The comics will also be riffing at Pemberton 

L.A.-based Harland Williams is part of three days of laughs at the music festival this weekend

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - Half Man, Half Cowboy Chicken Comedian Harland Williams performs at the Pemberton Festival
  • Photo submitted
  • Half Man, Half Cowboy Chicken Comedian Harland Williams performs at the Pemberton Festival

Harland Williams riffs comedy in a way that could be described as hillbilly jazz.

Williams pulls silliness into whatever he does with a drawl that suggests he never touched foot inside the city limits of his hometown Toronto.

"I keep doing what I think is funny to me and just hope still people still want to come to the party. It's so much fun," he says, speaking from his home in Los Angeles.

After almost three decades there, Williams has become a great American character actor.

Watching him in action, you get a sense of his mastery of spontaneity as he hilariously demolishes the composure of talk show host Conan O'Brien, or steals scenes in one of the many films in which he has appeared (There's Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber, and Freddy Got Fingered are three).

And speaking ahead of his appearance at the Pemberton Festival alongside Tim Heidecker on Sunday, July 19, the 52-year-old doesn't deny it.

"I try to improvise in every single film. It keeps me in a good place, reading off a script is great and I always give my directors the stuff on the page. It's part of my obligation to the project and everybody involved," Williams says.

He likes the discipline of script because he becomes "actor guy," but he's also eager to play.

He says: "After I've done a few takes I always improvise. In a way, it's the purest form of acting because there is no way to prepare for it... if the directors and producers like it and leave it in the movie, then that's pure. Most of my movies, directors have loved a lot of it."

Working with actors like Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller doesn't hurt the A-game either.

"To have any high-level actor bounce off you, it's great. I remember Ben Stiller, when we did There's Something About Mary, he's such a pro and he went with me. The tiny little lines he put in and the little inflections made it all work," Williams says.

"At one point I asked him, 'Is this too much for you?' He said, 'I love it. Keep going.' I couldn't have done it without him. I needed to bounce off his energy. Even his eye movements, the way he tilted his head..."

He agrees he has a high energy level of his own and is prolific and interested in all sorts of ways to make comedy. And the work keeps coming.

"It's hard to believe I've been here this long. It freaks me out," he says.

"I see myself as a survivor because I've been able to keep everything going that I started. I realized after a long time how frigging lucky I am."

His epiphany for getting on professionally should be tacked to the wall of every artist trying to make it big.

"I had this fantasy that once you got this first acting gig or comedy special, I could do it and be set for life," he says.

"But you have to fight every year to keep things going. They don't give you any credit for the stuff you did yesterday, you've got to keep plugging away. I've been lucky to be able to keep moving the needle for myself.

"I don't know if the variety of what I do was just part of the plan. I think it's part of the way I'm wired. I love putting my foot into a lot of different things."

Two seasons of Williams' Canadian comedy series Package Deal, which ran on CityTV until it was cancelled six months ago, were recently sold to

With that show behind him, his feet have stepped into the digital world, too.

Williams has appeared on many web interview shows, especially those run by other comedians like Kevin Pollak and Tom Green.

But when he ventured into digital himself, it was a case of self-development.

Take The Harland Highway.

"It's my podcast. It's a great form for me to expand on all my comedy. When I do my other shows I am limited to a certain amount of time and a certain style," he says.

"When I do standup I am limited. It's setup-punchline, setup-punchline. You've got to elicit the laugh from the audience in a certain amount of time or they think you're eating it."

But the podcast allows Williams to spend hours exploring an idea, usually with himself going into character.

"If I want to talk about the way a cat's tail wiggles, I can talk about it for two hours. It's really fun," he says.

"Sometimes I will do a bit on the podcast and definitely bring it into my standup act. They both seem to feed each other... Yesterday I interviewed myself as a guy called Cowboy Chicken, half cowboy-half chicken. Halfway through the interview he started to lay eggs. It was very annoying."

Funny and explorative as Digital Harland is, nothing, N-O-T-H-I-N-G, compares to his love of doing comedy in front of large crowds. Pemberton is in for a treat.

"The bigger the sea of people, the more I feel like I'm in command. Like Moses parting the Red Sea," he says.

"I did a show in Florida once to 70,000 people at a football stadium. I felt like Julius Caesar at the Coliseum. If you can get them and hold them under your spell, it's magic."


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