What Makes Katt Williams Great? It’s Not the Jokes, It’s the Performance

Katt Williams understands the importance of an entrance.

In “World War III,” his new hour of stand-up on Netflix, you first see him racing across the stage like Tom Cruise hustling to save the world. His previous specials have been just as cinematic, with Williams strutting in wearing a massive fur coat and flanked by beautiful women or walking through the crowd in a cape while a voice-over tells you his thoughts.

But his most spectacular introduction had to be from “Priceless” in 2014 when the curtain dropped to reveal a smoky stage with two women dancing on either side of a cage containing a lion. Not a sleepy one, mind you. This beast was jumpy. After a shot of the audience, a clever piece of misdirection by the director Spike Lee, the focus returned to the stage where one of the women opened a cage door slowly enough to let your mind wander to worst-case scenarios. Then a different Katt emerged.

It’s the kind of showmanship (not to mention punning) you can expect from Katt Williams. In a recent interview with Arsenio Hall, Williams, a prolific performer, said his legacy would be not as the greatest comic, but as the most original. He’s got a case. In a landscape filled with stand-ups straining to go against the grain, carving out brands as renegades, Williams is a genuine eccentric.

What other superstar would open his first special on Netflix, a famously global platform, with 10 minutes of local material about Jacksonville, Fla., the town he was performing in? Or say with such conviction that there is no such thing as cancel culture. (“I’m on my fifth second chance,” he once quipped.) Or find himself in so many beefs with amiable peers. He’s called out Cedric the Entertainer and Tiffany Haddish, but his fiercest feud is with Kevin Hart. The substance of their conflict is hard to figure out, but in terms of style, Williams always comes off with more flair: He once used a video any boxing promoter would appreciate to challenge Hart to a comedy battle for $5 million.

But his distinctiveness starts with his cadence, a swaggering high-pitched voice that evokes the flow of Easy-E more than it does any comic. His delivery has a rhythm, a quickening beat that, once you clue into it, can make anything funny. Along with his live-wire physicality, this is what makes him the finest arena comic of the moment. His act is not about carefully honed jokes. In his new special, which is not one of his better ones, his take on Joe Biden is that he’s old and the world war of the title is a vague battle between truth and lies that never entirely coheres into a complete thought. He pokes fun at Anthony Fauci and makes some half-baked jokes about Adam and Eve being incestuous. Williams has said he stopped performing in clubs and instead develops jokes in front of thousands of people. You can tell.

The tepidness of his material here seems almost like a challenge, as if he’s saying: Watch how I can make even these jokes work.

The first 10 minutes of his new hour have maybe two good punch lines, and both are about chicken wings. The remarkable part is that they are completely unconnected. Most comics would have at least used a transition to tie them together and build momentum. But whereas there are many comics who can write a tight joke, there’s only one Katt Williams. He tosses ideas out and then, through force of charisma and performance chops, makes them amusing in a way no one else could.

In the first chicken wing joke, the setup leans into his preacher voice, adopting a tone of religious solemnity to explain that the world is in serious trouble, convincing you he’s about to go deep before pivoting to a punchline that delivers the news with apocalyptic exasperation: “Taco Bell’s selling chicken wings.”

In the other chicken wing bit, the setup and punchline are almost incidental to what comes in between, which he delights in stretching out: He repeats lines like incantations, asks the audience to imagine a chicken, does an imitation of a chicken, and throws out disclaimers (“Look, I’m not a farmer”) and tangents. Part of what makes this so much fun is the improvisational sense he creates, the way he works off the crowd’s response, but it’s also how quickly Williams moves from silly to serious. As wonderfully goofy as his chicken impression may be, what’s really unusual about Williams is his gravity. Even in his funniest moments, he has an intensity that makes comedy dramatic. Donald Glover clearly saw this when he cast Williams in a dramatic role in “Atlanta,” for which he won an Emmy.

In a typical special, the comic spends time warming up the crowd, digs in to race and racism, pokes fun at whatever president occupies the Oval Office and tells some elaborate sex jokes. Williams, who perspires as much as any comic who has ever gesticulated, attacks sex jokes with his entire body. In one of my favorite bits from “It’s Pimpin’ Pimpin’” (2008), he describes his signature sexual move as a try-anything maneuver, pantomiming a sort of one-man Rube Goldberg device.

Last year, attending my first arena show since the pandemic, I saw Williams at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, doing much of the same material that is in his new special. It hit harder live. That may be because no comedian is better suited to remind you of the joys of laughing together.

Like only a few other comics alive, Williams knows how to turn a huge crowd into a family affair. He buttered us up, then pushed buttons, gushing about having successfully mounted a show this size during a pandemic: “They said it couldn’t happen in New York,” Williams said. Of course, no one said that, but it felt good to hear and we all cheered ourselves.

Katt Williams can seem ill at ease with the collegial small talk of show business, coming off as shy in interviews and seeming a bit awkward hosting a roast of Flavor Flav. (In a later special, he did a very funny and searching bit about feeling implicated in the racism of some of the jokes written for him.) But onstage alone, talking to a crowd, he’s smooth as can be. A seductive presence, he has that ineffable quality of stardom: a preternatural ability to connect.