The lights go dim inside Oswald's on the corner of Decatur and Esplanade as a single spotlight comes up on Walter Williams, who stands alone on-stage next to a large screen. In the back of the standing-room-only theater, proprietor Harry Anderson talks to Williams over the crowd as they attempt to coordinate the opening of Williams' first one-man show, which mixes stand-up comedy by Williams, video clips of his irrepressible 1970s clay character, Mr. Bill, and some serious commentary about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Things are not going well at the outset, however. There are, well, technical difficulties. Williams punches a remote repeatedly as he tries to work through the glitches. The audience is left to wonder if this is really a glitch or just part of the act, sort of like life imitating art, or Walter imitating Mr. Bill.
Williams and Anderson appear to get it together as the screen fills with the first frame of a video.
Ohh, nooooo! It's the wrong video -- not Mr. Bill but the opening of Williams' documentary on the natural history of New Orleans. By this time, both Williams and Anderson are starting to get testy, but still it's not altogether clear whether they've crafted this all along or they're having a real-life Mr. Bill Moment. Through more glitches, both Williams and Anderson improvise with enough wisecracks to make it all seem like part of the act.
Finally, the computer gods and planets align and the first video appears. It's Mr. Bill in front of a FEMA trailer with his trusty dog Spot. The audience roars with approval and laughter as Mr. Hands, the contractor, and the insurance adjuster from Sluggo of Omaha ("Expiration date: yesterday") hook up Mr. Bill's trailer against his will and drag him -- flailing wildly -- all over town to his new location. Of course, by the time Mr. Bill arrives at his destination, he is smashed, burned and otherwise abused ... and the audience can definitely relate. The applause and laughter raise the roof.
Now comes the eerie part: the clip was not something Williams made to spoof post-Katrina life in south Louisiana; it actually was shot in 1979 as a regular installment of Saturday Night Live (SNL), which launched Mr. Bill to international fame three years before that.
But that's the real magic -- and appeal -- of Mr. Bill. He never goes out of style.
And sometimes he's way ahead of the curve, in ways that are humorous and poignant all at once.
Take, for example, the Mr. Bill public service announcement that aired more than a year before Katrina. It featured Mr. Bill in his coastal Louisiana home as "Hurricane Sluggo" approached. The sketch ends with Mr. Bill getting washed away by the storm as he shrieks his trademark "Ohh, nooooo!" When the spot first aired, it was an ominous prediction -- uttered in a vacuum. Seen now, it's starkly prophetic. Williams included it in his Oswald's show, to thunderous applause.
THE NEXT DAY, WILLIAMS IS SITTING IN A French Quarter courtyard sipping coffee and talking serious. He's gearing up for his next one-man show of sorts -- he'll reign as king of Krewe du Vieux this Saturday night (Feb. 11). He can't wait.
The irreverent marching krewe touts Williams as the perfect choice to be this year's monarch. "When you're born and raised with the specter of the big one hanging over you, you learn how to handle disaster," the krewe writes in its annual newsletter. "Even getting torn limb from limb becomes routine.
"You just pick up the pieces and move on. Do it well enough, and you get to be King."
Indeed, the krewe's 2006 theme -- "C'est Levee" -- reflects perfectly, if darkly, the themes in Williams' 2004-05 series of public service announcements featuring Mr. Bill as the spokesman for saving Louisiana's fragile wetlands. Williams donated use of Mr. Bill and co-created nine other characters in the PSAs to the nonprofit America's Wetland organization, which strives to educate the nation on the importance of saving the coast.
"I don't really know anybody in the krewe," Williams says. "They just had a meeting and somebody suggested me as the king, which I really appreciate. Normally I'm not really into public exhibition."
The former SNL contributor and writer admits that the show's producers once tried to get him to go on the air without a shirt, but the bashful Williams "just couldn't do it."
"I have to admit that when the Krewe du Vieux asked me to be king, I wasn't sure -- but my mom gave it the green light. She told me not to worry about stepping on toes. It's great to have a mom who's as irreverent as I am."
It's also a great opportunity for Williams and Mr. Bill to showcase their efforts on behalf of America's Wetland and New Orleans. Of course, he brings his wry wit to the throne as well: "I've managed to keep beheadings to a minimum during my reign."
Truth be told, Williams is deadly serious about several things these days. For starters, he'll have a killer costume for Saturday's parade -- a shiny ensemble featuring a clarinet through his head -- and he'll be playing his clarinet, which he also plays in the annual Ste. Anne's parade on Mardi Gras morning. Williams, who has dubbed himself "King Clarineticus," will ride a float with his "consort," colleague Katy Bowen, who doubles as co-producer and editor ("and she's really good at making extra Mr. Bills"). Bowen also created the "Estuarians" -- the nine characters featured in the Mr. Bill PSAs that Williams created for the America's Wetland campaign.
And, of course, Mr. Bill will be part of the krewe as well, marching with "the floozies" and making a few humorous but pointed statements of his own.
In addition to the wetlands cause, Williams continues to make a series of mini-documentaries on the city's recovery efforts. They are powerful, deep and moving -- not what you'd expect at www.mrbill.com, but well worth the visit -- and they offer a rare glimpse into the serious side of Mr. Bill's 52-year-old creator. Three decades after he shot his first 8-mm film featuring the tragi-comic clay character for less than $20, Williams brings the same off-center-but-keenly-insightful vision to everything he does.
Which should make this week's "Saturday night live" performance one that's not to be missed.
A CONVERSATAION WITH WILLIAMS CAN GO anywhere, and usually does. He will lace pieces of history, pop culture, politics and science into what is at once a meandering monologue and a seamless soliloquy.
He starts this one, between sips of coffee, with a few political observations.
"Mayor Nagin definitely has the Mr. Bill factor going for him in terms of timing and bad luck. If Mr. Bill had run for mayor, he would have gotten elected Aug. 27 -- two days before the storm. That's the kind of disastrous luck Nagin has had."
Williams has no kind words for Congress and President Bush, either: "They're just letting New Orleans dangle now. It's pathetic. Bush says Louisiana has no plan, but that's what he said about our wetlands, too. The $14 billion investment to restore the wetlands? That sure sounds like a plan to me. It also sounds like a real bargain now."
Williams has done his homework on the science as well as the politics of wetlands restoration and hurricane protection. "Yeah, we gotta do levees," he says, echoing this year's theme of the Krewe du Vieux. "But we still have to do the wetlands. Levees should be our last line of defense, not our first line of defense. We need to think of wetlands as squashed-out levees. They protect us from storm surges just as levees do, but they do it by spreading the surge out over a much larger area, instead of just standing there holding it back.
"Historically," he continues, "the lake never flooded the city because there were so many wetlands to the north and east of the old city. We always worried about the Mississippi River flooding."
He shifts gears now, going back to Bush and Congress: "And $250 million to fix the wetlands? That's a joke. That's just enough to hire some FEMA sub-contractor who will send us a bill for $250 million for 'services rendered.' It's a joke!"
Williams donated the use of Mr. Bill to the America's Wetland cause several years ago, and coastal protection has become one of his passions ever since. Mr. Bill appeared in Mardi Gras parades last year along with "the Estuarians," a set of clay swamp characters that include an alligator, a snake, a dolphin, a pelican, a raccoon, a shrimp and others. Each is featured with Mr. Bill in a short video designed to teach as well as entertain children and adults about coastal erosion.
"I let them use Mr. Bill for free -- as long as there was no corporate involvement," says Williams, hinting at "the controversy" to come.
Williams, who has gone to court before to protect the integrity of his clay icon, has a written contract with the America's Wetland organization setting forth his insistence that Mr. Bill not be co-opted for corporate self-promotion -- at least, not without his approval.
Things went well for a few months. He shot 10 PSAs in south Louisiana featuring Mr. Bill and the Estuarians, and they were gaining local as well as national notice.
Then, one day last year, he was invited to a news conference with Mr. Bill and Gov. Kathleen Blanco. He didn't know until shortly beforehand that the purpose of the news conference was to announce that Shell Oil Co. had signed on as a top source of funding for the America's Wetland campaign. He put his foot down, figuratively speaking, right on top of Mr. Bill. "My position was clear: No Mr. Bill if there's any corporate involvement."
That dust-up passed without incident, and Williams assumed that, going forward, everyone knew the rules for Mr. Bill's participation. Just like Mr. Bill, however, Williams' expectations were quashed. Last June, a series of informational kiosks featuring the Mr. Bill videos appeared all over the state -- with Shell Oil logos all over the kiosks. Williams blew a gasket.
"It looked like Shell had bought the use of Mr. Bill," Williams says, noting that oil companies dug and dredged canals across south Louisiana for decades and therefore share some of the blame for the state's coastal erosion problems. "I told them, you can have either Shell or Mr. Bill, but not both. If Shell really wanted to help, they wouldn't use this as a PR tool."
Williams announced that he was pulling Mr. Bill out of the campaign, although he allowed America's Wetland to continue showing his PSAs on television and as educational tools -- without corporate sponsorship. "I did something for free to try to help save the wetlands. I donated my time, my character and even my own money to make some of the videos, and now Shell was using Mr. Bill and the campaign to make themselves look like a green company. That's just not what I'm about in all of this. It was a Shell marketing ploy."
Among other things, Williams demanded the return of a life-size Mr. Bill costume -- both to protect his intellectual property rights and to get a little revenge on Shell. The character will be marching in the Krewe du Vieux parade and has made several appearances against Shell's proposed "open loop" liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities off the Louisiana coast. Opponents of the controversial LNG technology say it kills way too many fish and microscopic marine life, which is essential to the ocean's food chain. "The Mr. Bill character is now being used as a protester against Shell and its open loop LNG wells," Williams says proudly. "He'll be appearing in Houston on Feb. 8 in a protest parade in front of the Shell offices there."
Shell donated $800,000 to the America's Wetland campaign, and a company spokeswoman said last June that the company respects Williams' right to pull Mr. Bill from the campaign. She added that Shell would "continue its strong partnership" with the campaign. The campaign has taken on other corporate sponsors in its efforts to spread the word about Louisiana's coastal losses.
Although his decision to pull out of the campaign left him "looking like the bad guy," Williams has no regrets. In fact, it underscored his status as an iconoclast -- which further endeared him to his subjects in Krewe du Vieux. The krewe's 2006 newsletter describes Williams as "a man of many breaches" and notes that Mr. Bill "is a single metaphor for the disaster that has befallen New Orleans as well as our ability to rise back up from the mud."
WILLIAMS DIVIDES HIS TIME FAIRLY EVENLY between New Orleans and California's giant sequoia forests, where he retreats "in total isolation ... to focus on work and to detox." He says he draws inspiration in New Orleans but gets his work done in California. He also harbors a darkly humorous vision of his own end, which he attributes to New Orleans' unique world-view.
"Somewhere in California, near my home, there's a giant sequoia with my name on it. It's just gonna fall on me one day and squash me," he predicts.
That, of course, would be a very "Mr. Bill-like" ending. We could almost write the headlines -- and the story -- right now.
"Or, maybe a bear will get me."
When told that grizzly bears are said to be the only predators on earth that don't bother to kill their prey before they start eating them, he seems only mildly distracted.
"I guess it all comes from growing up in New Orleans," he says. "This city definitely has a unique humor, a kind of gallows humor. It's more carefree than any other place in the country.
"It's actually kinda hard working here," he continues. "People here just don't show up for lunch or for a meeting sometimes. In New York or L.A., you set up appointments months in advance and when the meeting's over, you know where you've been and where you're going. Everything is certain and plotted out. Here, you could wind up going anywhere. The culture here is just more conducive to being creative. It's looser. Jazz couldn't have happened anywhere else in America. It had to start here."
Wait a minute. How did we go from a giant sequoia falling on top of him to the roots of jazz in 30 seconds?
For Williams, it's all connected and perfectly logical, if not linear. Then again, this is the guy who evacuated to New Orleans during Hurricane Rita -- after failing to get here in time for Hurricane Katrina.
"I was coming back home to work on a series of films for the Historic New Orleans Collection," he begins. "I got to Flagstaff and saw the news about Katrina coming, then watched as it turned slightly east at the last minute. I said, 'Holy shit -- it missed! We dodged another bullet.'
"Then the breach occurred. I went back to California and couldn't reach anybody back here. All the phones were down, and I was just sitting at home watching it happen. I kept my car packed because I knew I would come back to New Orleans. I finally reached a friend in Metairie who offered me a place to stay, so I started back down again. I got to Dallas -- and then Rita came!
"This time I just kept on coming. I got to Baton Rouge the day before Rita and stayed until the day of Rita, and by then there was no way out. So, I evacuated into New Orleans. I was the only car on the highway heading east. I remember thinking, 'If I die in this hurricane, I'm gonna be really embarrassed.'"
Mother Nature plays some cruel tricks, but she would never let Williams meet such an ignominious end.
She may have a giant sequoia waiting for him, or a bear, but definitely not a hurricane. At least, not this time.
AS UBIQUITOUS AS MR. BILL CAN BE, AND AS much as Williams revels in the character's success, he is immersed in several serious projects these days. In addition to his PSAs for the wetlands, he also is making a series of documentaries for the Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC), each of which ties into an exhibit at the collection, and he's documenting various stages of New Orleans' recovery -- or attempted recovery -- after Katrina.
He speaks intently about his documentaries for the HNOC, as if he can't wait for the world to see his more serious side.
Williams has already completed one HNOC documentary on the city's natural history and another on the Battle of New Orleans -- the latter of which corresponds to the Collection's current exhibit -- and he's in the final stages of a third on the city's 19th century free people of color. That one is due to debut with the HNOC's exhibit on the same subject on March 14.
"This city has given more to the United States than any other city in history," he proclaims. "People don't realize, for example, just how important the Battle of New Orleans was. They make jokes about how it 'missed' the War of 1812. The truth is, it didn't miss the war at all. The treaty had been negotiated, but neither country had ratified it. If the British had won, Britain would have disavowed the treaty and controlled not only Louisiana but all of the Mississippi Valley by virtue of controlling the port of New Orleans. And the whole westward expansion of America wouldn't have happened. It was fueled by America taking and keeping the port and the Mississippi River."
Shifting gears to his previous documentary on the city's natural history, he notes that New Orleans is "the geographic connecting point between the tip of Bayou St. John -- the old Indian portage -- and the Mississippi River, which means this is the only place the city could have been built. The Old Portage from the Mississippi River to Bayou St. John to Lake Pontchartrain connected the New World to the Old World. Where else could we have been built?"
This is important information today, because some in Washington wonder if New Orleans is worth rebuilding. That relates back to Williams' continuing series of video vignettes about the city post-Katrina, which he streams online at www.mrbill.com. "It's like my own little TV station -- only I don't make any money on it. But, it is a great opportunity for me to talk about what's going on here, not just bitching but really showing what's going on."
Ultimately, Williams hopes to make four major documentaries about the city's history. They will focus on its natural history, its social history, its political history and its cultural history.
A 20-minute version of his 2001 natural history documentary (the full-length, one-hour version ran on PBS) was picked up by, of all people, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It also was used by the America's Wetland campaign, and that led to the group asking Williams to lend Mr. Bill to the cause. He obliged.
One of the ensuing PSAs, like Mr. Bill's 1979 trailer episode, turned out to be particularly prescient: the one that showed Mr. Bill stuck in rising water as the doomsday storm approaches coastal Louisiana.
"Gee, kids, I'm not sure we can do our show today because it looks like Hurricane Sluggo is headed right for us here in America's wetlands," Mr. Bill says.
"That's right, Mr. Bill," Williams adds off-camera. "And since New Orleans is below sea level, if a hurricane hit us directly, it could push the water over the levees and fill it to the top."
The PSA shows Mr. Hands placing Mr. Bill atop his house, where the rising water ultimately washes the clay hero away.
Williams concludes with the warning: "Let's act now before it's too late."
That PSA ran locally and on CNN in May 2004. So, when President Bush said last September, not long after Katrina swamped the city, "I don't think anyone could have anticipated the breach of the levees," he was dead wrong. Louisiana's U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu took to the Senate floor and answered: "How can it be that Mr. Bill was better informed than Mr. Bush?"
Williams included his abbreviated natural history documentary in his Oswald's performance -- a bold move for a guy doing his first live stand-up act. "I wasn't sure about including something so serious in a comedy routine," he says the next day.
It worked fine. In fact, the audience loved it. It affirmed the city's importance as well as its resiliency.
Like Mr. Bill -- and Williams -- we keep coming back.