Dressed in a half-snowboarder, half-Paul Bunyan getup on a recent HBO special, comedian Harland Williamsasked his audience if they liked impressions. He obliged them not with some hack-job evocation of Robert De Niro or Jimmy Stewart, but with an interpretation of forest critters. "Eeewww-eee!" he squealed at the shocked crowd, his contorted face the very picture of an emoting deer.
"People kind of describe my stuff as unique, slanting towards bizarre," says the 37-year-old Williams. But he wasn't always so weird. In the early '80s, when his native Toronto had only one comedy club, Williams started out performing on its amateur nights. Back then he wasn't very comfortable with himself on stage. "I used to do 15 minutes of fat mother jokes," he says.
Then, thanks to Canadian cable broadcasts of Chicago's sketch comedy troupe Second City, Williams discovered improv. "That really influenced my comedy a lot," he says. "I loved the style and the timing. Improv comedy makes me laugh....I don't like too much structure."
In fact, the spontaneity and zaniness of improv even make their way into the planned portion of the comic's set. "I try to write about everyday topics like cell phones or technology or driving your car," he says, but "with a different twist." His take on air bags: "I have an old car, and I'm scared to drive it because it doesn't have an air bag. So I went to Dunkin' Donuts and bought a giant jelly doughnut. Strapped it to my steering wheel....When a guy rear-ended me in traffic, he thought my head had exploded."
If you don't know Williams from his stand-up performances, you might have seen his comedy in roles in There's Something About Mary and the SNL flick Superstar. Actually, his film roles don't always reflect his brand of comedy. Williams almost passed on the part of a sociopathic killer in Mary because of the movie's racy humor. And he didn't relate at all to one of his funniest roles, the marijuana-loving nice-guy schoolteacher in the underrated Half Baked. "I was kind of never involved in that scene," he says. "Still, it exists. Sometimes I get to this [mind frame] where I don't believe in this, then I think I'm an actor playing a part in a reality that does exist in this world." Huh? Perhaps it's the movie-pot talking.
One thing that has escaped Williams is a breakout movie role. "I wanna get that one movie out there that's like my Ace Ventura or my Austin Powers," he says. "One movie that's a great character and people embrace him and laugh at him." Until that happens, though, he's getting plenty of attention on the stand-up circuit. During his most recent stop, in Dallas, several hundred high school marching band members "embraced" Williams and his wife so much that they had to switch hotels.
Williams is looking forward to taking refuge in Houston, his home away from L.A. He expresses admiration for Laff Stop owner Mark Babbitt and the city with his trademark improvisational wit: "The thing I love about Houston is every second structure is a great restaurant...either that or a strip joint." Harland Williams performs Thursday, January 13, at 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, January 14 and 15, at 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Tickets are $16.50 on Thursday night and $18 on the weekend. Laff Stop, 1952 West Gray, (713)524-2333.