Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Standing before the hot lights of television cameras on March 15, Mayor Anthony A. Williams is into the hard sell of his fiscal year 2000 budget. An aide brings him a glass of water; he takes a sip and resumes his monologue. Minutes later, he takes another drink. Then he quips, “All I need now is a handkerchief.”

The room breaks into laughter—everybody understands the veiled reference to former Mayor Marion S. Barry’s habitual brow mopping. Williams, who launched the joke, doesn’t crack a smile. Without missing a beat, he returns to the drone of high-grade Fiscalese.

Tony Williams is a funny man. He of the geeky bow ties and freaky high-water pants has performed a kind of jujitsu, using his reputation as a soulless technocrat as a cloak for a completely operational sense of humor. He catches both his enemies and his friends off guard, deadpanning his way to their funny bones. An occasional twinkle in his eye is the only hint that he’s in on the joke.

“He always has that little smile on his face that says, ‘Something is fixin’ to happen,’” notes comedian and social activist Dick Gregory. “He’s real funny.”

“Not too many people have seen a technocrat who is funny. It’s kind of a dichotomy,” says the Rev. Lionel Edmonds, pastor of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church and one of the founders of the Washington Interfaith Network. “He follows the line of a professional comedian in that he will tell a joke anywhere.”

When he was the District’s chief financial officer (CFO), facing a mushrooming deficit and a small army of incompetent accountants, Williams used analogies, jokes, and satire to attack the status quo. He made the rounds to community meetings, pumping out winding, barbed stories that rendered city problems as folk tales. Like all comedians worth their laughs, when a joke worked, he repeated it, improving the timing and delivery with each re-telling. And when Williams’ people grew tired of trying to push an obstinate bureaucracy, he turned staff meetings into mordant trench warfare. It was more comedy dive than government conclave.

“I used to say we were going to have to start charging a two-drink minimum,” remembers then-Chief of Staff Norman Dong.

But his humor isn’t just darkly hued—it’s black to its core. Many have tagged Williams an honorary white person, an Ivy-invested, bow-tied bundle of majority-culture convention. That’s the view from a distance—but pull in close, and you will hear echoes of the sideshow and the backstage humor that went with it. Williams uses humor very much in the African-American tradition: as a weapon to slay his enemies, as a shield to protect himself against attack, and as an inspiration for a community to reach for the ladder’s highest rung. For a lot of black people, humor is serious business, one of the arrows in the quiver in the fight against subjugation and marginalization.

The nerdy image Williams projects is as much a part of his routine as Richard Pryor’s loud-colored suits or Moms Mabley’s worn golfer hat. The practiced, ironic effect of the bow-tied uniform is a bit of misdirection to keep others off-balance. There is a long-held tradition of smart black men who have crafted nonthreatening appearances and a shtick to match, working their way in close to the master’s house even while plotting a revolt with the field slaves.

“Black humor…focuses on outwitting the oppressor, as it were, getting over,” notes Mel Watkins, author of On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying, and Signifying—The Underground Tradition of African-American Humor That Transformed American Culture, From Slavery to Richard Pryor. More often, in Williams’ case, it’s getting through. He laughs his way through tight squeezes and controversy.

Take the scene last April when a student at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) sang a song that characterized him as the devil. Rather than getting indignant, Williams chose to disarm. “I thought she was going to sing, ‘Put him on the “Midnight Train to Georgia.”‘” The line drew significant laughs from people who were not exactly in the mood to share a joke with the mayor.

Again and again, Williams has dropped the cloak of the office and morphed into the Signifying Monkey. In black folk canon, the Signifying Monkey is cast as the protagonist, a seemingly small and weak creature who vanquishes mightier opponents by use of his constantly flapping mouth.

At UDC, where students had hoped to intimidate and embarrass the mayor, they found Williams as Signifying Monkey, who used a single line to ridicule his attacker and made it clear that the punches had missed him by a mile. What could have been a fiasco, with an antagonistic crowd and a defensive, hostile mayor, became a transaction between equals, full of laughs, shouts, and parries.

For centuries, blacks have been using subtle humor that goes off beneath the radar of the ruling class. It’s a way of laughing at the master while standing right next to him. Slaves knew that keeping their masters laughing could mean the difference between semihumane treatment and being whipped to within an inch of their lives. And so while white folks laughed, believing they understood what Tom was saying, Old Tom and his buddies were having a laugh on them.

“We couldn’t escape, so we developed a style of humor which recognized the basic artificiality [and] the irrationality of the actual arrangement,” author Ralph Ellison noted in Shadow and Act.

“For the vulnerable black minority, surreptitiousness and trickery were the principal defenses against repression, and humor played a key role in this deviousness,” writes Watkins.

Black humor had two faces—much as blacks had in mainstream society. They presented a docile image at the table serving their masters and bosses, but back in the kitchen they spat in the food. They said one thing, but meant something entirely different; only other blacks knew and understood the code.

Joking in public, they attempted to portray “blacks as naively funny and fundamentally simple-minded,” Watkins notes. Other times their public, coded humor sent a signal, much as the Negro spirituals did, to their brethren not to worry.

Behind closed doors, however, African-Americans let their true selves show and laughed heartily at them. Their private humor was more “acerbic. [It] more explicitly revealed that evasive, hidden life, a life kept under tight wraps,” notes Watkins.

“Having been so vehemently maligned and negatively stereotyped by mainstream society, blacks have been understandably wary of adding to the fire by revealing the often denigrating self-appraisals that emerge in their own humor,” he adds. The tradition continues throughout present-day black culture, including black political culture.

“With black politicians, there is a double subversion with humor as a camouflage,” says Russell Adams, chair of the Afro-American Studies Department at Howard University. The black politician uses humor to close the distance between himself and his mainstream colleagues and to present his bona fides to his constituents.

“To the black community, he’s saying, ‘I’m still highly engaged….I will tell jokes that make us family as I proceed with my action. I have not left the circle of trust,’” says Adams. “‘So, let me tell another good one.’”

“I have always been a storyteller,” Williams says during an interview in his immaculate, sterile office at One Judiciary Square. There aren’t any papers on the desk; there is nothing on the coffee table. Each object, each piece of furniture is in its place. He wears his oft-remarked bow tie, no jacket, and gray pinstripe pants.

“When I was in grade school, I told stories, and I was often beaten up,” he continues. “You would have these ‘wolf-outs.’ A wolf-out is, like, you would make fun of someone’s mother or someone in their family, or you would crack jokes.” In D.C. it’s called “jonin’” or “playin’ the dozens.”

“I would win, but then I would pay the price. Someone would challenge me to a duel. I’d be honorable and say yes, and then I would get beat up. I can think of seven or eight times that happened,” the mayor continues.

But the bruising didn’t stop him. Williams had his share of intellectual heroes from the canon. The people who really had an impact on him were performers like Bill Cosby, Redd Foxx, and Gregory—all well-known raconteurs. But mostly, his momma made him do it.

“A lot of people say there is absolutely no comparison between me and my mother. On one level there isn’t; I’m not emotionally expressive like her. But on another level, just being expressive and kind of out there, I definitely get that from her.”

For all perceptions that he is a man with a postgraduate stick up his ass, much of Williams’ humor derives from a down-home place. Take this one he learned as a youngster, at the beauty parlor with his mother. While there, he came upon this sign: “Ladies, you can have any style you want, just make sure you have enough hair….We are beauticians, not magicians.” The story could have been a feature in Pryor’s Mudbone routine.

Williams pulled out that old one during the mayoral campaign and gave it new life: to draw comparison between the expectations of some District residents and the reality of the city’s fiscal circumstances. Most blacks hearing it fell out laughing. The beauty parlor miracle is an old reliable saw in black culture, but it leaves many whites scratching their heads and wondering what’s so damn funny.

Adams says Williams has managed to find laughs in a rare middle place. There is a half-white, half-black drollery to Williams. “He can go both ways,” notes Edmonds. But he always heads back to his roots, which are black, working-class, and full of family legend.

When it looked like the tax cutters might come after the children’s initiatives he held so dear, he invoked his aunt’s couch. It seems that the aunt had plastic over everything in her parlor: the couch, the chairs, and the carpet. Children were not permitted in the room, to say nothing of touching anything—even the plastic. By invoking chairs that can never be sat on, Williams compressed the distance between the Princeton grad who happened to be running a city and the people he was talking to.

Much more has been made of the mayor’s tendency to adopt tortuous metaphors. “People say there is a lot of airplane stuff. But there really isn’t. There’s more of a historical and/or transportation bent to them. There’s a lot of sports stuff, too,” Williams says. Hearing himself, he suddenly spouts, “Sports for 50; Transportation for 80,” transforming himself into a game show contestant without breaking rhythm. That anyone would accuse Williams of having rhythm seems in itself a joke, especially when compared with his predecessor, who danced the Electric Slide as if born to it.

“It’s not that I’m arrhythmic. I know what rhythm is. That’s the same thing with delivery. Timing is all-important—your expression, your timing,” he asserts. As an example of what timing can do to make information digestible and laugh-worthy, he pulls out one of his more reliable routines:

“There’s this one I keep peddling, and everybody laughs at it. I say, ‘We have gone farther and faster than any other city. We’ve taken this city from a deep-below-grade, sub-basement, junk-bond rating, and we’ve brought it to a premier, blue-chip, a No. 1…”—he pauses here, allowing the listener to fill in his own drum roll—”junk-bond rating.”

“Everybody cracks up,” he says. “And then you don’t laugh at it. You just stand there expressionless.”

It’s the flat look on his face when he has finished a joke that baffles everyone. Sometimes, people aren’t even sure they should laugh. “It goes over everyone’s head. But then, suddenly there is this laughter coming from the back, moving its way to the front of the room,” says Dorothy Brizill, a civic activist who has attended many mayoral events.

“A lot of humor is juxtaposing irony and satire, comparing something elaborate to something very simple; it makes it look as foolish as it is,” Williams says.

Not everyone is bowled over by the mayor’s sense of humor—or at least his choice of comedic venues. Consider the controversy over his joke earlier this year at the National Press Club. When questioned about his reaction to the racially charged atmosphere in which he found himself and the article that had just appeared in the Washington Post asking whether he was “black enough,” Williams reached for a joke both to defend himself and to poke fun at his adversaries:

“I just bought some Berlitz tapes; I’m practicing my pronunciation of ‘yo,’” he said.

Some blacks were appalled. Williams had violated the coded, nuanced nature of the tradition: He seemed to be making fun of himself at the expense of others. In doing so, he had crossed an invisible, treacherous line.

“It was a good joke. But it was bad timing. It was like he was telling a family secret,” says Edmonds, explaining the reaction. “Pryor could be in a white audience and tell a joke like that. When he does it, it’s a different kind of crossover. It’s acceptable.

“But for some people, the mayor hasn’t proven himself as being black enough, yet, to cross over and be accepted,” Edmonds adds.

“The criticism was unfair,” Williams says. “If I had made the same kind of joke about my dancing or lack of it, no one would have said anything. What’s the difference? I don’t dance hip. I don’t talk hip. I don’t do anything hip. Everybody knows that, and I was just trying to make fun of it. It’s a caricature.”

Harry Jaffe, co-author, with Tom Sherwood, of Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C., says Williams, whom he describes as a cross between Chris Rock and Henny Youngman, is up against his history as a man who slashed hundreds of people from the payroll when he tries to go black. “People are saying, ‘Ha, fucking ha. You took my job, motherfucker; that ain’t funny,’” argues Jaffe.

But mayoral spokesperson Peggy Armstrong suggests that familiarity will overcome contempt. “I think it’s still part of coming to know him.”

Residents knew Barry and had some laughs with him along with the tears of disappointment. He was funny, but less deliberate. Often he stumbled into laughter, much as Kingfish did on Amos ‘N’ Andy. Caught doing some weird shit, he invariably offered an outlandish excuse for his behavior. Remember when Barry was caught standing out in front of a young woman’s house in a jogging suit? Barry explained that he was actually there to meet her son. All anyone could do was laugh.

“Folks were entertained by his bad behavior. Barry was so raw, folks identified with his raunchiness,” says Adams. But Williams creates a different expectation and was elected in part as an expression of an increasingly conservative black middle class. Blacks are now part of the mainstream. They are concerned about the image they project. And, while they don’t mind being joked with, they will not tolerate being laughed at.

Not long after the uproar over the Berlitz remark, a couple of Williams aides urged him to refrain from any more racial jokes. He refused, saying humor is far too effective to rule out. Plus, Williams understands better than most the unifying characteristic of the African-American humor tradition.

“To understand laughter we must put it back into its natural environment, which is society, and above all we must determine the utility of its function, which is a social one,” wrote Henri Bergson, author of Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic.

Williams’ chief of staff, Abdusalam Omer, suggests that if you removed Williams’ funny bone, the rest of the package might not fit together:

“He’s a hard-charging guy; if he didn’t have that sense of humor, he would be tough to deal with.” CP