Comedian Rafe Williams Just Might Be the Funniest Person in St. Louis

Rafe Williams with Burnside, the improv group that he has performed with for three years. “There is a real kinship and a trust that cannot be manufactured,” he says.
Rafe Williams with Burnside, the improv group that he has performed with for three years. “There is a real kinship and a trust that cannot be manufactured,” he says. PHOTO BY SARA BANNOURA

Laurie's Place is an unassuming bar, grill and music venue in downtown Edwardsville, so regular as to be special. The joint features two barrooms, and the one in back has the kind of dark, windowless charm that makes you never want to leave on a hot summer afternoon. Twice a week, the man who last year was deemed the funniest person in St. Louis tends bar here, a longstanding gig he's held for about a dozen years, through countless life changes.

"Comedy pays my bills," Rafe Williams says. "But this is my insurance money. It helps out when some months are lean. I've kept this job through a lot of traveling, and Laurie's has always been supportive to my career. It's a security blanket, and I'm always out of here by six so that I can do all the shows I like."

Williams seems to have a story about every situation that comes across his path. Listening to him while he's bartending, you sense how the job is "complementary," as he says, to gigging in comedy clubs. "You're training your brain as a comedian: You have to have a natural inclination to note things and think on them in a funny way. Comedy comes from observations, and what better place is there to make them?"

As he knows most of the people who come through the door — a mix that includes lawyers, tradesmen, office workers and an occasional roustabout — Williams is quick with a quip, playfully jousting with a few, taking orders and talking to a reporter with his attention on his customers first. At times, they tell a story and he adds a piece, then starts in on a riff of his own. Such as: a lengthy take on his former roommate, a member of the national table tennis team of Barbados, who only bathed once a week and who would leave a line of grit in the tub that Williams can describe almost too vividly.

His regulars cackle a bit and throw in their two cents. The scene plays out through the noon lunch hour, at which point the spot is all but emptied out, just as he's predicted. Williams is clearly at home in this place, which might explain why he keeps showing up, even though every shift entails a 90-minute round-trip drive from his apartment in the city.

But Williams is comfortable in a variety of roles, places, situations, environments. In a world of specialists, he's a generalist, joyously so.

There's standup, of course, but also coursework taught at the Improv Shop and sketch-writing, too. He podcasts and has written ad copy for St. Louis institutions including Imo's and Purina. He's even working on a TV show through the auspices of Coolfire Media, a St. Louis company with a track record of placing reality television with networks. The show is in that delicate pre-production stage where no one is permitted to say much, though he will allow, "I've worked with the company on other commercial projects and they liked my personality and writing, so we collaborated to create a television concept. My role is the host and writer."

The guy behind the bar at Laurie's? The funny one? He's got a lot going on.

At 38, Williams is one of the older guys in St. Louis' coterie of working comedians. The gift that comes with that: perspective. Some young comics won't ask for advice — you know, 'cause they're young. Others will and, when they do, Williams channels Rich Talarico, a comedy writer known for his work with Key and Peele, among others.

"When people ask me how to get to the next level," Williams says, "I just tell them to crush the level you're at. When you crush the level that you're at, you're all of a sudden onto the next. It's like being on an elevator. There's no official rite of passage. You just start doing shows. You get a couple of good breaks. You host. You feature, which is the set in the middle of a show. Then, when you get the opportunity, you start to headline sets in small clubs."

Right now, Williams is at the point where, he says, "I'll stop and reflect on a year's body of work and think, 'A lot of stuff's happened.' Which feels good. Progress is incremental, as it would be in anyone else's life. I've done the East Coast, the South, the Midwest, LA. I've gone to New York to work with Improv4Humans and that was a really cool opportunity. I'm getting to the point where, hopefully, this will be the year to completely transition and schedule enough dates to be on the road for twenty weeks a year. A lot of it is just getting an opportunity, just like in any other business. And when you do, don't be an asshole. Be easy to work with, and when you do get the opportunity, deliver."

It's a comment that segues naturally into this Hallmark moment: "I really believe that if you open yourself up, that the universe will provide you good things. I know that sounds corny. You have to not worry about 'when' or 'how' you get it, but do what you love and surround yourself with good people. I think that's what people miss."

Williams has faced a few challenges, which have, in turn, provided creative stimuli. For example, he notes during one particularly hilarious on-stage bit that he became a grandfather — early. The son he had as a teenager himself became a dad at an even younger age, thus his status as a "pee-paw" by 36. It's a part of his act that consistently gets laughs and humanizes Williams instantly.

Drinking was an issue, too, and provided a test of his resolve to perform without it. "When I quit drinking and had to do it without alcohol, it was crippling," he acknowledges. "I did Toastmasters. I did every kind of improv."

But, he says, it was his decision to stop, in 2011, that allowed him to take his comedy seriously. "You realize that there's a difference between the lion that's going to eat you and the lion that's not. And I think a lot of people aren't able to make that determination. It's societal, though. There's such a deep-seated, innate fear of expressing yourself, which is what so many people feel."

Feelings? He has them.

In his sets, Williams passes along the perception that he looks like "a meathead." Letting the audience in on the idea that looks are deceiving, and confirming that he's anything but that meathead, Williams opens up to his audience about what they're going to get going forward. Meatheads typically don't come up with self-deprecating phrases like "you have to make failure your vitamin" or thoughtful nuggets like "comedy can be relatable or edgy, but what's common is that you're trying to get an involuntary reaction, laughter, out of someone, and you can get to that same end point by taking very different roads."

Says Williams, "If you're an angry-looking man and don't call that out, it's all the audience is going to be thinking about."

click to enlarge The plus side of being a bigger guy, Williams says, is that “I don’t get heckled much. It’s happened, but not a lot.” - PHOTO BY SARA BANNOURA
The plus side of being a bigger guy, Williams says, is that “I don’t get heckled much. It’s happened, but not a lot.”

Failure is a topic that Williams addresses again and again, across a handful of conversations, days and situations. He knows the value of it. While no one wants failure as a constant companion, occasional bouts of it can make a performer sharper, less afraid.

"Failure is a huge part of the business," he says. "When you're a comedian, the public is your editor. You have to fail in front of people. You put your work out there and see if there's universal appeal."

His improv training and coaching, he says, "make it easier to riff, to feel more comfortable with an audience, to express a new idea or to play a character onstage."

Most St. Louis comedians will choose either improv or standup, notes comedian Kenny Kinds. Williams does both. "I think he has done an excellent job of incorporating improv into his act, especially in the use of act-outs and characters," Kinds observes. "I know that both improvisers and comics pretty much stick to one side or the other, but he has seemed to find a successful niche in working in both mediums."

When it comes to improv, Williams works with a team at the Improv Shop that has a reputation of excellence. They're the oldest house team at the Improv Shop, and they're called Burnside.

"When you complete training at the shop, you are eligible to audition for a house team, which performs 'the Harold' form of improv," he explains. That's a signature structure of longform improv developed by pioneers Del Close and Charna Halpern. While the Harold is respected by performers of the craft — and remains a marvel to watch when executed well — it's largely a discipline that lives and breathes only in small circles. It's most appreciated, perhaps, by the practitioners themselves.

The team members all auditioned together three years ago, back when the Improv Shop found its first brick-and-mortar home in the Central West End.

"Everyone on that team is highly talented and has superb comedic acumen," Williams says. "They're fucking killers on stage. We play physical and hard in terms of improv and follow the fun with reckless abandon.

"We are out there walking a tightrope together in front of a live audience and success and failure has to have group ownership. I believe the most important ingredient for successful improv is assembling a team that authentically enjoys each other's company. We hang out and are good friends off stage. There is a real kinship and trust that cannot be manufactured."

Williams also coaches another house team, this one called Scottie. "They are a fantastic group, as well," he says. "Coaching them has made me a better player and a better person."

But nothing compares to the thrill of being there alone on stage. "I was a standup comic first. It's like my baby, my firstborn. People ask if you have a favorite kid, right? Well, I like sketch, I like improv. But with standup, I'm the editor, I'm the producer. In every other outlet, you have to collaborate a little bit. But the purest form of my communication is standup and I can't see not doing it."

Conversely, Williams believes that some comedians avoid improv because of their inability to let go of control, to be faced with the possibility that their efforts in a collaborative setting may yield the laughs to someone else.

"Improv will make you a better comedian, as you have to think on your feet and step into and out of character," Williams says. "The sense you get is a little bit of artistic payoff. I think everyone is capable of being funny in their own right. And in improv, you don't have to try to be funny, you have to be trustful. Trust yourself and your instincts. Trust your scene partners. You have to say 'yes,' seeing the good in people and saying 'yes' to ideas. Getting on stage and doing it will only provide truth."

That truth can often be found in the open mics that are peppered through clubs across St. Louis, be they the full-time comedy clubs like Hey Guys, Helium or the Funny Bone, or the more raucous, anything-can-happen, "bar mic" variety, like the one held at the Crow's Nest every Wednesday.

On July 26, Williams attends the bar's Wild Card Wednesday and signs up for the sixth slot on a night that features just shy of twenty comics. Starting at 10:30 p.m., the night's late start often attracts folks who have been drinking, whether they're there for comedy or simply walk into the performance. Before Williams takes the stage, guest host Yale Hollander reads jokes penned by an elderly friend-of-a-relative who wants to break into comedy writing; these jokes bomb, but intentionally and spectacularly. Then soft-spoken youngster Katie Davis, summering in St. Louis before heading to college, delivers some brand new one-liners, in a voice just above a whisper, and Ken Warner deals in his customary, highly amusing patter of self-deprecation and tales of romantic awkwardness.

By the time Williams hits the tiny, fold-out stage, the back of the room is at full-tilt, voices rising. The comics in the front are nearly drowned out by the increasing volume in this busy, high-ceilinged room.

Not content to concede a thing, Williams raises his own voice, fixes his gaze on the back of the room and rattles off some material he's been flashing recently, scoring with an amusing riff on his gun-crazy, crime-obsessed country cousins.

Before the show, Steve Raines, Williams' partner in the podcast The Other Side of the Tracks, stopped by; together, they cracked jokes and asked actual, intentional questions of all those who visited their table. Pre-set, Williams was as reserved as a church mouse.

But when his time on the mic comes, he shreds, his personality shining, jokes unfolding, a bit of ad-libbing thrown in for good measure. He riffs about having sleep apnea and casual sex. He jokes about trying to sky-dive as a plus-sized male. He talks about President Trump handling environmental policy the way Williams handles his student loans.

He kills.

Williams notes, rightly, that in comedy "a lot of sports analogies get mixed in. You crushed. You killed. You bombed."

On this night, he might just touch on another sports analogy, in that he grinded: against the indifference of the audience in the back, well into their own night of non-comedic fun; against the familiarity of the faces up front, many of them knowing his punchlines and "tags"; against the material itself, which he's constantly refining, with a word changing here or a pause given an extra beat there. He grinds it out, and that's just one of many things that his contemporaries dig about Rafe Williams.

"It's the dojo," Williams says of open mic culture. "It's where you learn to punch, where you learn to kick. So that when there's a real fight, you know how to perform. Or at least how to stay alive. I've bombed more than my fair share, because everyone has a different perception of comedy."

click to enlarge Rafe Williams at work coaching the improv team Scottie. - PHOTO BY SARA BANNOURA
Rafe Williams at work coaching the improv team Scottie.

In 2016, Rafe Williams competed in the Funniest Person in St. Louis contest, hosted by Helium Comedy Club's then-new location at the Saint Louis Galleria.

The contest, which ran for a full month, drew 100 contestants, all vying for the $1,200 grand prize and a title that simply sounds incredible. Who wouldn't want to be the funniest person in the city?

In the end, Williams won, earning the title for a one-year reign. It also means you host the next year's competition, which he did just a few weeks back. Nathan Orton now holds the title, though in fairness to both men, Williams didn't get a chance to defend it. Being last year's winner means that instead you host, with Williams delivering his own material during breaks in the action.

He's earned the respect of his peers. Chris Cyr simply calls him "a monster."

"I think he is one of the few people who instinctively understands what it means to be a professional artist," Cyr says. "A lot of comics, and performers in general, work really hard on their craft and wait for the world to notice them. Rafe worked really hard to develop a strong library of jokes to pull from, put all of that into a well-structured set that still gives him room to improv when he wants, and audiences love him. But then he's also really good at putting himself out there to meet people, contact clubs, and do all of the other work necessary to create opportunities that will allow him to do this as a living."

If not a monster, comedian Brian McDowell finds Williams to be close kin — "a beast."

"Frankly, I'm very jealous of Rafe Williams, and wish I had his prospects for success," he says. "He's probably the most energetic and audience-pleasing comic on the scene right now." He adds, "Rafe isn't afraid to be silly. That gets the audience on his side, and makes him extremely difficult for any local comedian to follow."

Says Jonathan Venegoni, "Rafe is one of those guys that I liked from the first time I saw him at Art Bar. Not only is he a great guy and super lovable, he is very thoughtful and insightful. These traits naturally come out in his act. I also love just hearing him speak. He has a great speaking voice. ... Rafe is one of those people that comedy — at least stand-up comedy — came easily to."

The thought of moving, well, it's struck Williams, of course. So many opportunities exist in other cities. But there's so much here, as well. Like his multiple roles at the Improv Shop (where he also bartends on occasion), as well as his home away from home at Laurie's Place.

There's also his son, Drake, and granddaughter, Brooklyn, as well as his girlfriend Tina Dybal, herself finding a footing in St. Louis comedy circles.

"I love her very much and she is a great human and comic," Williams says. "It is a good place to be in, both professionally and personally, to have someone supportive in your corner who loves you and completely understands the compulsion, struggles, triumphs and tragedies of following your crazy dream. She's the best."

Soft-spoken, incisive and possessing some serious introspection about life and work, Williams is at an interesting career point. Multiple paths are continuing to emerge, though all of the signposts still point back to his current home — a couple of afternoons a week at Laurie's, Mondays at the Improv Shop, a night or two at Helium or at the various "dojos." All of these places, together, inform his life and art. He wants to make it here and maybe drag a few talented knuckleheads along with him.

"We build talent here, then hemorrhage it to the coasts," he says. "Sometime you have to leave for the sake of your career. But I hope that's changing. They're still there, the gatekeepers, but they're not as important as they used to be."

And just as he's doing so, he wants his contemporaries to do something, too.

"You can go out and make stuff," he suggests. "Keep going out and making stuff. Get all of it out of your system."

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