A Comic’s Fifth Second Chance

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 19, 2014 at 6:43 pm •  Published: January 19, 2014

c.2014 New York Times News Service

NEWARK, N.J. — Deep into a raucous comedy set at Symphony Hall here on Friday night, Katt Williams briefly halted his mockery of the Boston Marathon bombers, the Roman Catholic Church and racially inclusive cereal commercials for a moment of sincerity.

Though it may often feel as if we are living in a world that desperately needs to change, Williams said, “the only thing we can fix is us.”

And as Williams would be the first to tell you, his life has lately been badly in need of repairs.

Known for a bold sartorial style and a frenzied stage presence that is part revivalist preacher and part Warner Bros. cartoon, Williams, 40, has accumulated a rap sheet of misdeeds and erratic behavior to rival his résumé of stand-up specials like “It’s Pimpin’ Pimpin’” and “Kattpacalypse.”

In the past three years, he has been arrested on suspicion of assault and child endangerment; he has been hit with tax liens; he has feuded with audience members at his own shows; and he has angered fans for missing performances outright.

Then, at the end of 2012, he declared — for the second time in his career — that he was retiring from stand-up altogether. Still, he remains notorious enough to merit a sendup on “Saturday Night Live,” where he was impersonated this weekend by the hip-hop star Drake, portrayed as an eager advocate of Colorado’s recreational marijuana shops.

As a more mellow and contemplative Williams admitted, up to a point, in an interview Friday afternoon in Manhattan, the devastation he had brought upon himself had been thorough. But what mattered more, he said, was how he bounced back from it.

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve lived a perfect life — if a tornado comes and tears down everything you’ve got, it’s time to rebuild,” he said. “You just hope you rebuild for the better.”

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Faced with challenges, “I failed miserably,” Williams said. “And the blessing when you strike out really bad is, it makes the home runs look better.”

As he sat in a suite at the Trump SoHo hotel, dressed in a designer sport coat, jeans and a jewel-encrusted pinkie ring in the shape of a lion’s head, Williams, who describes himself as a “sociable recluse,” was alternately humble and defiant, confessional and elusive.

With more than 25 confirmed shows through the end of May on his new “Growth Spurt” tour, this 5-foot-5 entertainer was not interested in itemizing his transgressions of recent months. (He said, with a sardonic laugh, that he had broken two ribs and three fingers in a “police interaction.”)

Nor did Williams want to specify exactly what steps he had taken to right his life in the many months he had been out of the public eye, except to say that taking a personal inventory and “a step back” had been involved.

At the end of this process, he said, he has realized “the brain is as fragile a muscle as any that we have.” He seemed to be aware that volatility is part of his character and that he must always account for it in stressful situations. “Consequently, I should make better decisions,” he said. “And yet, in the heat of the moment, if a guy out of nowhere says something he should never say, the realness in me says I should respond to it.”

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To his peers and others in comedy, Williams’ misadventures have only burnished his reputation as a fearless and unpredictable performer. They seem of a piece with a comic who, in the span of a single joke, can talk about the troubling ambiguity of the word “insurgent” and the devastating potency of modern-day marijuana.

“He’s the outlaw who tells the truth,” said Jonas Larsen, Comedy Central’s senior vice president for specials and talent.