Ms. Pat Is the Hardest Working Woman in Comedy

The comedian and Wanda Sykes protege discusses cancel culture, her new Netflix special and the definition of a "grown-ass sitcom"

February 28, 2022 9:51 am
From a Netflix special to the second season of her BET+ sitcom, it's been a big year for Ms. Pat
From a Netflix special to the second season of her BET+ sitcom, it's been a big year for Ms. Pat
Ms. Pat

“I’m on the phone. Turn the TV off!”

Ms. Pat, aka Patricia Williams, is trying to do an interview with me over the phone. The Atlanta-born comedian is up early on a Saturday morning — the only day she has off from shooting the second season of her TV series, The Ms. Pat Show.

On the phone, Ms. Pat is not unlike who she is onstage: brash, honest, relaxed and able to turn her own personal history into a punchline. She’s one of the most relatable women comedians out there today, something like an uncensored mom version of Richard Pyor for Generation X.

Beside her is her husband, who was one of the first people to believe in her. Back when she was 19, he encouraged her to get into standup comedy. Now 49, she has enjoyed a career that’s spanned decades, along with a new Netflix special co-produced by Wanda Sykes, Y’all Wanna Hear Something Crazy?, which debuted February 8. Ms. Pat also recently released a memoir, Rabbit, which traces her journey from single mother to acclaimed comedian, and how she has a knack for turning tragedy into comedy. She always manages to bring together an audience into her warm circle of acceptance, where nothing can surprise her. She has truly seen it all.

At the age of 15, she was already the mother of two, selling drugs on the streets before getting arrested multiple times. At one point she was homeless. At another she survived two gunshot wounds. She credits her caseworker for encouraging her to get into standup, after seeing that Ms. Pat could make a joke out of anything. 

After doing her first set in 2002, she made it to NBC’s Last Comic Standing in 2015. She was featured in Netflix’s standup series The Degenerates in 2018, and released The Ms. Pat Show in 2021 on BET+ after it was dropped by both Fox and Hulu. The second season is due out later this year, with the first now streaming on Paramount+. One of he hardest working women in comedy, she also hosts a podcast called The Patdown With Ms. Pat and is currently gearing up for a tour across the country in spring and summer.

Below, Ms. Pat speaks with InsideHook about her comedy career, making her way up through the ranks of standup stages, cancel culture, Richard Pryor and a few guest appearances we can expect to see on season two of The Ms. Pat Show.

InsideHook: You’re shooting season two of the Ms. Pat show right now. How’s that going?

Ms. Pat: Today is Saturday, they just give me one day off. We’re shooting sometimes 12 to 15 hours a day. Who knows? This season is going to be crazy. The first season we were getting our footing, it was a new show, totally different than anything you’ve seen. We use real language and talk about real stuff in a sitcom format. Since the first season was a hit, we’re going even more crazy this season.

It’s not your average TV family. Why do you call it a “grown-ass sitcom?”

We call it that because of the language and content. Things you see on this show, you’re never going to see on network TV. In a sitcom format, people try to talk about real stuff, but if they weren’t with that network, they could have pushed the boundaries. You think: Why couldn’t they have gone farther? We go all the way on this show. It’s a real relatable season we’re shooting for The Ms. Pat Show.

Is there a great risk in that?

Sometimes. We try. I’m the co-creator of the show, so sometimes I’m looking around and asking, “Are we really going to do this?” [Laughs.] In this new season, we have Richard Lawson on one of the episodes — OMG, he’s Beyonce’s stepfather. And we have Janet Hubert, who played Vivian Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. We take actors and put them in situations you never see them in before. They came in and killed it. She also directed the episode called “Parents just don’t understand.”

What was it like working with executive producer Lee Daniels, who created the  Empire series?

Lee is 100% in support of this show. This show is coming together after five whole years of it being dropped. This show took five years to get on air. We shot the pilot and Hulu dropped the pilot. Thankfully for BET+, they picked us up. They said, “We’re going to try this out.”

You took a chance on Jordan E. Cooper, who is the showrunner for The Ms. Pat Show, even though he had minimal experience and is only 27. Why did you take a chance on him?  

Everyone deserves a chance. Nobody gets anywhere without some help. I just believe that in life. So many people helped me along the way. Jordan was a new writer in Hollywood and Lee Daniels brought him to me. This kid, I could just see the fire in his eyes. I understood what I wanted, but he made me really see. when he put it on paper, I saw the risks he wanted to take. I asked him: “You really want to do this?” We just came together as a team and I thought, “Okay, he’s 27 years old and I’m some 50-something Black woman.”

At 19, you met an army vet who inspired you to leave the street life and showed you a way out. What did he tell you that made you take a chance on yourself and your comedy?

Oh, that’s my husband. [Laughs.] I was on the streets when I met him. He said: “You never know what you can do until you try.” That was my Black national anthem. I played that same tune over and over. With so many people who turned their back on me — I was on the streets with two kids — people could not understand what the hell he wanted with me.

The Ms. Pat Show is based on a street-smart mother who ends up as a suburban mom in middle America. Since the first episode premiered last August, what has the experience been like?

My co-creator is the main writer. He just picked my life apart. I didn’t even know what nonbinary was. That’s one of the things that we explored on the show. I asked my daughter about that show. I’m 49 years old. Things have changed so much within the gay community from when I was young. We wanted to open people’s eyes to so many new things we have to get used to in order to respect people. We followed up the nonbinary episode with the discriminatory comment episode.

How do you feel about comedians getting canceled? Is it good, bad? Are you afraid of it?

I’m not afraid of it. [Laughs.] I think it’s really stupid. It’s that person’s opinion. You either like it, or you don’t. How the hell do comedians get tied up in some political bullshit? Back in the day, if this kind of shit was happening, we would have had no Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce. I’m thinking, what the hell is going on in the comedy community? When I do stuff, it’s always related to me. I have a gay daughter and she has nonbinary friends. Any issue I tackle on the show, I tackle from my point of view.

It’s hard to get a standup special on Netflix as a woman. How did you score your new special, Y’All Wanna Hear Something Crazy?

I was in Montreal at the Just For Laughs Festival when JoAnn Grigioni [Netflix’s director of standup programming] walked up to me and said, “I’m going to give you a Netflix comedy special.” I don’t think it really registered. As I left Montreal, even before the deal was closed, I started working on it. I tried to put together the best album I could. I was able to pull in Wanda Sykes.

How did you get to know Wanda Sykes?

I met her through the comedy world, I knew she produced a lot of specials, so I went to her when I got the special. I wanted somebody Black to produce the special and definitely a woman. Then we went and got Robert Townsend to direct it. One thing I love about Wanda is that we talked about the project, we stayed up late at her apartment trying to tweak it, then Robert took over. I met him once a week and had to practice four hours a day while on tour. At the time, I thought, “This stuff is the stupidest shit ever,” but once the cameras started rolling, I finally understood what Robert wanted to pull out of me.

How did you decide on the standup material?

It was an album I already had, but I tweaked it. I usually run a standup set for a year, then I write a new album. And I was in the middle of writing a whole new album when this came along. I kept working and made it better. I just got real personal about how I was raised in Atlanta, and how to introduce myself to the world. “This is me, this is where I come from.” That’s why I say in the special: “Open your eyes.”

Something you talk about in the Netflix series is “making it” in comedy. At what moment did you feel you made it as a comedian?

I don’t feel like I’ve made it. I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like I should go out and apply for a job. [Laughs.] I still have ways to go. While some people see me as world famous, I see myself on the grind, trying to get it. I feel like once you get comfortable or you get that mentality in your head that you made it, you no longer have anything to work for. I’m always going to knock myself five levels down to keep digging to the top.

How have you dealt with hecklers over the years?

I don’t have a problem with them because I will ask you to shut the fuck up. I made an episode about how a comedy club treated me. The grind is hard when you’re on tour and you have to do that as part of that step of your career. But my eye is always on the prize: I don’t care what you try to put in front of me, I stay hard and keep working until I get through it.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.