In 2008, stand-up comic Katt Williams was riding high on the success of MTV's Wildin' Out, a couple movie roles, an HBO special and four national tours. His brand of comedy -- weed, pimp culture, black-vs.-whitey jokes, more weed -- had all but infiltrated hip-hop. But then Williams hit a productive low that would last three years, largely thanks to a string of arrests and other run-ins with the law.
Wanting to "re-energize" and reconnect with fans, Williams mounted a modest 20-date tour late this year, culminating on New Year's Eve at L.A.'s Nokia Theatre. Over the course of seven cigarettes -- but only one joint -- on a recent rainy night at the Loews Santa Monica hotel, Williams spoke about getting back on the road.
Williams is well aware that, in recent years, his rap sheet has gotten more laughs than his jokes. His name on TMZ.com pulls up some two-dozen stories with such headlines as "Katt Accused of Being the World's Worst Boss" and "Katt Williams' Mug Shot -- Nick Nolte Called. He Wants His Hair Back."
"Half the things on TMZ are baseless," he says. "But often the things that are baseless have to be discussed. It is not for you to be thin-skinned. You wanna know what the opposite side is saying about you."
Williams was first arrested in 2006 at LAX on weapons charges. "They expect a nigga to walk around gunless?" he said to the audience on tour the following year.
The next five years would result in two more arrests on charges of assault, burglary and criminal trespassing. "I was shooting a movie for 60 days in the house they arrested me in for breaking and entering," says Williams, even though "they knew what the movie was about." All three charges were dropped.
In 2008, at the urging of family, Williams checked himself into a South Carolina medical facility for psychiatric evaluation. "They [his family] wanted me to call it 'fatigue,' " he says.
In the last two months, Williams has been back in L.A. court battling a former nanny who's seeking custody of his youngest daughter, despite not being the child's mother. Williams is accusing her of fraud and claims she's merely out to collect government benefits.
But in the public's eye, Williams became a real hot mess of YouTube proportions in Phoenix last summer, when he responded to a heckler's anti-American, pro-Mexican comments by unleashing a rant many deemed offensive to Mexicans. "I was angry, and that's what threw people off. You can't do anger as comedy," he says. "I could've presented it in a better way, but that's not organic, and that's not the way hecklers work."
Williams' humor has always been aimed at "all the niggas in the struggle whose bodies are 80 percent water and 20 percent Top Ramen." He's reamed exalted black celebs like Shaquille O'Neal and Whitney Houston. As a father of eight (seven are adopted), he felt particularly justified digging into Michael Jackson's history of alleged child molestation, and plans to bring him up again in his act on Dec. 31. "There is a line, and the people who can be hurt by what I say are his kids," he says. "But in a sense, there isn't a line. ... We lose so much when we decide that we can't have unpleasant conversation."
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Still, Williams has criticized others for going too far. In 2007 he hosted the Comedy Central Roast of Flava Flav. While the network's roasts are notoriously brutal, Williams still called some of the other comedians' jokes racist. "If there are 30 jokes, and 26 are about the dude's complexion, I do have a problem with that," he says. "I thought there was enough stuff in the guy's life to roast about," referring to Flav's drug habits.
Williams also cried foul on the media take on his friend Dave Chappelle's tumultuous exit from TV, saying it's hypocritical to ridicule Chappelle and then turn Charlie Sheen into a pop cultural phenomenon. "The person [Chappelle] who's doing it in real life, everybody's taking it as a joke," Williams says, "and the person who's doing it as a joke, everyone thinks is real life. They let a guy's life be ruined."
Williams doesn't shy away from making fodder out of his own misdeeds. "Your angst is what fuels comedy," he says. "When you get to a point in your life where only good things are happening, that's not comedy, that's bragging. I know what I went through and why. And I'm coming back to tell the truth. But I left that out of the 19 other cities. That, I have to bring to Los Angeles."
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