Thomas Crone highlights the standup comedians performing at the "Last Laugh Comedy Stage" at LouFest. Today’s featured comic: Rafe Williams.
Earlier this year, Rafe Williams was still working at a bar that he’d tended for about a dozen years. The place closed suddenly and, as it did so, he was motivated to make the move he’d pondered for years. Though still serving behind the bar from time-to-time at the Improv Shop (where he’s active in creating shows, booking and performing), his days of pouring drafts and popping caps are largely over, save for nights of real need at the Shop.
A full-time comedian now, Williams has been traveling a lot, often a couple times monthly. There’s seldom a weekend on which he’s not on a bill somewhere, whether in-town or away.
“I’ve started working the road more,” Williams says. “I just did a tour of the Loony Bin clubs. I’ll be in Nashville in October, at Zanies, opening for Jay Pharoah. I did some shows earlier this year in L.A.. So, yeah, I would say that it’s getting to the point of bi-monthly. It’s been nice getting to the point of performing somewhere every weekend.”
As with a other comedians, a portion of our conversation centers on where Williams feels he’s at right now, in the general sense of how work’s moving into (or out of) his life.
“It does move from self-loathing to megalomania,” he cracks. “But I am happy and I’m in a good place. The brass ring’s always moving. Like, I had a meeting at Comedy Central, about which I’m cautiously optimistic. It was nice just to make the connections and sit in the room, hear pitches about their half-hour specials and learn about their writer’s program.”
The trick is that “the feature act is disappearing, which makes it tougher to get booked if you don’t have a certain name recognition. Headliners are bringing out their own middle person and that causes an anxiety that’s probably not totally real. I feel like I’m in a video game and I’ve gotten to a door and I’ve pulled all the levers and I’ve tried bombing it, but I might need to go back to the checkpoint of the level. But overall, I’m a happy man. There’re way worse jobs to have. The fact that I worry about these things… some young comedian would kill for what I have. Things are always changing but you try to be happy and enjoy the moment you’re in.”
Williams has, in the past year or two, actively sought to work comfortably in multiple, differing forms. Long a student of improv and a writer of sketch comedy, he’s penned commercials, guested on podcasts, hosted non-comedy events like Grove Fest. He’s constantly picking up new skills, or refining ones that he’s already begun investing in.
“It’s true that the gatekeepers have changed,” he says, noting the intense amount of work standups do to create buzz around projects. “The strictly-standup comedian is an endangered species. The challenge now is to be multi-faceted: to be a writer, or to take part in so many different vehicles and platforms. There’s an expectation with social media, that once you build a fanbase, you have to keep them happy. In the current age, there’re so many more vehicles for comedians to make a living. It’s not just about going club-to-club. Whether it’s podcasting or writing sketches or hosting a radio show, opportunities exist where they didn’t before.”
Not one to just look out for his own interests, Williams is constantly on the lookout for opportunities to create events, audiences and situations that benefit the whole scene.
“I think that if you wanna build a scene, there has to be stage time available and someone has to create that,” he says. “If you don’t run a show and just show up, you’re taking from the community and not giving back. You may be helping the scene by bringing quality entertainment, but there’s a responsibility there that’s missing. We have a responsibility as a collective. We hemorrhage talent. You build, build, build, then everyone leaves and goes to L.A., or wherever. Who takes over? Can you mentor someone and leave the scene in good hands? You should want to create shows and draw audiences, be on social media and expose people through venues that wouldn’t normally have comedy.
“You can use Facebook boosts,” he adds, “or you can try to grow things organically. I prefer to grow an audience through word-of-mouth. I once performed at a chili cook-off and came away with 10 or 15 new Instagram and Twitter followers. You never what’ll happen until you try to do those types of gigs.”
At the conclusion of this featurette, we should note that Williams isn’t some type of Great and Powerful Oz, pulling strings behind the scenes to create his masterwork of a St. Louis comedy scene. He does that scene-building work, sure, but he’s also, as noted, a steadily-gigging performer, touting his material on St. Louis stages regularly. That means working open mics and club dates, often at his homebase of the Improv Shop, along with St. Louis’ biggest musical festival the occasional chili cook-off..