Last week, FX’s Atlanta returned with a memorable guest appearance from none other than Katt Williams. The comedian’s portrayal of Ern’s (Donald Glover) Uncle Willy, aka “The Alligator Man,” created additional buzz for the show’s long-anticipated second season, with social media chatter implying that he, too, had been absent for quite some time. However, Williams’ first stand-up special in four years actually debuted on Netflix in mid-January, but there’s a good chance it flew under your radar.
Unlike Dave Chappelle’s last four Netflix offerings, Great America dropped without any sort of controversy. There don’t seem to be any think pieces or lengthy Twitter threads taking Williams to task, nor any talk about problematic jokes or offensive themes.
Williams once admitted that he thinks that Chapelle is funnier than he is. Yet, a review of both men’s latest offerings reveals that the Friday After Next star has mastered an aspect of comedy that eludes his peer, who is thought by some to be his generation’s answer to Richard Pryor:
Katt Williams recognizes and respects his own range.
As contemporaries in the early aughts, Williams’ abilities as a thinker and a funnyman weren’t dissimilar to the former Comedy Central star, though he never garnered the same sort of respect (perhaps due to a lack of mainstream crossover appeal, run-ins with the law, etc.)
Since both men hit the scene two decades ago, the same descriptors could be used, to sum up their acts—lewd and sophomoric, but enriched with an obsessive desire to discover the taboo ways race can be made funny. The two only begin to diverge when we discuss the ways they actualized that desire. As Williams embraced and satirized certain sensibilities of Blaxploitation-era pimps, Chappelle offered more observational takes on the everyday Black experience. One resonated deeper than the other, and thus, where Chappelle was valorized, Williams was marginalized. Dave’s comedic genius has since been taken far more literally than Katt’s—an outcome that has followed them both for years.
As fans, cultural critics, and even fellow artists such as Jay-Z look to Dave Chappelle’s “leadership,” the culture has largely abandoned Katt Williams, looking to him for mug shots and TMZ fodder.
Perhaps their off-stage moves have contributed to their opposite narratives as much as their on-stage performances. As Katt derailed his career with antics and arrest warrants, Chappelle willingly surrendered his with a self-imposed exile, forever forging an unshakable legacy as a man detained by his principles and nothing else. Thus, upon his comeback, fans assigned Chappelle a largely unearned task of making sense of urgent times, when what he’d actually done best over the years was to help us laugh through our tears
The impulse to have the man behind the “Black Bush” skit host Saturday Night Live days after the election of a white supremacist, it’s difficult to grasp how certain Chappelle faithfuls refuse to admit he typically misses the mark on his jokes about trans people, choosing to integrate them into his routines again and again instead of recognizing that he’s unable to take on the topic without punching down at a vulnerable group of people.
It’s almost as if Chappelle has posterized race so many times that his apologists ignore how often he bricks his takes on gender—a particularly strange oversight, given that his go-to move in both Equanimity and The Bird Revelation is to present race as a red herring whenever gender arrives in his act.
By suggesting that trans issues shouldn’t be discussed “in front of the Blacks,” as if Black trans folks don’t exist or belittling Louis C.K.’s victims because he feels held to a “higher standard of accountability” as a Black man (which he did in Equanimity and The Bird Revelation, respectively) Chappelle displays an almost willful misunderstanding of the roles patriarchy and heteronormativity play in white supremacy.
Chappelle’s rare attempts at empathy also fall flat. In Equanimity, he describes nervously traveling through Brooklyn with a backpack containing $25,000 and attempts to liken that to the plight of women who find themselves vulnerable to sexual assault: “If those same drug dealers gave me a pussy and said, ‘Put it in your backpack and take it to Brooklyn,’ I’d be like, ‘Nigga, I can’t accept this.’”
That bit quickly became a fan favorite, as if Chappelle’s ability to connect to gender issues via the idea of theft and genitals isn’t born of the same logic that fueled his cringe-worthy “cut their dicks off” jokes about trans people.
The past few years have made it painfully clear that Chappelle doesn’t have the intellectual or sociopolitical range that many of us wanted to believe he did. Moreover, when considering the reason he ventured outside his wheelhouse to discuss topics he’d never broached, it appears to be more about fans’ insistence on finding him universally brilliant than his own inclination to find the plight of trans people anything other than “kind of fucking hilarious,” as he puts it.
Williams, on the other hand, entered 2018 well aware of the climate. Having not taken nearly as much time off as Chappelle, he was fully prepared to strictly and exclusively joke about what he knows about.
The comedian, who is often stigmatized as deranged and erratic, spent the first 12 or so minutes of his 60-minute special exploring the uniqueness of Jacksonville, Fla. He then proceeded to flesh out some material on Arby’s and Viagra, with a few obligatory Trump jokes for good measure, eliciting big laughs from the crowd without a single joke at the expense of sexual assault survivors or trans women.
While Williams’ special didn’t have the highs of Equanimity or The Bird Revelation, it certainly didn’t have any of the lows. Contrary to the popular opinion of self-presumed authorities on comedy, audiences had no reason to feel cheated for having not heard anything offensive. Great America was simply a good time.
In a culture hellbent on enforcing static narrative, someone like Katt Williams only makes noise when falling short of the role that he’d been assigned. It may be argued that Dave Chappelle is the funnier of the two, but he’s certainly not smarter. As fans have split the two comedians based on a made-up standard of romanticized wokeness, folks have come to demand more from Chappelle and require nothing of Williams, which does nothing to push either man to his fullest potential.