“You Don’t Know Dick [Williams]”
Interviewed and written by Al Bahmani
Edited by: Magee Miller
“Dick Williams is one of the best people on Earth, no matter how evil he wants you to believe he is. He has been a dear friend to me and my family for as long as I’ve known him, both in Houston and in Los Angeles. Dick was great at putting together paid gigs here in Houston and always played a starring role in every fucked up story that ever happened. He’s my friend, my rabbi, my accomplice and at times my worst nightmare. Dick is one of the great unsung, underappreciated heroes of the Houston comedy scene.”
In the multiple interviews with Houston comics who were around in the 1990’s Dick
Williams’ name pops up a lot. From John Wessling; Ralphie May; Rob Mungle; Caroline Picard & Billy D. Washington; many give him credit for giving them their first paid gig. The saying goes among comics, “If anyone knows how to create a gig, it’s Dick Williams”.
How Did You Get Involved in Comedy?
It started out of necessity. Back when I was growing up in New Jersey in the 1960’s, I would get harassed when I walked to school alone. I figured out if I were with other people, I was less likely to be harassed. And if I had something amusing to say, they might be more willing to walk with me. I memorized entire comedy albums. My first one was Bill Cosby’s, “To My Brother, Russell, Whom I Slept With.” I didn’t get picked on so much after that.
For a while I was studying for the ministry at a school in upstate New York. I was sincere about it, and a bit of a zealot. I found out many years later that Sam Kinison and I had had some of the same teachers. (For those of you that don’t know, Outlaw Comic, Sam Kinison was a tent revival preacher before he did stand up.) His school had split off from my school back in 1969. But then I got married and started raising a family and then headed west, and ran out of money in Houston.
You are who you are and you work with what you have to work with. At a point when I thought I had lost everything, I was looking at my life and thinking: You know, I can work my ass off at something I hate, and have nothing to show for it. Or work my ass off, doing what I love… and have nothing to show for it. If at the end of the day, it’s still going to be zero. I might as well do what I love.
I started comedy in 1991. The Comedy Workshop Annex had just closed, January 2 of that year. I missed the legendary heyday everyone talks about. Before I arrived, the Workshop was cranking out those who became big stars: Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks, Brett Butler, Ron Shock, Thea Vidale, Jeanine Garafalo… names you’ve heard a thousand times.
So Was This How You Start Booking Your Own Gigs?
When I was a street preacher in New York and New Jersey back in the 1970’s, I would use any place I could find to say what I had to say, in order to be heard. Comedy is pretty much the same thing. You have that fire. You have a thing that has to be said and has to be heard. You have to elicit those laughs from people. You just have to. After trying to squeeze in to whatever spots I could get in the existing venues, I found this place around the corner from me. They did karaoke mostly, and I was in there one night and I asked them, “Would you mind a comedy show?” They said the one thing every comic hates to hear, “Tell me a joke!” Right then and there I did a comedy bit and they liked it. I then started putting together weekly shows. For that first gig, our compensation was a $100 drink tab.
Everyone has their own idea of how things are done. One of the first gigs I was booking, there was a local guy who showed up to all the shows. After a while he was like, “Yeah, I can do that. What do you have to do to become a comic?” I told him, “Go up all the time. Go to every gig you can find, most of which are downtown, and get as much stage time as possible.” He said, “Downtown is 25 miles away. That’s too far.”
If 25 miles is too far to go for you, then you’re never going to be a road comic.
It starts with love. It all has to come from love. If it’s something you have to do, something you need to do. You will do it. You’ll do it whether you’re getting nothing or 10 bucks, or a 100 or a 1000. Money is extra. There were a lot of gigs in Houston that started because it was somebody’s passion. Danny Martinez who did a wonderful job for a very long time with The Comedy Showcase is a good example. He really helped an awful lot of people.
Over the course of my ten years booking rooms while in Houston, I wound up booking forty different venues in and around Texas. There were a bunch of other comics in similar situations who were also needing stage time. We had some pretty good comics who started around that time: Rob Mungle, Caroline Picard, John Wessling, Ralphie Maye, Billie D, J. Fred, Matt Kirsch, Jason Lee, Martin Walsh and many others. I did that for a while.
Comics are wonderful people but they’re humans. And as with any human, they will base their decision on their assessment of you. “Well, he only knows 5 guys and I don’t think he can run this room very well. I think I have better connections and would be able to bring in a lot more people and do a better job than he’s doing.”
So as opposed to starting from scratch, since it’s easier to take it, than make it, they‘d take it, thinking they could do a better job with it.
But the truth is, that most of these gigs have local clientele who come to that place all the time. And for a while you’re the new thing, the different thing. The gig will last for a while and then people will be like, “I’ve seen these same comics already. Let’s have something else now.” That’s just the nature of it. Comics get disappointed when comedy venues dry up, but that’s just the nature of it. That’s the nature of comedy. It’s the nature of life.
Can You Tell Me About The “Dollar A Minute Gig?”
There was this one gig that started as a full show. I had an opener, a feature and a headliner in on a $400 a night budget. It ran for a few months and then petered out. The owner loved comedy but he couldn’t justify doing it on his busiest night of the week. So he brought us back to do it on Sunday nights for a fraction of the budget. That didn’t work as good as he wanted it to either, but he still loved comedy. So he came back to me a few months later and said, “I’d like a show, but I can only spare $100.”
I can’t produce a whole show for $100.
He said, “Whatever will work.”
I said, “What do you do on Monday?”
“I don’t have anything on Monday.”
“Comics are doing open mics for free on Mondays. How about we take the 100 bucks and divide through the length of the show and give each comic what portion they earn through the duration of the show?” Basically it equaled out to comics earning a dollar a minute. I had a few comics go, “Can I just do the entire 90 minutes?” “Yeah, well, if you can do the entire 90 minutes, but that’s up to the audience. If they express a distinct desire for you to get off the stage, and there’s another comic there? You have to pass the baton.” I had a few guys. Guys that I respect, that have played Vegas, expected to go in and earn that $100. “It’s an off night, I’ll go do it.” And then essentially they’d be booed off the stage and barely make it to three minutes.
Gigs happen because people have a passion for comedy. Many people have hitched their wagons to particular horses, and then the horse dies. But then another horse comes in out of the woodwork. That just the way it is. It’s life and it’s liquid.
What Makes Houston a Spawning Ground for Comedy?
There are a few good cities as far as being good spawning grounds for comedy. Houston and Boston are the first ones I can think of. What makes Houston a comedic spawning ground? Houstonians made it a fertile place for comedy. They created their own soil. The people that live here have come to expect it. It’s like Houstonians have been spoiled by the amount and quality of comedy always available. This city was a magnet
for people that wanted to start. But the scene ebbs and flows. Houston will always be a breeding ground for hard hitting, unique and original voices. I’ve been to other cities and come back to town with a greater appreciation of the talent developed here. That’s one answer. Or you could say, “Comedy is tragedy plus time… and there is nothing more tragic than getting stuck in Houston.“
A Lot of Comics Fear Their Material Getting Stolen. How Does That Happen?
A lot of comics come to Los Angeles to get the pot of gold, but everyone else has come to get the pot of gold ahead of them. What’s been going on in showbiz forever. But then they do their 5 minutes on national television and lose it forever. 100 years ago in Vaudeville, comics could do the same 10 minutes and then move on, and do that forever. But here, people get a degree of success. But one’s essence will only produce just so much material. But they now need more material. They need writers. More wells to draw from for inspiration. Then they’re watching you. And as far as they’re concerned, you’re a no name. And they say to themselves, “I don’t like that guy, he’s just not funny! But y’know, that’s a funny bit! I’ll do that bit a favor. I’m going to liberate that bit from that unfunny comic.”
I have found that they can’t take, what you don’t make. If you don’t want to play the game, there are other ways to do it. People come to LA, and the next thing they know, the material they had to squeak out of a hard lived life for however many years it took to get it, is no longer theirs. Somebody else heard it, and it’s gone. The only thing that’s can protect you is your reputation. If you’re connected to other people and everyone knows that you’re you and it’s yours, it’s less likely someone’s going to walk away with it. A few years ago, I had a person I considered a friend. They took a character I created and used it on a shoot I did for them, but had it played by someone else, with no mention or conversation with me beforehand. It happens all the time and I’m not the only one with that type of story.
I would rather put my love and energy into someone or something I trust. Something that would benefit myself and those I love. I not trying to be philosophical; I just want to be funny dammit.
So What Are You Up To Now?
When my son went off to college I sold my house and moved out to Los Angeles. I felt my 19 years in Houston was a big long detour, and I felt I was done. I raised my son and did what my dad did. But he died when he was 41. So I was going to come out to LA to die. I didn’t. I didn’t think it was going to take this long to die.
I’m a member of S.A.G. (the Screen Actors Guild) and get the occasional voice over part. I’ve had a few tiny parts, and a couple internet things. I had done some stand-in work and a ton of extra work. It’s a nice nest for lazy birds. But if you’re doing it to make a career, then you’re taking the wrong road. I found I had turned into a cosmic cul-de-sac and couldn’t find my way out. Then I met my partner and we’ve been together for 9 years. She said, “doing this is a waste of your talent. And it’s sad.” Yes, it is sad. When you’re doing that work, you’re just a psychic battery.
I’m now working on getting my degrees. Even with the many schools I went to, none of the credits would transfer. So I started over. I’m now working on getting my degree from the University of California at Berkeley. I now put my comedic energies into my life with my fiancé, Carole Real who is WGA and is a published and produced playwright who has had her work produced in New York, LA and all over the world. It makes me feel like a warhead, which has had the plutonium taken out of the bomb and repurposed for medical use. Whatever comedic energy I have, she’s free to repurpose. If that’s how my funny gets out into the universe, then that’s fine.
I have written an entire belief system. To paraphrase Voltaire: “The good is the enemy the better and the better is the enemy of the best.” And if the ultimate good is perfection, and nothing is perfect, then… Viva La Void! Zero beats everything.
One of the best things about the comedy business is the friends you’ll make. Funny friends. If your life is going to be hard, you should get some laughs along the way. The more gigs I did, the more comics I got to know. The more gigs that I did successfully; the more they came to trust me. They would then tell their other comic friends. “This doesn’t pay that much, but it’s on an off night, and if you’re going to be in town any way, you might be interested in doing it.” It snow balled over those ten years, and I ended up working 301 different comics. That’s not counting those that took the stage to showcase or for free. They were paid shows. Some paid okay. Some not so much. It wasn’t big money but it was something. And something is better than nothing. Which sounds like a contradiction to “nothing is better than everything.” But if nothing is better than everything and something is better than nothing. Then anything is better than everything sometimes.