If you needed an education on the genuine comedy oddballs that Canada is well known for producing, it would be a crime to overlook Harland Williams. Digging out a comfortable niche with your weirdness is a hard battle in the comedy game, but Harland's brand of double-deep-fried crazy, coupled with a seemingly effortless flow between the most ridiculous jokes and concepts imaginable have firmly established him as one of our nation's best and most unique comedy exports.
Harkening back to my early days of watching Just for Laughs in the mid-90s, he stuck out like a hilariously sore thumb compared to the suit-jacket wearing airline food joke peddlers that flooded the landscape in those days. I always respected the fact that he made no attempt to mask or appease the various attributes about himself that maybe a more self conscious performer would have in the face typically judgmental audiences. He'll poke fun at his appearance, while at the same time not feeling the need to dwell on it. Why limit your comedy when there are a million bizarre and fun roads you can go down instead? It's an attitude I wish more performers would aspire to, and when I see Harland doing it with ease and confidence, I know I'm in for a show that can only be delivered by a man with complete faith in his dementia.
We talked about how he prepares for one of his infamous talk show appearances, his upcoming cartoon and stand-up projects, and his experience working on the criminally overlooked film Surf School.
Harland Williams is hosting the "Observational Comedy Disorder" Gala (9:15pm) on Friday, April 13th, as part of the Winnipeg Comedy Festival. More information on that show and the rest of the festival can be found at winnipegcomedyfestival.com.
J.D. Renaud: This is your first time at the Winnipeg Comedy Fest. How long has it been since you've been back to Winnipeg?
Harland Williams: Good lord, I think I was there with the Just for Laughs Tour, maybe ten or twelve years ago. So yeah, my return is long overdue. My footprints have long since dried and gone away. I'm going to wear flippers this time.
JD: You currently hold dual citizenship in Canada and the U.S. Do you make it up to Canada as often as you'd like?
HW: Yeah, I still find the time to get up there about two or three times a year. More, if I can help it. It's definitely nice to be able to jump back and forth. I like being two different citizens. It feels like being a British spy.
JD: I don't know how reliable Wikipedia can be for doing research, but it said that you went to college at Sheridan College in my old hometown of Oakville Ontario.
HW: Oh yeah, it's true. I have great memories of that place. That was the town where I went from adolescence into adulthood. Those were great times. That was the place I lost my virginity, made a ton of new friendships, and it's kind of the place I formulated my blueprint for the rest of my life. It was a pivitol place for me. Not only that, but I was able to save up a lot of acorns in my big fat cheeks. Oak trees, man. They're everywhere there. Every fall, I would make a little nest in a hallow tree and eat acorns for hours and hours.
JD: Just blending in with the locals, really.
HW: It was fun. I'll always remember my time eating acorns in that old oak tree.
JD: I was checking out a lot of the artwork on your website, and managed to find a copy of your children's book. How has the artwork been selling, and are you open to doing commissioned work at all?
HW: Usually when I put artwork up there it goes pretty fast -- I think there might be only one or two pieces that are still left lingering for sale on there. I love to do it, unfortunately I don't have as much time for it as I used to. I'd do a commissioned piece if it was in my wheelhouse, but I'm no good at some things. If someone said, "Hey, do a portrait of my girlfriend!" or something, I'd say no. I'm not good at transferring likenesses. If it was something I thought I could do, sure, I'd take a stab at it.
JD: You're a very popular guest on Conan, but it almost seems like you never do any kind of pre-interview before going on those shows. It always looks like he never knows what you're going to say.
HW: They do pre-interview me, but they also trust me. They know that whatever I'm going to bring to the table that I'll make it work, so even though we do a run through, they know that it's pretty likely that I'll improvise something and not tell them about it. I always throw stuff in there to surprise Conan. I love throwing stuff in there to throw him and his producers off. I think it creates a good chemistry between us, that's why they keep having me back. It keeps everyone on the edge of their seat, myself included. I love it when I don't even know what I'm going to say. I remember one time I went out there, I hid a package of bacon in my pants, and just pulled it out in the middle of the interview. That caught everyone a little off guard.
JD: You can always see a look in Conan's eyes before he sits down with you, like he knows something beyond his control is about to happen and he just has to make peace with it.
HW: He loves it. He always tells me during the commercials, "Man, I love it when you come here. I just get to sit back and enjoy the show, I don't have to worry about 'conducting an interview' with you. I just get to let you go and enjoy it." You can tell he gets a real kick out of it. I love it, too. It was not always that way, though. When I first started going on there years ago, it was actually kind of awkward, but then once we hit our stride it's been amazing ever since.
JD: People may know about some of your more famous roles (Half Baked, Rocket Man), and some of your better known cameos (Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary), but there is one film of yours that has a very special place in my heart. One that I really enjoy, and that I don't think a lot of people know about. Could you indulge me and talk a little bit about Surf School?
HW: Ha! Surf School, you liked that one, huh?
JD: I genuinely did, yes.
HW: That's an obscure one. It never got a theatrical release, it was just a straight to DVD thing. The director took me out to lunch and I read the script, and I just thought it was a neat character. I just loved the concept of playing a beach bum. Just this washed up legend surfer dude, I knew there was a lot about that I could dig my hooks into with that role. That, and we shot in location in Costa Rica on the beach with a bunch of girls in bikinis. I mean, come on, sure beats working down at the saw mill. I had a great time doing that movie. To be honest, it's not my favourite movie I've ever done, but I had an amazing time doing it. It was a blast.
JD: I could tell you were having a lot of fun with it. You always seem incredibly relaxed in even the most ridiculous roles. Do you have an idea going into those movies that you know how much you're going to push the weirdness while still keeping it tethered?
HW: Yeah, I guess it's just a sense of confidence. I've always felt like I knew where I was going to go with my characters. It's weird, but I just let the moment kind of pull me in the direction it needs to go. I don't sit there and obsess about what I'm going to do in the next take. The moment the director yells 'action', I'm just going to let my character pull me. It's kind of like a weird magic carpet ride, I just trust my instincts. All those bits from Dumb and Dumber, Half Baked, and There's Something About Mary, they were not pre-planned. They all just sort of happened in the moment. I guess if it comes off looking like confidence or relaxation, that's because that's what it is. It's fun to have that, and it's fun to be able to do that.
JD: I've always been interested in comedians who do cartoon voice work, which you have done a lot of. Was voice work something you wanted to do, or did people respond to your voice and start offering the work to you?
HW: It's a bit of both, actually. I started off doing this show called Ned's Newt that was on for quite a while, and I just thought doing voice work was awesome, so I kept at it. I just started doing this show on Nickelodeon called Robot Monster, which is coming out sometime this fall, I think. I do the voice of the Monster. It's probably the funniest, best show I've done voice over work for. I really think people are going to fall in love with it. My character is this big tall purple guy with horns and a derby hat. He's like a demented Pillsbury Doughboy. I can't wait for the world to see it.
JD: I can definitely see the appeal in wanting to be a character like that.
HW: Yeah, it's amazing. It's this robot and this monster that live together and they love bacon. The monster is this complete lovable idiot, and the robot is this uptight clean-freak. They live in this really bizarre world, and I really think people are going to love it.
JD: It's The Odd Couple with a robot and a monster -- what's not to love?
HW: Exactly. It's great.
JD: You're hosting the "Observational Comedy Disorder" show at the Winnipeg Comedy Fest this year, doing stand up, which is still your main stock and trade. The trend in the industry lately has been for comics to start releasing more of their material online. You've got a very popular podcast already (The Harland Highway), but what are your plans for releasing stand up material in the future?
HW: I've got a new special that's coming out this year called Harland Williams: A Force of Nature, and it's going to be a special unlike anyone has ever seen before. It's going to be available as a digital download and a DVD, and should be coming out in the summer or fall. It's very different. I shot it in the middle of the desert. On the top of a hill. In the middle of the day. With no audience. I've had enough of these specials shot in theatres. That's all I've seen my whole life, it's time to move the needle a little bit.
JD: Too slick? Too produced?
HW: Yeah, and it's just the same old crap. I decided to do something that had some artistic integrity for me, and I took it to a whole new place. I hope people dig it.
J.D. Renaud is a writer, comedian, producer, and visual artist originally from Oakville, Ontario. You can follow his weird thoughts on Twitter at @jdrenaud.