"I don't think I made it to that level; that Jim Carrey superstar status. I mean, that's obvious. But I feel in terms of a really gratifying career in movies and standup and TV, I mean I could have died eight years ago and I would have been happy. I went down to the States saying if I could get on David Letterman, I could die happy. That was my goal. And I've done almost thirty movies. I've done so much I can't even believe it."
– Harland Williams
Harland Williams: How are you, buddy?
Guy MacPherson: Good.
HW: Awesome, man. I'm glad we finally hooked up.
HW: Geez, what's the matter with us?
GM: I don't know. Where are you, by the way?
HW: I am in San Jose, California, man.
GM: Is that where you live?
HW: No, I live in L.A. I just came up here for the weekend to do a show.
GM: And weren't you just in Las Vegas, too?
HW: Yeah, I was in Las Vegas two nights ago doing the comedy festival with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. It was a fun night. I went on at like one in the morning or something like that. We did it in Celine Dion's theatre at Caesar's Palace.
GM: Our countrywoman.
HW: Yeah. One of the crew guys that works with her, I asked him about it. He said he's heard her fart a whole bunch of times (laughs). That kind of shocked me. I wonder if her farts are in perfect pitch.
GM: (laughs) Probably. And probably just as unlistenable.
HW: (laughs) Yeah, really.
GM: In Canada you're sort of revered. Are you as much in the States?
HW: What's interesting is, yeah, I'm really revered in the States. Like, people really love me here wherever I go. And what's kind of a little bit of a sore spot with me with Canada, I'm not bitter about it but it hurts emotionally a little bit that it's weird, when I left I never really got invited back that much. I don't mean for the festivals. Vancouver's invited me for the festival and so has Montreal. I just mean the club circuit. I've never really been asked back to play in Toronto. It's weird.
GM: Were you a Yuks comic?
HW: Uh-huh, yup.
GM: You're not now, obviously, because you're playing the competition in town.
HW: Yeah, I just play wherever I want. I've kind of made it a rule in my career that I got into comedy to do comedy not to do politics. My father was a politician. He did that and I do comedy. So if there's a stage and a microphone and people that want to laugh, that's all I care about. All that other stuff to me is a waste of energy.
GM: How long were you with the chain?
HW: Uh... I don't know that I was ever with them. I primarily worked for Yuk Yuk's. At the time I was working in Canada, they were really the only option. So I was kind of working those clubs for I guess about six or seven years before I moved to L.A.
GM: And you were doing standup for about the same amount of time?
HW: Yeah, and I gotta say that that chain was really good to me. I know a lot of people seem to have problems with Mark [Breslin], but like I said, I always put politics on the side and I never got mixed up in that stuff. Mark Breslin was always really good to me. I always liked him. I think I'm one of the few guys (laughs). I think I just always knew I was going to leave so I was like, hey, Mark can give me the most stage time and that's all I want. I want to hone my craft and take it to a bigger playing field.
GM: It's nice when you have that option.
HW: Well, I just made it my option. I had the same option that everyone else had, I guess, but I just focused on it, you know, and put a plan into action, man.
GM: So you were driven.
HW: I was very driven, yeah. It's funny, I was just playing in Tempe, Arizona, last week and the guy coming in the week after me is there this weekend. He's a Canadian guy named Greg Morton. He's a black guy who started with me on amateur night at Yuk Yuk's and I remember we started literally the same week and we did the amateur nights for, like, a year. And I remember seeing Greg and I knew that out of all the guys, me and him had the most fire. I knew he was determined to go down to the States and I knew I was. I thought it was just interesting that here we are playing the same club back-to-back. It was really neat because my one kind of prediction, the one guy I focused in on and I thought, "This guy's gonna break outta here" and it happened. And it's kinda cool because he's a really good guy and a funny guy. So it's nice to see.
GM: It's not just a matter of "well, I'm moving to the States now" because there's all this paperwork to do and you may or may not get in.
HW: No, it's not. You have to strategize and you have to be a bit of a politician on that level in terms of, you know, making connections and being aggressive and finding ways to do what you need to do. It's not fun. It kinda sucks. That's the hard part of it. I feel there's a ton of really, really, really talented Canadian guys that because of all that, you know, bureaucracy maybe didn't make it down. And I wish they did because I think a lot of guys have done really well and the world's kinda missing out on them on that bigger stage. It sucks. And then you got, you know, 11 million illegals coming up from the other side and we can't get three dozen talented Canadian comedians down there. And as we've seen, Canadian comedians add to the economy down there immensely. I mean, most of the huge comedy stars are the ones making giant comedy movies. It's very strange.
GM: What year did you move down?
HW: Uh, let's see. I think I moved down in '90.
GM: And what's your status?
HW: I'm a Legal Alien. (laughs) I have a green card and it actually says 'legal alien' on it (laughs). It's pretty degrading. Sometimes I just cross out the 'legal' part. 'Alien' seems to fit me better somehow.
GM: Right. You're the Rocketman.
HW: Yeah (laughs).
GM: How often do you watch that, by the way?
HW: You know, I don't watch it ever and I actually watched it about a month ago. I started dating this new girl and she insisted on watching it with me. She just wanted to see it. It's the first time I'd watched it in probably like six years.
GM: And are you still with her?
HW: Yeah, she hung in there, man. She's like, "You're the first man on Mars!" That's what got her, man.
GM: When you left, you were kind of like the 'It' comic in Canada. The book Stand and Deliver [by Andrew Clark] predicted great things for you.
HW: Yeah, it was interesting. I was quite flattered. I wasn't sure how I got that but I was quite honoured to have that. I think at the time he wrote it, I was in Rocketman. It was my first starring movie. I think in the U.S. they were kinda calling me the next Jim Carrey and all that stuff. It was a pretty exciting time.
GM: How do you think it's played out?
HW: Well, I don't think I made it to that level; that Jim Carrey superstar status. I mean, that's obvious. But I feel in terms of a really gratifying career in movies and standup and TV, I mean I could have died eight years ago and I would have been happy. I went down to the States saying if I could get on David Letterman, I could die happy. That was my goal. And I've done almost thirty movies. I've done so much I can't even believe it.
GM: Yeah, nice career.
HW: Yeah, I'm really happy. And what's great about it is I still feel anything can happen. Right now I'm at a certain level, which I'm very happy with, but I always strive to move forward and God willing I move up the chain to something else I do. But if I don't, I really don't have any regrets. Because I have starred in a few movies and I have co-starred in a lot of movies and I have had cameos and I have done my HBO specials and had my own sitcom [Simon], and blah, blah, blah, you know what I mean? I've pretty much done everything I wanted to do and now I'm kind of in the next phase where I'm writing and directing a feature film. So everything I dreamed of is playing out. So the answer is I feel great about it.
GM: Did you have some words of advice for your co-star in Employee of the Month, Dane Cook? Because he's now the 'It' comic.
HW: Yeah, my words to Dane were... You know, the movie we did, Employee of the Month, he played the leading man and he was kind of the straight man in the movie. And my words to Dane were, "This is a great opportunity for you, Dane, but don't forget your fans know you for what you do." And I said, "Make sure that one of your follow-up movies or something you do in the future showcases what got you here, which is your manic energy and physicality and craziness. Make sure one of your movies or something you do showcases that so that your fans can go, 'There's that guy that I love.'"
GM: Is it a matter of picking the right scripts?
HW: Picking the right scripts but also making sure you just put your mark on them. I think that's what's made my movie career last. Every role I take I put Harland on the character. I put my sensibility into every role I do. I think that's what's garnered me fans and made people in Hollywood pay attention to me. I tried to stay true to the essence of my sense of humour.
GM: Is that from improvising lines on set?
HW: Yeah, that's from a lot of improvising in my roles. And not just improvising, but purposefully looking for ways to present new dialogue or new physicality. I always try to put something in that is unique and you haven't seen or heard. I just try to put my mark on it somehow.
GM: You've played the straight man in film.
HW: Yeah, I've done a few. You betcha.
GM: Do you think you'll ever do straight drama?
HW: You know, I've done a couple of movies. I did a movie called Becoming Dick for the E-Channel a few years ago. It was a dramedy but I pretty much had to play it pretty straight. And I had a short movie in Sundance I guess it was about three years ago now, called Family Tree, which is going to be available on-line for people to watch pretty soon. And I played the lead in that movie and that was a straight-on drama. I got a little bit of notoriety for that. You know, comedy is easy for me and drama is a challenge. They always say comedy's the hardest thing to do. Well, for me it's not; it's the opposite. I know I can do a movie and get the laughs, but to do drama is a challenge and I like challenges. So yeah, I hope to do more of that.
GM: How many cops have you played in movies?
HW: (laughs) That's funny, man. I just finished doing another one. I just finished shooting The Dukes of Hazzard II and I play Rosco. After Rosco, I actually said to my agents, I said, "You know what? I think it's time we might have to actually stay away from the cops." I think I've done about six or seven now. (laughs)
GM: Have the police forces honoured you yet?
HW: I'm hoping they give me something! Like an honourable badge of merit or something. A diploma or an honourary degree or something. My own office, at least.
GM: You were in Half Baked and you don't do drugs, is that right?
HW: No, I'm not into that whole thing. In fact, I actually turned that movie down about five times because I just didn't want to condone that type of thing.
GM: What got you to change your mind?
HW: Well, it was the producers kinda begging me. At the end it was kinda my manager. He said, "You know what? It's just a movie role. It's going to really widen your fan base and a lot of people are going to see it." And taking that I kinda went, "You know, I've played a guy on Mars, I've played a cop drinking pee, I've played a serial killer in There's Something About Mary. You know what? They are just roles." And so I kind of justified it that way. It kinda helped. I look back on it and I've had a lot of kids come up to me in the streets and go, "Hey, man, thanks to you I got into the bud." I'm like, "I don't really like that." So it was a bit of a mixed thing for me.
GM: Nobody's ever come up to you and said, "Hey, man, thanks to you I'm now killing people."
HW: Exactly. Well, no one yet. I'm sure it'll happen.
GM: With your unique face, you must get recognized a lot.
HW: Oh yeah, I can't go outside without getting it. And it's weird because, not to be pretentious but I really do wear like an old ratty baseball hat and dark sunglasses. And I'm telling you, man, people just pick me off. It doesn't matter what I do. I'm amazed. They nail me. I walk through an airport and they nail me. It's bizarre.
GM: In a good way or bad way?
HW: You know what? It's a good way because I've had the luxury of doing really kind of funny roles and somehow I've managed to get into a lot of roles that have kind of stayed in people's minds. They're not just roles that kinda went by the wayside. Some of them are like standout roles that for some reason people remember all the lines. So the best thing about this is I've literally been in situations where I'll be walking up the street or going through an airport and you'll see someone with the look of suicide on their face. They're not having fun in life. And they look up and they see you and they just light up and they smile. And they actually say things like, "I love you, dude." You just go wow, what an honour to, just by existing, bring that to people. It's 99 percent in a good way. Every now and then you get someone that's a little too overzealous or aggressive or rude, but outside of those moments it's really nice.
GM: You're not alienating people with your standup. It's just good, silly fun.
HW: That's it exactly.
"I always saw standup comedy like art, you know, where you look at Da Vinci or Van Gogh or Dali or whoever. They all had their distinct styles. And I always thought I don't want to watch other comics and be influenced. I want to just totally create my own thing."
– Harland Williams
GM: You're not being political or anything like that.
HW: No. I mean, I do touch on political things a little bit, but when I do I keep them fun. I just always felt like to me comedy is silly. And I always wanted my standup just to be silly. Even though I could, I don't want to comment on George Bush or the prime minister. To me it's like enough. I want people to see something that maybe they won't see everyday or hear something they won't hear everyday. I think anyone... Not anyone, but I think I could go through the headlines and twist them around and make them funny but it's like, okay, you're talking about a referendum or you're talking about child welfare and I'd rather hear about a guy who puts mushrooms on his dog and teaches him how to make an omelette, or something, you know? I don't know. I like silly.
GM: You do lots of riffing with the crowd. How much of your act is scripted?
HW: It varies from show to show. Sometimes you'll get a real great energy from the crowd and I'll riff like 50 percent of it, sometimes more. I mean, I've done nights where the whole show is just riffing with the crowd. But some nights the crowd isn't really there energy-wise and you pull it back. But I'd say normally at least 20 to 30 percent of my show is wailing with the crowd.
GM: Is that how you write?
HW: Yeah, sometimes. I've never sat down at a computer or a typewriter and written a joke. I call it the life preserver method. I basically go up and throw something out at the crowd. I'll go, "Hey, buddy, ever been in a car accident?" And then as he's formulating his answer, I'm trying to think of a joke. And being under that pressure makes me write on the spot. It's kind of a stupid way to write but that's how I like to do it. Because I feel like I get the answer right then and there. I like being under pressure. It's like drowning and you've got to claw your way to the top to get air. And there are a lot of nights it doesn't work at all but you know what? Those are kinda fun, too, because it's kinda fun when people know that you're eating it. It makes me laugh sometimes.
GM: As long as you have the confidence. That wouldn't work for everybody.
HW: No, no. I don't recommend it for the faint of heart but for me it does the job.
GM: I can't place your style with any other comic. Did you have influences?
HW: I tried not to have influences because I didn't want any traces of other comics in what I did. I always saw standup comedy like art, you know, where you look at Da Vinci or Van Gogh or Dali or whoever. They all had their distinct styles. And I always thought I don't want to watch other comics and be influenced. I want to just totally create my own thing. So although there are comics I enjoy, I don't think I have any influences. Unless they're subliminal and I'm not aware of them. I certainly tried purposely to not get absorbed too much from anybody else.
GM: So you don't listen to a lot of other comics.
HW: No, I don't. Unless I'm working with them at the club I honestly do stay away from that. But when I do see someone I like, I really enjoy it.
GM: You're also a painter. Do you have influences there or is that the same sort of philosophy?
HW: I actually do have influences for drawing. Because the way I taught myself to draw was by copying comic books. And so I copied a lot of cool artists like Ernie Chan and Bernie Wrightson and Jim Davis and people like that. So I have to say I was influenced. And hopefully at this point with my art I'm kind of doing my own thing, which I know I am. But I did kind of mimic a lot of their stuff when I was in the learning phases of drawing.
GM: What's an average day like for you?
HW: Let's see... I wake up in the morning and the first thing I do is, I'm doing a radio show now so I have to wake up in the morning every day and do eight radio bits.
GM: How long is the show?
HW: It's the drive-home show from three to seven in the evening. What I do is I record eight bits and send them in and they slot them in in the four hours. It's my show but I get to do all the stuff out of my house in Los Angeles and send it to them and then they put it in and program the music around my bit.
GM: How long is a bit?
HW: It can be as long as I want. It can be thirty seconds or twenty minutes. I usually do usually between two minutes to five or six minutes.
GM: How many stations are you on?
HW: Right now just one because we just started. I've only been on the air for about a month and a half. It's in Denver, Colorado.
GM: What's the thing you like most about standup and hate the most about it?
HW: The thing I love most about it is the freedom. You just fly. You can say whatever you want and move however you want and react however you want. It's one of the few art forms where you just have total liberty. Because movies you have directors and everywhere else you've got programming people and executives and producers and network people. But standup, man, you walk on that stage and it's your world. The only thing up there is your microphone and it's totally yours. To have that kind of freedom is beautiful. And I guess the bad part of standup is you can get a little travel weary. You gotta motor around and move around. But there's worse jobs, you know?
GM: How many shows do you do in a year?
HW: I try and limit it to about four months worth of weekends in a year. Because I have a lot of other things I'm doing. I don't want to be like a road warrior guy where I'm just on the road all year. There's too much other stuff I have to do.
GM: Has your act changed substantially since you left Canada? Or are you essentially that same comic?
HW: I think it's changed quite a bit. It's always evolving. My act changes in terms of my choreography. I've gone through phases where I've been Mr. Move All Around The Stage and then my energy's moved from my whole body, then it's just my face I'm using. And in terms of my material, I'm always updating material.
GM: But would you describe it generally as the same type of material?
HW: Yeah. I try to keep it consistent in terms of the silly. I still do the thing where I love to talk to the crowd. But back then I wasn't talking about things like 9/11 or things like that. But it's always changing.
GM: I interrupted you about what you do on an average day.
HW: Oh yeah. I do my radio spots. And lately I've been going into work. For the first time in my whole career I have an office now over at DreamWorks. I'm doing a movie over there. I'm writing it and directing a film.
GM: A comedy.
HW: A comedy. A CGI film. I'm working at DreamWorks animation so I have a little office over there now and I go over and work on my film. And then I come home and I continue to dig the escape tunnel under my house. The only weird thing is I don't know where I'm escaping to (laughs). I think I'm digging my way into Utah or something.
GM: So DreamWorks bought the script?
HW: Yeah, they actually bought an idea. I went in an pitched [DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey] Katzenberg an idea for a feature and he loved it and bought it. Then they wanted me to come on as the writer and the director as well. So that's what I've been working on. It's a lot of work but it's really cool.
GM: Are you using your own artwork?
HW: I'm helping to design the characters but what's great about DreamWorks is they have such a huge team in place. They basically bring me artists and then I just work with the artists. I'll do rough sketches and say this is the direction I want to go and this is the look and the feel. And I'll go away and these top-notch artists will do drawings. And we'll just kinda work it out through that process.
GM: You're a bigshot.
HW: Ha! Well, I'm doing what I like to do, man. That's your first question. I do feel very lucky that I've really been able to tap into all the mediums that I had my eye on, which is all of them. I like all mediums.
GM: Do you know when the film is coming out?
HW: It's set for 2010 because obviously with a CGI movie, these movies are a 3-4-year process. So we're in the early stages of development, designing characters and things like that.
GM: Your brother's a director, too, isn't he?
HW: Yeah, Steve, yeah. He did that movie, The Wild, which came out earlier this year.
GM: And your cousin is in Barenaked Ladies.
HW: Yeah, Kevin [Hearn].
GM: It's an artistic family.
HW: Yeah, I know, man, it's cool.
GM: Any others that we should know about?
HW: Oh, man, I wasn't supposed to talk about Fungi, but my parents keep Fungi in the root cellar. He cultivates cheese. I'll just say he's a cheese master and I'll leave it at that.
GM: (laughs) So not really in the arts.
HW: Well, he's an artist in his own right. He's creating odd flavours of cheese that nobody's tasted.
GM: You mentioned your dad was a politician.
GM: Is he still around?
HW: My folks are still around. I'll be joining them for Christmas up in Toronto this year.
GM: He was an MPP, was he?
GM: What party?
HW: He was with the Conservative party. And he eventually became the Solicitor-General of Ontario. I think he gets a kick out of me playing all the cop roles because he was like the top cop there for a while.
GM: They've got to be proud as anything.
HW: Yeah, I think they're proud but it's mixed with confusion because my parents were so traditional and conservative. I think they're still a little bit mystified at how I've made a career out of, "What? You're drawing? You're telling jokes? What are you doing? You're playing a cop? What the--?" I think they think more in terms of real estate and lawyers and doctors. I think I threw them a little bit (laughs).
GM: It's just a phase you're going through.
HW: Yeah, exactly. But they love it. I remember one time they greeted me at the airport and they were wearing Down Periscope t-shirts and Rocketman hats. It was kind of embarrassing (laughs). I think they like it.