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Karen Williams Interview

Lesbian Stand-Up Comedian and Performer


Karen Williams

Comedian Karen Williams

Karen Williams has been an out lesbian stand-up comedian for 25 years. She started in the California Bay Area in the 1980s and performed at women's music festivals and toured the country doing her one-woman show. She was one of the stars of Laughing Matters and her one-woman show "I Need a Snack" was featured on Logo. Karen currently lives in the Cleveland area and teaches stand-up comedy at Cleveland State University. She is the President and CEO of HaHA Institute (International Institute of Humor and Healing.) Lesbian Life caught up with Karen where she was one of the featured performers on a recent Olivia cruise. We talked about her journey as a performer and a person, the faith that helps her cope and how her routine has changed in the past 25 years.

Lesbian Life: Tell me about the Haha Institute?

Karen Williams; That’s my baby. The International Institute of Humor and Healing arts. Affectionately called Ha Ha Institute. It’s a virtual institute, meaning I have a studio in the back of my house. Occasionally I have events there. Everything is online. People book me online to do all types of workshops that are humor related. Humor and Healing. Humor and Stress Management in the Workplace. I have one that’s called Let’s laugh about Sex. Humor and Writing. I taught Stand Up comedy at Cleveland State University, so I also do a stand up comedy 101.

People hire me to go to their companies, small businesses, corporations, colleges, universities to conduct these workshops.

And how busy does that keep you?

Sometimes more than others. Even though I have a lot of comedy work, sometimes 60% of my work can be with the institute. I’m getting ready to do a half day workshop with staff of a community college. It’s a humor and diversity training. I have formal training. My masters is in adult learning and development. And I also have done some certification work in diversity management.

I’m sure those pay better than the lesbian comedy circuit…

Not necessarily. I’m pretty much at the top of my game as far as being a celesbian. So I make a good living as a lesbian comic. And good of course is always relative. I live in Cleveland, I don’t live in Laguna Beach. (laughs) We all come to the table with all kinds of skills. I’m the oldest of seven and one of my sisters says, “She can make the eagle scream on a dollar bill.” And really I use money very well.

I have grown children now. I have eight grandchildren. A couple of them are in college. It’s just very exciting to have so much going on in my life.

So, you’ve been doing this for 25 years. Is it easier or harder to be funny, after doing it for so long?

I would have to say, I’m in a really good space with my comedy. I want to say I’m at a plateau, but plateau sounds stagnant. But it’s not. It just means that in terms of my confidence on stage and my comfort with my audience and myself is, I’m really peaking. I feel really confident about where I am in my life, what I have to share, how funny I am, all that stuff. It makes performing delicious. I am in my delicious stage.

I never really thought of that. You probably went through periods of “Am I funny?”

Well, I never went through that. What I did go through is what everyone else goes through who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. Where do I fit? Okay, I can do lesbian comedy, how is that going to be accepted? For those of us who have been around a long time we can hear the newer comics mining the same subjects that we already mined. I think that there’s a way that we were double dipped in lesbian when we started and as we’re growing and expanding our comedy can cover a greater range and we don’t have to just stay stuck in lesbian life. It becomes where that is a part of my life, but it’s not my whole life.

Your humor is funny, but it is also thought-provoking. Do you see your comedy as a social change agent in any way?

I mean I can’t exactly say that I see it that way. I’m told that people find my work insightful, thought provoking, that kind of thing. Oh, I listened to you and it makes me think. Fundamentally, stand-up comedy for me is my play, my release. It’s my way as an artist of self-expression. So when I get up there it is because I am so full and I feel like I have so much that I want to share. Things that I’ve been thinking about, things that I want to share. So when I get up them I’m just ‘zoom’. I just want to let it all out.

I consider myself to be somewhat of a renaissance woman. I’m thinking about things, I’m not just accepting the world the way it is. I think people appreciate that kind of stimulation of thought.

But also for you it’s a venting?

It’s my play, totally. I get to do all the things I love. I can wear crazy clothes, I can do crazy hair, I can say crazy things. You know I consider myself sort of suburban/urban and I go back to my little suburban life with my neighbors who have never seen me perform. Having the show on Logo has been great for me because I can go into my local supermarket and someone will say, “I was just channel surfing and I saw you on TV.”

What is your creative process? What do you do to get ready for your show?

Like most comics, I’m highly observational. Our sensors are up. I have some things that I know are funny. That whole improve thing is about having a framework, a structure and then being able to freeform inside there. So that’s a lot of what I do.

But as far as preparation, if I know I’m working on Thursday, I’ll start writing things, getting things in order and then kind of riff with it.

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