Harland Williams is one odd duck. At least that's the impression I used to have of him after watching him in movies like Half Baked and RocketMan and catching his interviews on late night talk shows. That's okay, I like odd. After sitting through his unorthodox comedy special A Force of Nature, I'd like to amend my earlier statement. Harland Williams is one seriously odd duck...and not the kind of odd that I like.
It's impossible to proceed without first addressing Williams' choice of venue since it is the foundation on which he builds his act. In a rather ballsy move, Williams takes his audience out of the picture by performing his entire set on a hilltop in the middle of the desert. Yeah, you read that right. There is no stage, no production value to speak of and most importantly (without an audience) no give and take. It's just Williams effectively delivering a monologue to nobody in particular (unless you count a few low-flying planes, a wild dog and an increasingly distraught tortoise). I suppose he's talking to us, the audience at home. The problem is, just a few minutes in, I was wishing he would stop.
The unusual setting is certainly a game-changer but once you get past it and start paying attention to what Williams is actually saying, the unfortunate truth becomes abundantly clear. This is some of the sloppiest, weakest stand-up material I've ever seen. Williams tries to butter us up by saying that he has faith in our ability to know when to laugh without relying on the cues of a live audience. What he forgets to say is that he will strongly test that ability by burying the occasional funny one-liner under piles and piles of nonsensical rubbish. If he was shooting for Dadaist absurdity, he failed.
I remember exactly one instance in the entire special when I actually laughed as Williams rattled off a series of non-sequiturs. All of his other material just fell flat. He briefly tried to impose some order by charting the circle of life but abandoned that just as quickly in order to yell at a crow that was apparently heckling him. From there he moved on to other classic bits where he used a cinnamon shaker as a prop and then turned around and relieved himself so that we could watch a rivulet of urine come dangerously close to the tortoise I mentioned earlier. I don't care if the pee was fake because the look of horror on the tortoise's face was very real. Oh, and Williams also humped the very hill he was standing on.
I have scribbled down additional notes about other failed jokes but there's no sense in dwelling on them. Instead, I'd like to tackle the very core of Williams' premise; the suggestion that he doesn't need an audience to make his act work. With something like a sitcom, I might agree. There are plenty of shows without laugh tracks these days and they do just fine for themselves because they actually have stories to tell and character interaction to build upon. A stand-up act, on the other hand, thrives on the give and take between the storyteller and an engaged audience. Take out the audience and you end up with an equation that does not balance. Williams doesn't have material strong enough to qualify as some sort of demented performance artist, nor does he have a crowd with which to calibrate his act and fill in laughs where there are none. Here, he just looks like a fool on a hill.