INDIANAPOLIS — The pulled pork is too dry, the kids are everywhere, and she hasn’t done a set in weeks. So Patricia Williams, whose drug-dealing past is as much a part of her act as her current status as a sharp-tongued suburban mom, hops into her Buick for a Friday night tuneup at Morty’s Comedy Joint.
The place is not exactly thumping. The headliner, a guy you’ve never heard of, has the club a quarter filled and of that quarter, a long table’s packed with chatty, older ladies clinking daiquiris for somebody’s birthday. But Ms. Pat, as she’s known, takes command.
First, she targets a guy staring blankly from in front as a Trump supporter with serious voter’s remorse. “I know how you feel,” she mock consoles. “Black people felt the same way when Flavor Flav was on TV.” She offers an unprintable burst about body hair that references her recent 100-pound weight loss. Then she dips into the personal material that is her trademark.
Williams, who is 45, talks about her two sets of children. The younger ones are her “Blue Cross/Blue Shield kids,” whom she had with her husband, Garrett. The older ones came when she was single, poor and not even in high school. They’re her “Medicaid kids,” whom she likes more, “because they understand the struggle.”
After about 17 minutes, Ms. Pat is done, keeping to her promise to “make this quick. My husband thinks I’m at Walmart.”
It’s a joke, of course. Williams’s career is anything but a secret. She has done NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” appeared on Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast, and her new memoir, “Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat,” is drawing notice for its unforgiving and darkly hilarious portrait of her rise from the grimmest of circumstances. At the same time, Williams is working withdirector Lee Daniels on a sitcom about her life for Fox, which she’ll star in. Daniels, who directed “Precious,” “The Butler” and co-created “Empire,” calls Williams “the black Roseanne.”
For Williams, 25 years removed from Fulton County Jail, comedy isn’t just therapy. It’s been her salvation. Her record left her unable to hold a job managing a gas station. Comedy clubs don’t require criminal background checks. Williams’s act has helped her build a 5,500-square-foot home in a subdivision in Indianapolis, and she needs all four bathrooms. Williams and Garrett, a machinist, have two children of their own, Garrianna, 19, and Garrett Jr., 17, plus full custody of her niece’s four kids, who range from 3 to 8. Her niece, a drug addict, has disappeared.
All of this, the past and the present, is fair game for the life that unfolds on stage, where Williams turns unbearable tales of woe into a routine that leaves you laughing so hard you almost wonder how.
“I saw her stand-up act, and I was in tears,” says Daniels. “I’d never seen anything like it. Her voice was the voice of most black women that I knew, and yet she had overcome so many obstacles and was able to laugh about it and be able to make something good out of her life. To me, that’s an American hero. That’s the American Dream.”
Maron said he put Williams on “WTF,” the popular podcast that has featured a range of personalities that includes Louis C.K. to Barack Obama, because her comedy is exactly the kind he loves: visceral, honest and unafraid.
“And having that sense of humor saved her life to a certain degree,” says Maron. “To be able to listen to that and feel like you can laugh about that is sort of elevating and transcendent. The kind of laughter that could be crying.”
She was born Patricia Williams on April 2, 1972. Her mother, Mildred, was an abusive drunk who would be dead by 40. Her grandfather sold moonshine in a “liquor house,” otherwise known as their living room. Patricia, nicknamed “Rabbit,” slept on the floor, survived on ketchup sandwiches and, at Mildred’s direction, danced for the drunks that patronized that living room. “Shake that ass,” they would shout at Williams and her older sister. The girls were 7 and 9.
Before long, the girls had been sexually abused by a neighborhood man. He told her to keep it to themselves or they’d be beaten. So Williams did — until putting it in her memoir.
And then in walked Darrell Laye, the older man who would father her first two children. What’s saddest about this part of her story is how little the authorities cared about a teenage black girl in Atlanta.
Williams had a girl, Ashley, four months after turning 14. The birth certificate, marking the baby’s arrival on Aug. 9, 1986, contains the names, ages and signatures of both unmarried parents. Laye was 21. If anyone somehow missed that Williams was under 16, the age of consent, on Ashley’s form, they could have glanced at Laye’s signature on Nikia’s birth certificate the following November. Laye didn’t just give Williams two babies. He showed her how she could support herself. One day, he was flashing a wad of bills. Williams asked where he got it. Easy. Selling crack.
Today, Williams won’t use Laye’s real name, not in interviews, not in “Rabbit.” She gave him a pseudonym, “Derrick.” But she writes freely about the relationship, which ended in 1993. Beyond the psychological abuse, his physical abuse extended to smacking her with a gun that went off, wounding her in the back of the head.
Laye, now 52, has a lengthy list of convictions for drug and weapon offenses.
Reached by phone, Laye complains that the book, which he has not read, only gives one side. He shot her? Well, did she mention that she shot me?
When asked about having sex with a 14-year-old, he hangs up.
Her drug dealing ended in the early ’90s, not long after serving time at Fulton and meeting Garrett.
But leaving “Rabbit” behind wouldn’t be easy. It wasn’t just a nickname, it had become her identity, the shell to protect her on Ashby Grove, where being tough and fearless and not thinking too much was often required for survival.
It was later, after she had moved to suburbia, that the neighborhoods kids started calling her “Ms. Pat.” She began to use the name on stage and, eventually, everybody began calling her that.
Williams started in comedy because she had no idea what else to do. She had tried going legit, earning a GED and certificate to work as a medical assistant. But her prison record kept getting in the way. Eventually, a work counselor, laughing so hard she was in tears as Williams told her about her latest setback, suggested she try comedy. “Ms. Pat” made her debut at an open mic night in Atlanta in 2002. She was 30. Ashley, then 15, was in the audience. She was glad her mother was no longer selling crack outside her elementary school. But her performance wasn’t exactly ready for prime time.
“She didn’t even say anything,” her daughter says. “She just cussed everybody out. ‘Get this light out of my face,’ and she threw the microphone down and walked off.”
She didn’t give up. On what Williams calls the Chitlin’ Circuit in Atlanta, she learned that the jokes had to be cheap and dirty or you would get booed off the stage. Her act got a boost when General Motors transferred Garrett to Indianapolis in 2006. She found Morty’s and Avery Dellinger, the club’s soft-spoken general manager. He told her how much funnier she was offstage, telling stories, than onstage with her more generic one-liners. And Williams, taking his cue, began studying the masters: Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Bill Cosby.
“When I moved here, I didn’t even know comedy had a beginning, middle and end,” she says. “I thought you just got up there and talked. I started to watch other people, and I started to put two and two together, and it started to get better.”
Morty’s also served as the site of one performance she now regrets. It is, though, perhaps the best illustration of her transformation, from the streets to the stage. The incident happened about four years ago when she got into a violent, onstage fight with a guy named Derek. And the video clip has taken on a life of its own.
Chris Bowers, one of Morty’s owners, calls it “the greatest video you ever saw in your life,” and notes that, when performers come into town, they often ask him to show it to them.
He walks them over to his apartment, which is in the back of the strip mall that houses Morty’s, and holds the remote control so he can break it down like a conspiracy theorist examining the Zapruder film. On that Friday night, after her set, Williams, with some reluctance, gives him permission to show it.
Derek saunters on stage for the open mic. He rambles, says he has been drinking and starts slamming the crowd, specifically calling out the “ugly ass white honkies over here.”
What that crowd doesn’t know is that before taking the mic, Derek and Williams had already gotten into an argument. When his seven minutes are up, Williams leaps on the stage to perform. It’s immediately clear this is not the comic graciously accepting on-camera mentoring from Wanda Sykes during a scene from “Last Comic Standing.” She’s furious and pacing. She’s heavier than now, 350 pounds, and wearing a curly wig, which she rips off in anger.
“If you’re bad, come up here, motherf-----,” Williams taunts. “You ain’t seen bad. I been shot two times and hit by a dump truck. He going to hell today.”
As soon as Derek approaches, Williams launches herself on top of him and the club erupts. Off camera, people work to pull her off Derek, whose girlfriend is screaming. Then Bowers pauses the disc.
“This is my favorite,” he says. “This is where Ms. Pat will turn a switch. I want you to listen to her in the background now, as they’re fighting.”
And there it comes, Williams, no longer screaming, as she’s led away from the fight. It’s to the crowd, to the club, maybe even to herself.
“I’m sorry, y’all.”
That scene, everybody knows, would go viral as soon as it hit YouTube. But it terrifies Williams. This is not, she says, who Fox signed and Harper Collins gave a book deal. This is the difference between watching Richard Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing and Richard Pryor, six months later, presenting a routine about setting himself on fire while freebasing. At one point, Bowers asked Williams if he could post the clip online. She asked her manager, John MacDonald. No way.
“What you see on that tape is ‘Rabbit,’ ” says MacDonald, who is frustrated that Bowers continues to show it — even with Williams’s permission. “Her street persona came up and took over and started making decisions for her. That’s not really the person that we want to take to the world.”
“Turn that TV down!”
“Ramon, get on this sofa and take a seat. Before I put you in your bed for the rest of the day.”
“Will you shut up! I’m doing an interview.”
The house, in a sprawling subdivision, is full of laughter and love and cutting and cussing. If you spend even a few hours with the Williams family, you’ll see the blueprint for the sitcom.
Williams hovers over the stove, slicing sausages into a sizzling fry pan. She places a pork roast into the slow cooker and then, after asking for help, decides to dust it with salt and pepper. She throws a pizza into the oven. It comes out blackened.
“I told her to stay away from the goddamned oven,” says Garianna.
“You ungrateful,” Williams says.
“How am I ungrateful because I don’t want burned food,” her daughter shouts.
Ashley, now 31, lives in Atlanta and is in town to do her mother’s hair and makeup. Nikia, 29, lives nearby and works at a bakery. He has brought the babies over, 4-month-old twin boys, Ashton and Aden, and his 4-year-old girl, Ashlynn. Garrett Jr., 17, is called Junebug by everybody and mocked for spending so much time playing video games. Garianna, who is heading to college in the fall, is a lot like her mother: loud, unfailingly loyal and hilarious. She not only helps with the four youngest kids in the household, but serves as a sounding board for new jokes.
Then there’s Garrett, who seems as if he has been crafted for sitcom immortality, his head perpetually in his hands, his resigned smile telling you that he knows this place is crazy, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Garrett did not get a pseudonym in “Rabbit.” He admits he would have preferred one.
“I just don’t want any attention from this book or anything,” he says. “The book is about Ms. Pat. It ain’t about me.”
But it actually is about Garrett and a small group that helped Williams.
She certainly was resilient and driven to get a new life, says Jeannine Amber, the longtime Essence contributor who wrote “Rabbit” with Williams.
“But she also had people rooting for her and fighting for her and extending kindnesses to her that really made all the difference,” she says.
Miss Troup, in third grade, not only taught her to read but hustled her to the bathroom and handed her a bag stocked with soap, shampoo and a brand-new set of clothes. Miss Munroe, the family caseworker, got her vouchers for a summer camp and, when Mildred failed to pack even a toothbrush, sprinted her through Kmart for supplies. Miss Campbell is the work counselor who suggested her calling might be in comedy.
Nobody, though, has done more than Garrett, a Gulf War veteran she met at a club in 1993. He had a legit job, a 401(k) and couldn’t believe she sold crack when they first met, particularly after he visited her apartment.
“You were like, this is a normal household,” he says. “There ain’t anybody getting high or drunk. She was taking care of those kids.”
That hasn’t changed. Comedy might be her passion and career. The kids are her life. That’s why she took in Ciisha, 3, Porchia, 6, Yolanda, 8, and Ramon, 8.
“If there’s a kid, it just melts my heart,” says Williams. “Because I was that kid. That’s why they here.”
It’s dark now, she’s driving back from Morty’s and she talks about the future. She’s got high hopes for the Fox show and her book. She has appreciated what Indianapolis has done for her, but she would love to move back South, get a big house. She truly believes anything can happen.
And then she tells the story of how she got to suburbia. The family lived in a cramped apartment when they first moved to Indianapolis, mainly on Garrett’s salary. But Williams wanted a house. “And my husband is like, we can’t afford that. And I was like, ‘Yes we can.’ ”
She found this subdivision, with its man-made ponds and manicured lawns, and rode through it with her kids for two years.
“And they was like, ‘Why we keep riding through this neighborhood,’ ” she says. “ ‘Because we gonna live here.’ My daughter said, ‘Well, Poppy said we can’t afford it.’ I said, ‘Don’t ever say what you can’t do. Miss Troup taught me that.’ ”