Cracking Wise With Comedian Karen Williams
Karen Williams first got into stand-up comedy in the '80s, when she was a single lesbian mom living in Berkeley and looking for something she could do with her talent that wouldn't cost her anything. She soon discovered that audiences loved her lightning-quick repartee and rapport, and she had found her calling.
Williams has since traveled around the world performing, participated in seminal LGBT comedy videos like "Laughing Matters," written numerous comedy anthologies, and taught Stand-Up Comedy in the Dramatic Arts department of Cleveland State University.
She spoke with EDGE about Buddhism, her kids, Olivia cruises and teaching how to heal with comedy.
EDGE: How did you first become drawn to comedy?
WILLIAMS: I've been doing comedy for 30 years, and I come from a really funny family. I feel like I'm a representative for my family. I had very young parents, and humor became natural way of coping; there was always a lot of humor in my home. Professionally, I learned to write comedy while working at Columbia Studios. They used to hire ghostwriters and interns to work with scriptwriters, and I actually was exposed there to the formula of comedy.
EDGE: Who are some of your comedy idols?
WILLIAMS: I think for most comics today including myself who do stream of consciousness improv comedy, the standout is and always will be Richard Pryor. He shared his life through a stream of consciousness method that hadn't been done before. Everything else was one-liners or jokes. He made it funny; he created a dialogue with the audience.
EDGE: You believe in healing with comedy. How does that happen?
WILLIAMS: I was a person that suffered from chronic depression from 18 years old. I began practicing Nichiren Buddhism 42 years ago, and that helped me. But then I learned about Dr. Norman Cousins, who had a degenerative spinal disorder. He postulated if negative feelings and circumstances can create dis-ease, possibly positive emotions could create the antidote and generate healing. Basically, that laughter is the best medicine.
So I went back to Cleveland State University and created a degree in Humor and Healing. I was asked in '88 to do a workshop at an AIDS conference, and I created the rudimentary Humor and Healing workshop. There was a gay guy who came to conference. He had lost his lover to AIDS three days past, and said that he thought he would never laugh again. He laughed at the workshop. I explored and defined it, and created a series of workshops in humor and healing and stress management. I became the founder and CEO of HaHa institute.
EDGE: Tell me about Nichiren Buddhism. Does Buddhism make you funnier?
WILLIAMS: Lots of people know about it because of Tina Turner’s movie chanting ’Nam-myoho-renge-kyo’ in that movie, and people became familiar with the phrase. I was living in the same district as her, and got to know her. People use chanting to clear those blockages in their lives, and clearly self-esteem was an issue for her. No matter how famous you are, you still need to do work on yourself. Chanting for me initially helped me be onstage, because I was painfully shy as a child. It helped me come out of that shell, and gave me the confidence to move in the direction of my dream. I wanted a better life for me and my children. So I don’t know if Buddhism made me funnier, but it helped me know how to touch my audiences.
EDGE: You have three sons. Was it hard to travel as a comedian and a mom?
WILLIAMS: It was very difficult. People used to say ’I don’t know how you do it,’ standing on stage and making people laugh. But I would say that comedy was not hardest job; raising those sons was. As a single parent, being gone and dealing with their issues while I was traveling was not that easy. I had to create a life where I was there during the week with them and traveling and gigging on weekends. That’s the way our lives went.
EDGE: You came out after you had your kids, and now identify as a lesbian. Has that opened up your life, and how has it affected your comedy?
WILLIAMS: I’ve actually been out since my 20s, and was right in the middle of the lesbian comedy scene. I actually just celebrated the 10th anniversary of ’Laughing Matters,’ in LA with Marga Gomez, Suzanne Westenhoefer and creator Andrea Meyerson. I did that, one of Andrea’s first films, then went on to do several more. It put us in the foreground as forerunners for lesbian comics, and now I am definitely immortalized as one of the early lesbian comics.
What happened in beginning was that there were 8 or 10 of us out then, but now there are hundreds -- people we don’t even know. And we are all fighting for the same pieces of the pie: Pridefest and gay and lesbian organizations, a lot of them so hard hit with funding. So I’m grateful had the foresight to establish my institute, because there is this whole other realm I’m able to function in.
EDGE: You’ve done a number of comedy specials, including "I Need a Snack" and "We’re Funny that Way." How is it to do your own comedy special?
WILLIAMS: I’m always very aware of the power dynamics, and I think more women need to acknowledge our own power and what that feels like. I’ve been in good place when I’ve done those projects, and they’ve helped to further establish my reputation. I just feel pretty powerful in my life in general, but I think if you can step out of the mold in America and be self-employed in business, it’s a tough road.
It’s not like everybody’s going, ’It’s great you want to be independent,’ but every Monday morning millions of people go to work, and hate their job. Having an independent job and finding your own income and support systems, is very challenging. There’s not a lot of support for you, in America. You can get a lot of support if you’re really poor, and when you’re rich you don’t need it. But for the first time, thank goodness for Obama, I now have health insurance for the first time in 20 years. I love the freedom of being an independent artist.
EDGE: You also teach comedy; how is teaching different than performing?
WILLIAMS: I was teaching at Cleveland State University quite a few years ago, but now I teach at Pro Model & Talent Management, training students for acting and improv competitions. I understand what it takes to compete, and can really help.
EDGE: What’s your favorite gig to play?
WILLIAMS: I love the Olivia travel. That’s my heart! Just the community that’s been created and the reception get is a wonderful gig for me. They’re coming up on their 24th year, and have asked me to do their Australia/New Zealand trip in 2015. It’s the gig that keeps on going.
EDGE: What’s the best part about performing on an Olivia Cruise?
WILLIAMS: They’re my people! They remember feminism, they remember things that I don’t have to labor to reference. They’re my peeps.
I also do some bookings under "Healing With Humor -- Freedom From Fear," my 2013 national comedy tour. I wanted to do some other workshops at domestic violence centers and stuff while I’m in town. It’s an ongoing kind of thing.
EDGE: What gigs do you have coming up?
WILLIAMS: I just did a Boston/Montreal cruise with Olivia, I’m at Johns Hopkins on June 3 for a presentation, and at the Flying Beaver Pub for World Pride in Toronto.
For more information, visit www.hahainstitute.com