Harland Williams: Communes with Comedy

By | March 12, 2007 at 6:43 pm | One comment | Features

Harland Williams
You’ve quoted his quirky characters from some of Hollywood’s most memorable comedies, but comedian Harland Williams is more than a urine chugging cop. He enjoys long walks in the forest, painting at home and writing children’s books. Seriously.

Over the past two decades Harland Williams has carved himself into many niches. To say the least, he’s a multi-faceted performer, showing off his comedic wares on stage, in films and in print. And the Canadian-born funnyman keeps adding to his vast repertoire. His career has followed a path as wacky and as varied as his stand-up delivery, which is clearly inspired by his own whimsical desires.

On stage Williams typically dishes out well-polished bits liberally peppered with mock antagonistic conversations with the crowd. He’ll drop a three-line fart joke in the middle of a longer segment about driving. He shifts from setting his jokes in the real world to blurting out absurd asides like, “He was out of there faster than a little Norwegian whale skinner at a Chinese roasted walrus festival.”

He’s not afraid to set the crowd up with good-natured, G-rated humor “Did you know that pumpkins were the only living organism with triangle eyes?” only to knock them down with concise adult retorts, like when he punishes his girlfriend for complaining about his sexual stamina by finding a dastardly remedy: “I popped six Viagra and I drank a case of Red Bull. Her funeral is this Tuesday.”

Throughout his act, he still holds on to that same friendly, country-bumpkin attitude that continues to endear him to his audiences and allows for a dose of his unique humor to drop at the slightest provocation. This ability has led him to craft some of the most quote-worthy characters in some of Hollywood’s top comedies.

In New York City recently on a stand-up tour stop at Comix to promote his CD, Har-Larious, Williams was surprised to find that the mounted police force are often harassed by pedestrians shouting “Buttercup!” the way Williams’ good-natured, pot headed kindergarten teacher character did in Half Baked after accidentally poisoning a horse.

“That was a one-note scene that became long and drawn out. Every time I’d improvise, it just kept going and going,” Williams says. “Fortunately the guy who played the cop just kept going too. I just hope someone doesn’t get kicked in the head by a horse, well maybe a small kid.”

Williams’ sense of humor is simultaneously tuned in to be both sweet and sick. Take for example another of his oft-quoted lines, this one from his pee-drinking state trooper character in Dumb and Dumber: “You fellas been doing a bit of boozing, have you? Suckin’ back on grandpa’s old cough medicine?’

“That’s one I hear a lot. I improvised that line, it’s kind of like a tribute to my grandfather,” he explains with a snicker. “When we were kids growing up he liked to have a drink, but he didn’t want to do it in front of us, so he’d yell for my grandmother to bring him some of his cough syrup.”

Like many great comedians, Williams can usually chalk up some of his best film work to spur-of-the-moment inspiration, but his stand-up writing process is far different. He admits he’s not part of the school of funny story telling; rather, he crafts individual jokes each with a life of their own.

“My style is like trying to write a hit song. I don’t keep a joke unless it’s a hit,” he says. “So it’s slower, but it’s the way I work. Then I do a lot of improvisation and crowd work, you know to fill in that void and make sure I don’t get stagnant. It keeps my energy hot, tasty and cinnamon-y”

That same attitude that allows for Williams to craft one-liners out of nowhere is what keeps him performing on stage, despite his big screen successes.

“I’ve always loved the idea of testing myself and putting myself out there, exposing myself and scaring myself,” he says. “It’s not something you can do in real life, you know like walking into the DMV dressed as a robot juggling manatees. I push my own outlet, it’s good for daddy.”

And for some reason not even the prospect of failing or even hearing a deafening silence from the audience can deter Williams from taking this route. “Sometimes I actually like bombing,” he admits. “It’s usually because I’m experimenting or trying something new. It kind of feels good afterwards, cause I’m pushing myself. I guess I would have been great in World War II cause I love bombing, not for the people’s sake, but for my own.”

Williams, 44, the son of an attorney-cum-Ontario’s solicitor-general father and a marriage counselor/travel writer mother grew up with four sisters in the middle-class, suburban Toronto neighborhood of Willowdale.
He made his stand-up debut at the city’s famed comedy club Yuk Yuk’s during an amateur night in 1982. But when he moved to the States 16 years ago, his career began its steady ascent.

His comedy club spots in Los Angeles — his current home — helped him score appearances on Late Show with David Letterman as well as small but memorable roles in films like The Whole Nine Yards, RocketMan and There’s Something About Mary.

But before he made the jump to performing — and after quickly deflecting his father’s suggestion that he use his Catholic school education to become a priest — Williams seriously considered a career in forestry.

“It was a hard job to leave,” says Williams of his time spent as a junior forest ranger, where he perfected various animal calls. “I know it sounds cheesy but comedy was my inner calling. One of the real special things about wilderness is you’re so alone and you can channel your thoughts and spirit. I communed with the planet. Now I know it sounds like I should be eating trail mix and yogurt, but I promise you I’m not into wearing Birkenstocks.”

Williams’ desire to be one with the planet and to extend his reach to all kinds of people is what led him to the world of children’s literature; he currently writes and illustrates his own series of stories, which includes titles like Lickety Split and The Kid with Too Many Pets.

As a youngster himself, Williams remembers enjoying the classic Where the Wild Things Are, albeit to a different beat.“That was my first children’s book, but I read it while listening to some old Doors 45s I won at a local strawberry festival,” he says. “I imagined I was hanging out with Jim Morrison for the evening. Those are some weird songs.”
Williams has even fostered his hobby for drawing and painting as evidenced by his art posted on his official website. And he still turns to rock-and-roll for his inspiration. “I like heavy metal when I paint. I like to blast Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath,” he says. “It gets the demonic out of me.”

Williams, who also designs T-shirts and greeting cards, enjoys the idea of working in many different mediums, and allows one to inspire the other. “My stand-up is based more on the adult world, but I like the idea of innocence and leaving something in the world like that,” he says. “I’m an uncle– of all of Angelina Jolie’s children. So it’s very busy changing diapers in the day and going to Cambodian classes at night. Damn little angels.”

Following his own personal whimsy has opened Williams’ career up even further. He recently began the painstakingly long process of directing his own animated DreamWorks film, Route 66, about a roadside golf-ball statue that sets out to find a giant blueberry named Betty– the statue’s true love that goes missing. “This is like my little baby. I showed some of my artwork to Jeffrey Katzenberg recently, and he really loved it,” he says. “But it’s a lengthy process and it’s all kept pretty hush-hush. It’s not even slated to come out until 2010.”

Even with so much work pushing him forward and in different directions, Williams is not above going back to one of his most popular projects. He said that both he and Dave Chappelle have knocked the idea around of doing a sequel to Half Baked, but their schedules have not allowed for much more than idle musings. “The idea has gone away and come back, and blah blah blah,” he says. “We’re getting to the point where we’re almost too old.”

In the meantime, Williams is content to keep him and his audiences entertained with his aww-shucks attitude, and zany creativity that ensures a sneaky joke is just around the corner. “I usually eat breakfast at night to trick myself into thinking that I woke up at 7 p.m.,” he laughs. “But I get confused because NBC news is on when I wake up.”

For more information, visit www.harlandwilliams.com.

About the Author

Noah Fowle

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