Harland Williams knew he was destined for greatness
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It's common for stand-up comedians to branch out into publishing and voice-over work these days, but Harland Williams' résumé is more varied than most. In addition to having film and TV roles, a frequently updated podcast, and a string of children's books under his belt, the Ontario native has an office at Dreamworks for developing an idea he pitched to them about a golf ball falling in love with a blueberry. It might sound nonsensical on paper, but Williams has a gift for spinning sublime out of silly. Prior to his four-night stint at D.C. Improv, The A.V. Club sat down with the ubiquitous comedian to discuss loons, David Letterman, and his own charmed life.
The A.V. Club: You recently finished your first non-children's book, The Things You Don't Know You Don't Know. What's the difference between writing for kids and writing for adults?
Harland Williams: I do it through the eyes of a kid. I basically put on little shorts and little shoes and a Winnie The Pooh shirt and I write for kids. And then for adults I try to just write a little more thought-provoking, a little more intelligent, I guess.
AVC: You spent a few years as a forest ranger after college. Is that when you found your comedic voice?
HW: I was figuring out what I was going to do with my life. I wasn't 100 percent sure it would be comedy, but I was spending a lot of time alone, and you know, when you're just drifitng around in a canoe for days and days, you don't have many human beings around. It's a great time to contemplate and soul search, and I was able to kind of tap into what my body and mind and heart were telling me. It just kind of said, "Entertainment, entertainment." I thought about what I was good at and it was making people laugh, so I followed that vibe and then I got hit in the face by a loon—which is really sad—but I recovered and went to Hollywood. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did that really happen?
HW: I just felt like my story was getting a little too serious so I threw in the old "loon in the face" routine.
AVC: A lot of your stories end with someone getting hit in the head by an animal.
HW: That's the way it should be in life, man. I think life would be so much funnier if every day you saw someone walking down the street getting hit in the head by a monkey, don't you? I mean, think about it: How many times a day do you laugh in your daily work? And if you just saw someone get clunked in the head by a monkey it would cheer you right up, man. [Laughs.]
HW: Animation wasn't my love, but drawing was. I loved drawing, and when it came time to graduate from high school, I looked around and it was like, "Wow, I don't really want to study math. I don't really want to study science. I don't really want to study literature. Is there a place where I can go and draw cartoons?" And sure enough, there was a great college that offered an animation course. I was like, "As long as I'm drawing, I'm happy," so I went there. I just tried to create a life for myself that's full of fun and fantasy and things that equal laughter. My life's been cartoons and comedy and acting, and it's just been a fun life, man.
AVC: Your act rarely gets too topical, so there's no real shelf life for a lot of your bits. What's the oldest joke that's still in rotation?
HW: Um, I think there's one that I still do from time to time that I actually used to do when I first started comedy. It's one that I kind of use when I'm transitioning between bits or if there's a little quiet spot in my act. I look at the crowd and I go, "You ever take your contact lenses out and put them in your cat's eyes and put her out on the balcony to play?" It's just a quickie, but it always kind of snaps the crowd back around or refocuses them.
AVC: Both in your stand-up and on your podcast, The Harland Highway, you do a lot of sound effects and voices. When did you discover you had the knack?
HW: That was probably the first thing I discovered I had a knack for. I used to do little sketches into my cassette tape recorder when I was a little boy. I would just turn it on and just start doing voices and characters. I just loved it. I almost think if I could stop doing everything else I'm doing, I would love to just spend the whole day creating an immaculate podcast—because I really have so much fun with it. I love the theater of the mind because you can go anywhere. You can say anything, and you pull people in. [You] can be jumping out of a window or riding a cow or having bubble-wrap sex or spraying your body with Pam and sliding out of your chair.
AVC: You also have that segment on your podcast about things the government doesn't want you to know. Are you actually a conspiracy buff, or is that just a launching pad for material?
HW: I think that's almost a mockery of conspiracy people. It's kind of a goof on that whole thing, because everything's a conspiracy and everything's not a conspiracy. You could look at this planet and go, "This is all a conspiracy. God made this to test us to see if we'll use the nukes." You can let your mind believe anything. So I just kind of like the notion that there [are] people who dedicate so much time and energy to these fabulous notions. I think they should maybe just go out into the garden and watch a ladybug crawl across a flower and relax their mind. That's about all you need to know about life, I think.
AVC: You've started incorporating sketch comedy into your act—like on your concert DVD Child Wild. What do you like about sketch that makes it different from stand-up?
HW: The thing I love about sketch is sometimes it leads you as opposed to you leading it. So, I don't go out there [thinking], "Oh, I want to make this as silly as possible." In fact, sometimes I get the most enjoyment out of a sketch that plays very real—and it's so real that it's just funny. But that being said, if silly comes around the corner, I don't avoid it. That's the beauty of improv. It can just flip back and forth. I don't intentionally make it all silly. I take whatever is there. I've had improvs where it goes into a real serious mode where you're almost crying on stage and you get really dramatic. It's fun. The more intense it gets, the better, I think.
AVC: You guested on the short-lived improv show Thank God You're Here. Why do you think improv hasn't gotten much of a foothold on TV outside of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Whose Line Is It Anyway?
HW: I don't know. I wish there was more of it. But I just think it's kind of like the wild mustang of the entertainment industry. I think the people who are great at it know how to ride it, but there's only a few people with the courage and the know-how to ride it, and the rest of the industry stands outside of the corral and they're in fear of it. "We don't know how to control that, so we're just going to stay away from it." And it's probably just too dangerous; executives and studios really like to have control over their product. They panic or they're not secure enough to trust in the powers of really amazing improv people. If you took a guy like Colin Mochrie or Ryan Stiles and you gave them an arena to improvise a half-hour show every week, it would be killer. I think they're just scared of anything that's not too structured.
AVC: Were you surprised by all the attention you got after Dumb And Dumber and Down Periscope?
HW: I felt like it was just part of my destiny. I always felt like that's where I was headed and that's where everything was supposed to go and that's where my mindset was at. Without sounding conceited or cocky, it just felt like what I always perceived to be the natural progression of things. I don't know why. It goes back to when I said I was in the forest and I had a vision. I had a vibe for everything. And being on screen and being in movies and being on TV was just part of what I felt inside. I just felt like, "Wow, this is what I'm supposed to do." And fortunately—I don't know if I'm one of the few guys—but I'm a guy who came to Hollywood and I didn't have a lot of restlessness or fear inside me, because I just felt like so much of this stuff was just written on the wall for me. And I don't know why. I guess it's just kind of lucky, maybe. I remember telling my friends in college—and this is before I even knew I was going to go into entertainment—I told them, "I'm going to be on Letterman one day." They're like, "What are you talking about?" I said, "I don't know. I can just feel it inside. I know I'm going to be on David Letterman one day." And they said, "You're an idiot." But 10 years later I was on Letterman. All this stuff was just a feeling. I also feel like you're going to win the lottery next week. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was there a moment when you hit the ceiling in Canada and knew it was time to go to L.A.?
HW: I knew right out of the gate that I was headed to L.A. I knew before I got on stage, day one. I was like, "Okay, this is my training ground." And then within two years I was headlining in Canada, which was faster than I thought. I thought it would be like five years, but in two years I was headlining clubs, and then after about five or six years I'd pretty much gone around the country three times in the circuit. I was like, "You know what? That's enough. There's nothing else I can prove to myself up here. It's time." I could tell by the reaction of the crowd. I was starting to get standing ovations, and I was starting to kill it. It was going as good as it [could] go and it was like, "I'm seasoned, I'm schooled, I'm feeling it. I'm ready to graduate from high school and go to the big game." I just went down to L.A. and all the kinds of things that I'd hoped for started up there.