To be fair, by the time Talking Funny rolled around, it was easy to dismiss Williams. After spending much of the previous five years as the biggest comedian in the world, having put out two monster cult classic comedy specials, starring in movies like Friday After Next and being one of those rare comedians who reach megastardom like the Kevin Harts and Eddie Murphys of the world, a Pimp Named Slickback would basically throw his career away. Much of the 2010s was spent with Katt in the middle of one bizarre arrest or altercation after another. There was the viral video of him getting beat up by an eighth grader. The outburst telling a Latinx heckler to “go back over there.” The multiple videos of him getting into fights at shows. Burglary in Georgia. Assaulting a tractor driver in California. Getting arrested with Suge Knight for allegedly fighting five women and stealing their phones. And that’s not even the half of it. All the while, his comedy star dimmed. He was the punchline.

Then he appeared on Atlanta. The second season’s premiere episode featured Williams in a surprise cameo, playing Earn’s uncle Willy, a washed-up loser who’d let his potential pass him by. “What I’m scared of is being you,” Earn says to him during a tense standoff. “Someone who everybody knew is smart but ended up being a know-it-all fuck up [junkie] that just let shit ‘happen’ to him.” Willy doesn’t fire back; he just lets out a “damn” and walks off. The performance is hilarious, tragic, somber, exhilarating. It earned him an Emmy.

It also reset Katt’s career. It was like the veil was lifted, and the rest of us saw beyond the antics to what he had been saying his whole career. The way he broke down how America uses language to dehumanize victims of the War On Terror in the Middle East back in 2008. How his highly underrated 2018 Netflix special contained one of the best post-election jokes I heard — that Trump’s victory was proof White people can keep a secret.

That’s his brand: physical comedy mixed with astute observation and a political analysis that sneaks up on you. It’s signifying at the highest level. A phantom punch that knocks you out while you’re looking at his offhand swinging in the air. His comedy was more than pimp chic and hair flips. He was incisive and biting at the right moments, hiding his most cutting commentary in plain sight. It was too easy to miss.

And now he’s in his Supreme shirt on Instagram, breaking down how White supremacy is rooted in the way White people are afraid that Black people will treat them how they’ve treated us. It’s the Katt Williams who’s been there the whole time, buried in the last decade by the headlines of his own decline and the rightful condemnation of his past acts. It’s the aspect of Katt Williams we didn’t appreciate enough when he was hitting on all cylinders, but one that’s more than welcome when so many of us are longing to take any voice willing to make sense of the world we’re in. In a year of surprises, the latest one is the fact that one of those voices is coming from Katt Williams.