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Robert Townsend and Ms. Pat on Bill Cosby, Harriet Tubman Jokes, and ‘Hollywood Shuffle’ 35 Years Later

With her Netflix special, "Y'all Wanna Hear Something Crazy?,” Ms. Pat had a secret weapon behind the camera.

Ms. Pat: Y'all Wanna Hear Something Crazy? Ms. Pat in Ms. Pat: Y'all Wanna Hear Something Crazy? Cr. Quantrell Colbert/Netflix © 2022

“Ms. Pat: Y’all Wanna Hear Something Crazy?”

Quantrell Colbert

There are a lot of comedy specials on Netflix these days, but Ms. Pat breaks through the noise. The title doesn’t lie: In “Ms. Pat: Ya’ll Wanna Hear Something Crazy?”, the Atlanta native returns to her hometown for a boisterous and boundary-pushing barrage of jokes that put her confrontational blend of autobiography and subversive storytelling on display. While she currently puts much of her life into the BET+ series “The Ms. Pat Show,” her latest release marks her first hourlong special, and it’s a welcome encapsulation of her take-no-prisoners approach. 

The comedian has discussed her struggles for years, from the teen pregnancies that came out of an abusive relationship to the time she spent in jail. “Y’all Wanna Hear Something Crazy” attacks a broader range of subjects, from her impoverished upbringing to dog owners and her own children’s foibles. It also comes equipped with a secret weapon: Veteran filmmaker and comedian Robert Townsend directed the special and helped Pat hone her routine. 

Townsend has been at the forefront of Black comedy for decades. Thirty-five years ago, he directed Eddie Murphy in his seminal standup special “Raw,” and also released “Hollywood Shuffle,” a trenchant satire of racism in the film industry that remains potent to this day.  

The pair spoke on the phone with IndieWire about developing Ms. Pat’s comedy and how they relate to an industry that doesn’t always appreciate their work. They also shared their thoughts on touchy subjects ranging from Bill Cosby to some of the special’s riskiest punchlines.  

Pat, you stuff a lot of material into 54 minutes. How did you narrow all that down?

MS. PAT: I have to give that credit to Robert. He showed me how to maneuver and get it all there. 

ROBERT TOWNSEND: Ms. Pat has a work ethic like none other. You know, she was rehearsing in her house and working on the material and we’d go through the jokes. She has a unique, honest voice. We know it’s edgy, but there’s that touch of social commentary that the really great comedians have. So when she was doing the material and putting her twist on it, we just laughed really hard. We were just playing. She has the voice. We would just try to flesh it out and find all the nuances that makes comedy really special. 

MS. PAT: I’d never worked on material like that before. He worked with me once a week for three hours!

TOWNSEND: Yes, yes, yes. We did that for almost four months, because we lost a venue and had to push. So we would get together, then she got her own microphone, and I’d say, “Please welcome to the stage!” And then she would do a stop, and we’d do a chunk, and then stop again. We would do these three hour sessions. I’d never done that before, but it was a lot of fun, and it shows in the special. 

Pat, when did you start to realize that aspects of your youth could serve your material? At one point, you say that your family was so poor that you would lick the TV during fast food commercials. 

MS. PAT: Those are all true stories. One thing I learned from Robert was to give the crowd time to breathe so I could get more confident in the material. These were just true stories that I had. I just put them there and thread them together. I really licked the TV! Those are all true stories out of my life. I don’t make up anything. The stories just pop into my head, I craft the story, and write the material. My family knows I’m a comedian so you either take it or leave it. [laughs] I don’t have no sensitive family. We joke around. My family is more open-minded. So I joke about gay daughter, I joke about my son getting high. They know that if the material is there, I’m gonna do it. 

Robert, you’ve been directing standup for decades. How has this process changed since those early days?

TOWNSEND: I’m a student of comedy. I was there for Richard Pryor, of course Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby. The thing I’d say about Ms. Pat is that there are a lot of comedians out there but a lot of them aren’t fearless. Ms. Pat is fearless. She will go to that uncomfortable place, ride the wave, and find the funny. One time, we were on the phone, and I got emotional because she was talking about being sexually abused. And then we were laughing. You remember that, Ms. Pat?

MS. PAT: Yes, yes. 

TOWNSEND: And we had that talk. It was healing. Her humor is raw, but it’s healing, because if you go in there and say, “This is my truth,” that’s what we want from artists. Dave Chappelle has that. A lot of comedians don’t trust their instincts. We’d be working and I’d say, “Go back! Grab the mic! Do it again!” She would build on those jokes and we found all this gold. It’s been a treat for me. It’s refreshing to me when someone has that passion for comedy that a lot of people don’t have. 

MS. PAT: I’ve always been really fearless, but he did push me a lot. I would get sick of those three-hour sessions. He would come in and tag it for me. I had this joke about school shootings. He’d say, “Open your mind! There’s more there!” I’d say, “No! This don’t work.” Then he’d come back the next day and be like, “Talk about the manifesto!” And I’d go, “Oh my god, this shit is hilarious.” I’d just never worked with anybody in comedy that pushed me like that. But I’m not going to lie. I hated those three-hour sessions. But he knew how to work my ass. 

One of the more daring routines is your bit about Harriet Tubman, where you say that she wasn’t attractive. You set it up by acknowledging that the joke is likely to make people uncomfortable. Why did you feel like you had frame it that way?

MS. PAT: Yeah, Black people don’t want you to say that Harriet Tubman is unattractive. She’s a trailblazer. But I tried this bit, like, “Look, come on, she looked fucking awful.” [laughs] That was a joke I had to learn to trust. I gave it a try to listen to Robert’s response. Then I did it and it fucking worked. I asked Robert, “Is this bad stuff?” And he’d say, “Nah.” And I thought, “This is my kind of dude, because I’ll say any goddamn thing.” [laughs]

At one point, you note that there are a few white people in the audience. In general, how much do you feel like you have to be aware of a white audience for your material?

MS. PAT: I have a very large white following. They know that I’m funny, but they’re not going to catch all of this stuff. I always tell them, “Buckle up, I’m gonna take you on a negro field trip.” And so to me, that allows them to open their minds up. The Harriet Tubman bit was one that they were scared to laugh at, and over the time that I was doing it, I had to encourage them: “Hey! Laugh at the truth. Don’t worry about what these Black folks say. Y’all know Harriet’s ugly!” That don’t mean she didn’t do great things. Hell, Al Sharpton ain’t that cute, but everybody won’t say that.

TOWNSEND: This goes back to Richard Pryor. He was the one who said, “I’m going to break it down for you. If you want to go with me, we’re going to have some fun. But if you’re uptight and judging the material, you won’t.” I think because Ms. Pat is just filled with love and truth, she searches and seeks out the funny, and she finds it. That disarms the audience. There are people who go, “Oh my god, you can’t talk about that.” Like when she talks about school shootings, that shit is offensive, but that shit is also real. At a certain point, people surrender to it. That’s the key. Pryor, Redd Foxx, Lenny Bruce, Eddie Murphy — that’s the tribe. There are only a handful of people who can do that. But from the point of view of a woman of color? Nah. Nobody else can touch Ms. Pat. I’m sorry. 

On the subject of beloved comedians, I wanted to ask you both about Bill Cosby, since W. Kamau Bell’s new docuseries “We Need to Talk About Cosby” delves into his problematic legacy. Robert, you directed “Bill Cosby: Far From Finished,” his last special. How do you reconcile your relationship to him with his record of sexual assault?

Bill Cosby, "We Need to Talk About Bill Cosby"

“We Need to Talk About Cosby”

"We Need to Talk About Bill Cosby", Sundance

TOWNSEND: Let me say this. Bill Cosby is a comedy genius. Now, I watched Kamau Bell’s series. The only thing I would say is that Bill Cosby also had demons that he was dealing with. He’s always been like a father to me, so it really broke my heart. I wasn’t there. Nobody can say, “This is the truth” if they weren’t there. But something happened and it just breaks my heart because he is a comedy genius. Being a student of comedy — Richard Pryor did a certain thing, Bill Cosby did a certain thing. The reason I was talking about Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Dave Chappelle is because of edge. Pat has that edge and fearlessness times 10. Bill Cosby is a genius and, you know, my heart goes out to all those women and his family. It’s a tragedy all the way to around. 

MS. PAT: In the beginning, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor were the only the two comics that I studied. People was like, “Oh, you tell stories.” Everybody directed me to Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. That’s how I learned to tell stories. For me, he’s a comedy genius. I won’t get into all that other stuff. Like Robert said, it’s heartbreaking. But that’s how I learned how to express my world onstage. 

Robert, “Hollywood Shuffle” came out 35 years ago. That film is a scathing critique of the way the industry treats Black performers. How would say things have changed since then? 

TOWNSEND: It’s a different time in history. A lot of great things are coming about and there’s still work that needs to be done. It’s not like, “Hey, the Civil Rights movement is over! We won!” No, there’s still a lot of work that has to be done. There could be a lot more positive images. 

MS. PAT: When we were shopping my show and people didn’t understand, my co-creator would say to me, “You have to learn to fuck with people who want to fuck with you.” You want to be over there, but if over there don’t want you, you have to be over here and build a relationship with them. For me, everyone in Hollywood wants the same thing. When they get something different, it’s like, “Oh, you got that Black girl! I want that Black girl!” Well, why not take the Black girl that’s doing something different? Everybody wants the same thing. Even with the show we created, people were scared to step outside the box. Then you do that and just watch how many shows come along that try to do what “The Ms. Pat Show” does. You’re going to see other people try to go as deep as me without putting the work that me and Robert put in. Industry people don’t know what the hell what they want. 

“Hollywood Shuffle” has this great parody of “Siskel & Ebert” with two Black critics who give the movies they review the middle finger. How do you feel more generally about the way media perceives your work? 

MS. PAT: You can’t please everybody. You just put the work out there. I remember watching “Siskel & Ebert” and a lot of times, they didn’t get it right. They’d say, “Don’t go see ‘Friday,’ it’s the worst movie.” What do two fat white men know about Black people? So I went out and saw it. It became a fucking hit. Then I never listened to them. Now, I put out stuff for my fans. My people. I don’t care if my show doesn’t get nominated for an NAACP Image Award. You can’t worry about whether the industry notices you. Hell, sometimes, I walk into this house and my husband doesn’t notice me. [laughs] I don’t give a fuck about no industry. One of the reasons I wanted Robert to direct my special was that he had only done the greats. I’m not one of the greats yet. I hope one day I can be. But I watched his documentary [2019’s “Making the Five Heartbeats”] and I cried because you don’t see people with that work ethic. At one point, I thought I’d have to go over to his house, get on my knees, and beg. I knew would bring the best out of me. 

TOWNSEND: As artists, you create your art, you tell your truth, and you walk away. I think the people that love Ms. Pat go, “Wow, she opened my brain up and made me look at life through a different lens.” That’s what real art does. It’s not about social media, what people are saying, because the majority of people are so afraid that they can’t embrace it. You know, I was talking to somebody tonight about comedians. All these comedians are doing the same acts they did 20 years. They haven’t tried one new joke to wake the audience up. It’s refreshing to have somebody go, “Like me or not, I’m being true to me.” That’s who Ms. Pat is and why this special resonates. As people of color, let me just say this: We got through the darkest years, slavery and all that, with humor. It was always humor. We would go crazy without it. You’ve got to take all of that and if you don’t like that, change the channel. But I think there are more people tuning in. 

How are you both exploring new opportunities these days? 

MS. PAT: “The Ms. Pat Show” put a bug in me that I didn’t know was there. I like to create. You see how when people get hot, they throw so many movies at them, the whole world. After watching Robert’s documentary, I was like, “That’s what the fuck I want to do.” I want to put great shows on for people who like them. I don’t go to sleep. I’m always thinking about what the next thing is. I want to be in movies, but I want to be in shit that I created. I want to be Robert Townsend, Jr.!

TOWNSEND: Ah, shut up! [laughs] Look, I say no to a lot of stuff. You better love it and want to commit to it. I’ve got ideas and stuff that I’m developing that are really special. A studio picture would be nice but I’m going to tell the story the way I can tell the story. My documentary that Ms. Pat talks about — I went through hell making “The Five Heartbeats,” but I created a piece of art and the documentary takes you on that journey. Sometimes it takes the audience and the industry a minute to catch up to where my vision is. So I’m just going to continue to create stuff that I love and want to do. 

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