Hope can be found in strange places–in small, profane packages.
What if I told you my favorite Springsteen song was actually a Katt Williams standup bit?
You might think, “Too much pop culture. His hard drive has finally crashed.”
And you might be right. But bear with me.
Okay, maybe Katt Williams isn’t the first person your mind goes to when you think of hope and inspiration.
Hell, Katt might not be the first person your mind goes to when you think of comedy. But he deserves a spot in your mental batting order because dude is funny; a bonafide weirdo and true modern-day clown.
But he is an exceptional comedic artist. A diminutive full-body actor who performs in character–even if he’s not exactly in character. His persona is some cross between self-imagined pimp and speed freak jester and you can never be sure where the artifice actually begins.
Williams also crafted one of my favorite six minutes of comedy, a bit featured in his 2009 hourlong special, It’s Pimpin’ Pimpin’ that is not only hilarious but, as mentioned, inspiring. Oddly so.
Many comedians point out truths about life, but standup often veers toward the cynical side. Williams’ Tiger Bit, surprisingly, offers real hope.
In my desperate, starving New York actor days, I would sometimes pull it up on my phone while riding the train to dead-end gigs and hopeless auditions.
And in its own way, it gave me the same feeling as listening to the Boss: that there is honor and dignity in struggle, even if success proves elusive.
No, really, I swear.
And since we all know how it goes with frogs and comedy, I suggest you watch the bit before reading further.
So as not to subject Katt’s tigers to the same fate as E.B.’s frog, I won’t be giving it a full dissection, just a loving poke or two. So a familiarity with the material would be helpful. You won’t be disappointed.
[Warning: extremely NSFW]
Okay, first, let’s talk about the hopey changey part. When I say this is my favorite Springsteen song, I’m mostly talking about this line:
“As a real motherfucker you can’t never afford to give up, cuz all real motherfuckers is only waitin’ on one opportunity…and that’s the opportunity to show a motherfucker that THEY AIN’T BULLSHITTIN’!”
If you have ever been an artist, an athlete, an entrepreneur, anyone who has had the courage to believe in themselves, you understand the–yes, tiger-like–hunger for this opportunity. To show the haters what you’re made of.
This is “For the ones who had a notion, had a notion deep inside / That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive”* expressed in an urban comedic idiom.
Art–it’s universal, right?
[*Badlands, by Bruce Springsteen. How could you not know that?]
And let’s not forget that the bit ends triumphantly…with people being eaten alive (based on a real incident at the San Francisco Zoo in 2007). This is how complete a narrative Williams weaves around this story. You are 100% on the tigers’ side.
In terms of performance, this is masterful work, crackling with a Robin Williams level of manic energy and physical acting. Performers like this turn the stage into a playground, endowing objects and the space itself with wild comedic potential (See: the stool-as-wildebeest bit. This is the kind of moment that would destroy in a small club. The audience’s collective jaw would be on the floor.)
In six minutes, we see him lay out a reasonable premise (basically an expansion of Chris Rock’s joke about the Siegfried & Roy tiger attack: “That tiger didn’t go crazy, that tiger went tiger!”), then execute a flawless five minutes of gymnastic performance that also follows an airtight story arc, never deviating from the pursuit of the original premise, that the tigers are the “only real motherfucker(s) in the whole equation.”
Along the way, he teaches a small masterclass in comedic technique. Notable checkpoints include:
Establishing a premise by reversing expectations, i.e. the tigers are the heroes of the story and the humans deserve what they got. Carlin was a master of this–flipping an assumption upside down and working backwards from it.
Layering in social commentary: “White people, if you cannot know what it’s like to be a tiger in a zoo, I don’t know how you’re ever gonna understand what it’s like to be a — in America.” Emotional investment and stakes are now created.
Juxtaposition of language: “How they gonna snitch on the tigers?” In 2009, when this special was shot, the concept of (not) “snitching” was at its zenith, having been born in my hometown of Baltimore and gone viral before that was a thing. A savvy comedian doesn’t choose words mindlessly. There is always extra juice to be wrung from the right combination of clean and dirty, slang and formal.
Act outs: stress on the “act” part. His act outs are not mere asides or half-imagined schtick. He acts.
Mapping: this refers to layering something recognizable onto something less so, to comedic effect, e.g. assigning human neuroticism to tigers. Always funny when done well.
Okay, I’m edging dangerously close to dead frog territory so let’s climb back out of the tiger’s cage and let all the animals be.
In the internet era, Williams’ legacy seems inseparable from and, to some extent, overshadowed by, the seamier aspects of his real life (though he was way ahead of the curve on Michael Jackson, depending on who you ask).
But the Tiger Bit serves as a reminder of the difference between stage time and real time. Five minutes is fleeting in real life, an eternity on stage. A good comedian can fit an entire short play into that time, prop work, act outs, voice work, societal relevance and all.
A great comedian can even manage to inspire a little hope along the way.