Allen Strickland Williams on one-liners, sketch comedy and #YesAllWomen
Allen Strickland Williams is a Los Angeles-based writer, comedian and former NBC page who somehow absorbed that office's buttoned-down aesthetic. Today Williams, along with fellow standups Jake Weisman, Dave Ross and Pat Bishop, comprise the sketch-comedy group Women, whose widely circulated videos are nibbles of absurdity dolloped by grim punchlines. Women will descend on the Oriental Theater this Saturday, June 21st for the monthly Sexpot Comedy showcase. The show, hosted as always by Jordan Doll, features standup from each member, as well as videos and live sketches. It's also a Sexpot show, with all the dab dabbling that implies. In advance of the gig, Westword caught up with Williams to discuss what makes Women's sketches different, his fondness for one-liners, and his essay about the #YesAllWomen hashtag.
Westword: I've watched a bunch of your standup videos and I wanted to ask where your predilection for one-liners came from? It seems like sort of a lost art, and it requires you to generate a lot more premises.
Allen Strickland Williams: Yeah, it's interesting. I think for any comic, whatever they're doing is just an extension of what comes naturally to them. Before I even did standup, I'd always really liked Steven Wright and Dan Mintz and even Zack Galafinakis. If you look at a lot of Zack's stuff, he really has the precision of a surgeon. I've always sort of gravitated towards that. I don't know if that's because it's what I'd become interested in writing later on, but it just always made me laugh. I also have a super-short attention span, admittedly, I do. If something is even two minutes long, I'll get distracted, which is awful, but true. So I think maybe they resonated with me more. I remember before I even started comedy, I would write down like short little -- I don't know if you could call them jokes -- but just weird statements. I used to do a lot of sketch comedy, so I would always have a notebook around to write down ideas and dialogue, but every once in a while I would just write something down for no reason. When I first started, the first time I went up, I kind of just culled through my notebook and found those and started with those. It's not like I was perfect, but I just kind of kept at it, and I guess that's what I do.
It's a weird discipline. It's like Origami almost. I admire it, but can't imagine doing it. That nineteen jokes video on your website is six minutes long. I only ever burn through jokes that fast when I'm tanking.
Yeah, the timing thing is really interesting. How many jokes go into how many minutes? I am sort of fascinated by that stuff. Like you said, it is kind of like origami. I agree with that. I like tinkering with the joke. Figuring out where it hits harder in the set. Sometimes it helps to have similar topics together, sometimes it's better when they come out of nowhere. I write so much shit. I feel like doing stories and longer bits requires you to sit with them longer, trying to find out what works over two weeks of going to mics. With jokes, I'll know after telling them two or three times and decide, "All right, I'm just going to throw away like nine of these." It's a kind of a bloodbath method, but there are enough soldiers left at the end of the battle to make it worthwhile.
So, compared to the other guys in Women, you've had more sketch experience? Because you started with sketch before standup?
Yeah, that actually is true, I guess. I was in a sketch group in college for like four years, and I really enjoyed it. It was the first time I had done any stage performance. When I moved to L.A. I wasn't really interested in pursuing comedy per se. I wanted to work in the entertainment industry. I really wanted to write TV or be a network executive. I worked as an NBC page, working out of the prime-time office. I quickly realized that, no, I did not want to do that. By that time, I'd kind of stopped focusing on sketch at all. It's so much work. You have to make sure of everyone's schedule and make sure everyone is on the same page. Granted, in college, sketch groups tend to be a little bigger, so at time there were like eleven people in the group, and that's hard. I totally just didn't want to do sketch, but realized that I still wanted to do comedy. You don't need anybody else to do standup. Then, we all met doing standup, so it kind of came back around.
The amount of stage time comedians can get, especially in L.A., is not really available to many other kinds of performers.
Right. I know you can get up a lot if you do improv, because there are whole stages and schools dedicated solely to them.
Yeah, but you're also going to pay a couple hundred bucks just for the opportunity to get on a team that performs regularly.
That's a good point. I guess to get in, there's that fee. You're paying something. I don't know of any free improv training, per se. Whereas at clubs and open mics, maybe you'll buy a beer or two.
So, how does the sketch-writing break down between you and the other guys in Women? You guys aren't all in every sketch; did you write the "Soulmates" sketch you starred in?
No, Pat wrote that. To be perfectly honest, for the past few sketches, I've probably written the least. Basically the way it works is, a lot of times we'll just sit down and try to come up with an idea together, or one of us will bring something to the table and we'll all try to flesh it out. Sometimes we go off into pairs. I write with Jake a good bit. A lot of times, someone just has a basic idea and writes out a whole script. Then we have a reading meeting and kind of figure out who should do what, but usually the person who wrote it already has something in mind. Then we just go from there. I guess it's pretty democratic; everyone contributes and gets their stuff in there. I don't think anyone's underrepresented in the group, which I think is pretty good.
I talked about this with Dave Ross a bit, but I noticed how your format isn't like most other sketch groups. One joke repeated three times to diminishing returns and broad, stagey performances. I've noticed that in Women sketches, a lot of the comedic timing comes from editing and they stand out for their brevity. They're kind of like one-liners, actually.
A lot of them are, yeah. Pat, Jake, and Dave are all really great joke writers. When we first started, it was just me, Dave and Jake, and we started because we were complaining one day about how we didn't like most sketches. I'm not trying to shit on anybody; there are a lot of people who are very good at it. We wanted to make it more focused on the jokes. We're standups; gunning for laughs is what we do. We don't know about character development. As someone who did do sketch, I never felt like I was doing the characters any service. We talked about making them like a comic-book strip. The early sketches were as static as possible, but we've kind of moved away from that. Keeping things short and fun to watch so you can watch the sketch and then instantly show someone else in less than five minutes helps keep us focused.
Keep reading for more from Allen Strickland Williams.
Most SNL sketches could end like a minute earlier than they do. When did you guys start opening the sketches up visually after starting with that static template?
Basically, when Pat came on board. He's truly a phenomenal director. He has this ability to visualize things and he knows what he wants. It's allowed us to be more ambitious.
Are you still writing for Vice?
I write for Vice a little bit, I don't do it that much. I'm more of like a contributor, and if they have group stuff, I'll throw in on that. It's a lot of work, doing all your own research, taking your own pictures -- right now it's just not what I'm focused on. Women have been writing a pilot and trying to get that settled and out there. Right now, I kind of just want to get that done; then I'll figure out my life.
I wanted to ask about "Fellas", the Tumblr post you wrote -- I know you weren't trying to get a bunch of accolades for it -- on the #YesAllWomen hashtag. What compelled you to write that and what has the response been?
Basically it's been good. Sometimes, online, you can't tell if it's just an echo chamber, you know? For the most part, in my twitter feed, other than the occasional outlier, I see mostly things that I basically agree with. Does that devalue any of the discourse, though? I had always kind of had that take on it, like "this is cheapening it. We're not really doing anything about the problem, we're just kind of saying the same stuff." But then I thought to myself, as I was reading through the #YesAllWomen tweets -- and maybe it was just the sheer amount and the vulnerability it just moved me so much. I was at a comedy festival, and every night, I'd read through those tweets before I went to bed. I hate to say this, but I actually started to think differently about this issue. I also hate to say that I never got fired up enough to engage #NotAllMen. I understand the knee-jerk reaction of saying, "Oh, not me!" but look again at what some of these women are saying. Unfortunately, I've been on the other side of some of those. It's really shameful to admit. Hey, maybe everyone is a perfect angel, but I really think that if every guy looked in the mirror a little bit, they'd be like, "Oh, fuck." So I went through that, and I thought that maybe someone else was in the same head space as I was and maybe it would mean something to them if they read it, maybe they just needed a little nudge. I'm not saying that I have a powerful voice or anything, though, as a straight, white male, your voice does kind of have that power.
Well, we're allowed by society to leave our decisions unexamined as long as our intentions are good. Women don't necessarily get that privilege. I understand the hesitancy to admit it, but that inequality factors into a lot of relationships. It has to come out somewhere.
Exactly. What I was trying to say is that I do think a lot of this is unconscious. I don't think that we're always bad people, but we've been conditioned, trained and rewarded for that behavior. I really was just moved, and I wanted to say something, so I did. Since I wrote, I've got texts from friends saying,"Thank you for writing that. The straight, white, male voice is very powerful." I had never thought that before, but yeah, we do kind of like just listening to each other. A lot of women seemed to -- and I thought the essay was going to make me look pretty bad, which I was fine with -- but one of my friend told me, "It was as if you'd listened before you put your piece in," and she said that was a very important thing to get. I think part of the reason the country is so polarized is because we're not listening.
Anything else you want to mention before we wrap up?
I think we're doing a show on Sunday at the Bohemian Biergarten.
Women will descend on the Oriental on Saturday, June 21. Doors open at 7 p.m. for the 8 p.m. show. Tickets, 21+, cost $15 and include a free, large Sexy Pizza when ordered from the Oriental Theater website.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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