by Jenna Duncan
Comedian, humor educator, and business owner, Karen Williams, just got back from a tour and she needs a nap.
That is the first thing she tells me in our phone interview from her Cleveland, Ohio home, in late January.
“I was out in Key West on Thursday. I usually would have continued the cruise, but I had another gig,” she says. Williams was the featured comedy act on a recent Olivia Cruise line trip, a circuit she’s been working since 1990. She says she loves cruising the Caribbean, especially in the winter, and was excited to be invited for Olivia Cruise’s 30th anniversary.
“I have been all over the world,” she says. “I’ve been to Russia, Italy, Egypt, Israel…” Almost any place in the world you can think of, Williams has performed there. And she likes the opportunity to bring people together.
“Maybe I should call the tour, ‘still alive,’” she teases. “But I don’t want to be morbid! There are still lesbians who want to laugh with me.”
“There’s a beauty in laughing together. In a time, when there’s so much emphasis on separation and so much hatred, we should come together,” she says. “When you are laughing, you are in the present moment. And in truth, that’s the only moment we really have.”
Williams is from New York and spent a good chunk of time living and performing in Berkeley. “I don’t think for example I could have been the first out black lesbian comic in Wichita. Took the Bay Area to birth me,” she says.
She’s been performing for decades and has had the opportunity to perform on a variety of stages and taught a seminar in stand-up at Cleveland State University. She has been described as a “laugh riot” and has the distinction of being recognized as the first comic to grace stages, openly gay and Black. Her biggest audience, she says, was before the crowd of more than a million people at the 1993 March on Washington.
“Because it’s so many people, you have to really time yourself,” she says. “The laughter rolls in and rolls out. It’s very exciting. It’s almost like a wave of laughter that comes towards you and you have to pace yourself.” More recently, she was a featured performer at the 2019 Ohio Lesbian Festival.
When she performs, Williams says she wants people to be involved and really have fun. Laughter, she explains, is restorative and revitalizing. This idea is the inspiration behind her business, the HaHA Institute, or, International Institute of Humor and Healing Arts. Williams has been leading this business and taking people through the process of healing through humor, open communication and performance for years. She says that the institute came as a response to the AIDS pandemic and since has been broadened to now teach executives and employees how to use humor and conduct stress management tactics in the workplace.
Williams also founded the Humor-at-Large Workshop Series and the National Women’s Comedy Conference. She has also served as president of the Association of Women’s Music and Culture.
She says she’s writing new material and gets inspiration all the time. She’s been doing this (comedy) for more than 35 years. Through the course of her career, she raised two children as a single mother. Many times, she says, she writes things down and doesn’t even use it. And she loves improvising from the stage.
A revelation came to her when she went out recently to play Bingo.
“Now they play bingo on a tablet. You don’t even have to pay attention!” she exclaims. “You just push the button and it dings!” She says she saw women playing up to 36Bingo cards at a time. So where is the fun? Where’s the challenge?
“So that’s where we are headed!
“When I was first with Olivia, the DJ dragged around cases of albums,” she reminisces. “ But now they just bring their computer.”
“The next thing I’m going to have to do is put myself on a drive!” she says. “Maybe I’ll make a hologram of myself. I’ll consider it really fortunate I’m still working!”
Williams says in her act she intentionally avoids getting blatantly political.
“I just write a lot about the current state of affairs, but affairs going on between your two ears,” she says. “My politics is really, ‘Hey, this is 2020, perhaps it’s really possible to get rid of racism, sexism, homophobia? Put the blast back on the patriarchy. As a young feminist, that’s what I was taught. It’s the systems that have to change.”
“I don’t go to shaming and damning and cursing one person. This is a government of the people, by the people, for the people. If it isn’t working we need to change it!”
In 2006, Williams recorded a live comedy special, “I Need a Snack,” with producer, Andrea Myerson was the producer. The DVD is available on Amazon. She is also included in the full-length documentary, “Laughing Matters,” that follows her career and advocacy, plus the work of Kate Clinton, Margo Gomez, and Suzanne Westenhoeffer.
The Karen Williams ALIVE 2020 tour comes to the Community Church of Hope, 4122 N. 6th Drive, March 14 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $35 at the door. For general admission and VIP ticket information, visit Eventful.