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.
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."