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Katt Williams Wants to Show You the Receipts

In the crowded landscape of athlete podcasts, “Club Shay Shay,” hosted by the retired N.F.L. star Shannon Sharpe, mostly served sports fans and observers of Black Hollywood since it started in 2020 with interviews with DaBaby and Deion Sanders.

That was until Katt Williams appeared on the show in January and for nearly three hours delivered an incendiary, rollicking and, at points, curiously uplifting interview that pervaded the internet like nothing else this year. Williams accused other big-name comedians of stealing jokes and movie roles from him, riffed on why partying with Diddy (or Jeffrey Epstein or Harvey Weinstein) is a bad idea, asserted that he read 3,000 books a year as a child and claimed that at 52, he was capable of running a 40-yard dash in less than 5 seconds.

The interview has been viewed more than 67 million times on YouTube, numbers that put it on par with Joe Rogan’s blazing episode with Elon Musk, the industry high-water mark for video podcasts. Its most outrageous moments have been shared, excerpted and spoofed on so many other platforms that even that figure understates its impact. According to Williams, who said he wrote out his part of the dialogue in advance, it’s just what happens when he sets the record straight.

“I’m quite likely to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God,” he said during the interview.

Beyond raising Sharpe’s numbers, the spot helped Williams move tickets to his “Dark Matter” tour and got the PGA interested in hosting him at T.P.C. Sawgrass, the golf course that serves as a playground for pros and that most others will see only by plugging in “PGA Tour Golf” into their PlayStations. On the course, in between shots, he says he made his nuclear-option remarks carefully, responding to rumors — in some cases, told by people he spoke up about — that have dogged him for years about drug use, erratic behavior and arrests (though, he said, no convictions). “I thought that I had worked out a way of breaking the internet, and I felt pretty confident,” he said with a Mr. Rogers level of thoughtfulness. “So I wrote it kind of like a one-man movie, with the intention of its outcome. And — —”

“You’re great, Katt,” a man trills as he passes in his golf cart.

Thank you so much,” Williams replies, then pulls to a stop.

When Dave Chappelle responded to the “Club Shay Shay” podcast by saying, “Why are you drawing ugly pictures of us?” Williams said it stung.Credit…Rose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

“If I let it go at this point, they can actually rewrite history,” he says. Few things unnerve him more than a poor chronicling of facts. That’s probably because few people are better at weaving narratives that seem too incredible not to be true, like when he describes how he taught himself to fall asleep in exactly 59 seconds. (“It wasn’t something I knew I needed but it’s changed my [expletive] life!”)

The things that make Katt Williams such a great raconteur — he is diligent about numbers, inexhaustible in his curiosity and meticulous about his delivery — have made him a persistent presence in comedy since he emerged from the standup world over 30 years ago, through regular appearances on the improv sketch show “Wild ’N Out” and as a scene-stealing dervish in movies like “Friday After Next.” That his improbable rise from homelessness to one of the most prolific, and profitable, comics of his generation isn’t looked on as a feat of craft and yeoman effort, well, that was a record that needed straightening. Williams grabbed even the furthest corners of the internet to do so, and now that he’s got everyone’s attention he is gearing up for the ultimate told-you-so — “Woke Foke,” set to air globally on Saturday. It’s Netflix’s second-ever live special after Chris Rock’s last year.

Williams, who does not work his material in clubs partly because of the looming threat of joke-stealing, has been prepping his material on a 100-date arena tour where audiences were not asked to lock away their phones. It seems a sure way to spoil the act he and Netflix are banking big on. It’s also a show of extreme faith in his current set, and will make for a high-wire debut for the roughly 25 percent of new material he’ll deliver live in Los Angeles.

He’s one of the most exceptional improvisational comedians of our time,” says Robbie Praw, Netflix’s vice president of standup and comedy formats. “He does often change his material close to tapings, which is a key reason why he was the perfect person to be our second live special. Because there is something super exciting about that. When there’s no script, there’s no net.”

Or as Williams himself puts it, “The benefit of Katt Williams live is that you don’t, in any way, know what he’s going to say.”

THOUGH HE USUALLY PLAYS golf alongside the retired athletes he’s friends with or someone from the tour crew, today Williams plays this round effectively solo. An assistant named Rhonda trails him in a separate cart driven by a cigar-smoking bodyguard. Later, he calls out to Rhonda, who dutifully takes photos when Williams points up at the trees that rim a rippling green, where two bald eagles have alighted on branches near their nest. “Look at that,” Williams marvels through an open-mouthed grin.

Over the round, he’ll point out a peregrine falcon swooping in to feed, stop in the middle of a fairway to show Rhonda and a caddie a woodpecker that has gotten thisclose to severing a branch, and sprint across one tee box to stand under a magnolia tree and catch its wafting perfume. He’s got dozens of them lining his 100-acre farm, he says.

That sprint to the magnolia, and several more full-speed runs from fairway back to the golf cart, each have the same track-star form he showed in an Emmy-winning cameo on “Atlanta” that ended with his character bolting from the house where he’d kept both his girlfriend and an alligator illegally. Williams displayed that same running form when he showed up at the Dallas Cowboys’ facility in February and ran a 40-yard dash in 4.97 seconds. His claim on Sharpe’s podcast seemed suspect until Williams clocked the time in front of an audience, while wearing Dior sneakers.

Williams left his home in Ohio at 13 over a religious dispute with his parents and landed in Miami, where he says he supported himself stealing car radios and cleaning restaurants. His stint in a homeless encampment introduced him to addicts, many of whom had once been high-functioning professionals. The extent to which those stories informed his reaction to the drug rumors is in the numbers, too. He still does 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups a day. That 40-yard-dash time, it’s denial through demonstration.

To those who accuse him of using, he says, “at some point, even as an idiot, you’re going to have to acknowledge that these drugs should be taking some toll on me. At some point, I shouldn’t be better and faster and stronger because of them.”

Williams has an allegiance to numbers typically reserved for athletes and actuaries, and it’s apparent in the quantifiable way he breaks down his sets. “I try to write the seven to 10 most [expletive] things that I think,” he says, “and I try to make that into the comedy show.” An hourlong special comprises 10 to 12 stand-alone pieces, which usually leaves him looking to add a bit or two as he’s writing. For this run, he says he’s needed to pare down what started as a 90-minute set.

On the road, Williams hones an act by watching footage of the previous night for the first 30 or so dates. “My job is to let this guy know, ‘Hey, you’re looking old out there, like, you going to work this stage?’” he says, adding that he’s most often not refining the words but the delivery — a bigger gesture, a different tilt of his head.

Williams has been writing and performing and refining in this way for 37 years, ever since he won a standup competition in Ruskin, Fla., at 16. The prize was a five-minute opening slot on a tour that featured Richard Jeni, Jeff Foxworthy and Dan Whitney, later known as Larry the Cable Guy.

“He respects the craft,” says Mo’Nique, who is touring with Williams for the first time on“Dark Matter.”

“He respects the ones that came before him. He respects those doors being open. He respects the obligation of, the craft of being a comedian.”

HIS REVERENCE FOR JOURNEYMEN COMICS, those who prove their mettle on live stages night after night, fueled many of the shots Williams took during the Sharpe interview at funnymen who no longer work the circuit, or those who had gotten specials without a lengthy road history. He felt assured in his criticisms, and that there wouldn’t be effective retaliation, he says, “because there’s no big dogs for them to call other than Chappelle, and Chappelle would never cross me. Dun dun dun dun, and then he did!”

Williams is referring to Dave Chappelle’s response to the beefs onstage, saying, “Katt is one of the best painters in the game. So why are you drawing ugly pictures of us?”

Though the question stung (Williams referred to Chappelle as “the king”), Williams stood by his attack: “If I came to tell you a beautiful story, I would have painted you a beautiful picture. I was trying to paint a story of a group of ugly [expletive] that would do things that would hurt you and uplift them, even though they didn’t need to do that. And then instead of helping you or befriending you, that they would,” he pauses to let out a disbelieving sigh, “go so far as to steal from you if they couldn’t emulate you and then lie about you.”

While waiting for the foursome ahead to finish a late-round hole, Williams entertains the question of whether art can be competitive. “History is just a collection of the people that did things the best,” he says between drags of a prerolled joint. Williams brings up Mozart and Chopin, masters who have been studied for centuries.

“The benefit of Katt Williams live is that you don’t, in any way, know what he’s going to say,” Williams said.Credit…Rose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

That’s his aim in comedy, he says. “I will, without question, be one of the greatest comedians that ever lived just because of the body of work.”

Williams means for his 12 specials to be assessed as a whole. It’s a yearslong conversation with an audience that began in 2006’s “Pimp Chronicles Pt. 1,” his electric big-league introduction that built to a flaming indictment of a different celebrity, Michael Jackson, two years before the pop star’s death and a decade before the “Leaving Neverland” documentary.

His more recent specials have skewed toward topics that tend to send people down conspiracy rabbit holes. On a 2023 Marc Maron podcast episode, Williams said he swapped out about half of the material in his 2022 “World War III” special after touring and receiving notes from Netflix about the show’s darkness, which he said was “turned up viciously high” around race and religion. The set still hit one of its funniest peaks in a riff on how the Nazis became such a fearsome military — by producing and consuming methamphetamine. He told Maron he’d be happy if listeners Googled whether that was true.

The night after his round of golf, Williams’s sold-out audience atVyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville looks perfect for national election polling. There are women in extended-size bodycon dresses, men in Tommy Bahama-esque shirts and couples in matching satin short sets, carrying yard dogs filled with frozen rum runners to their seats.

Williams works through a brisk set, zipping darts at Diddy and Ron DeSantis, with a knockdown bit about white slavery. When it’s done, lounging in a locker room where Chet Baker’s version of “My Funny Valentine” rings out against the tiles, Williams suggests that the live Netflix show might delve into touchier topics, if they exist. “I can’t discuss, maybe, Israel and Palestine and Iran until live?”

The key to skirting flammable topics and still landing a laugh, he says, is “no matter what joke I’m telling or who the focus of that joke is, the thing that you’re supposed to get from it is that my heart is in the right place. But I see what I see.”

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