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The real-life struggles that The Ms. Pat Show draws its material from seem more ripe for a gritty, sobering drama than broad, punchline-driven comedy.
Poverty. Drug addiction. Childhood abuse. A criminal past. It doesn’t exactly scream out laugh-a-minute.
But its star, Patricia “Ms. Pat” Williams, long ago found that using comedy to plow through life’s pain was the key to her success. Not only has her approach resulted in a sitcom that’s a fledgling hit on BET+, it has transformed her as well: “Comedy has healed me so much.”
Unlike most sitcoms, this one is firmly anchored around the stand-up comic’s unlikely rise from society’s margins to attain the American dream. In real life and on TV, Ms. Pat is no stereotypical TV mom. Think Roseanne of the 1980s and 1990s, but even rawer. The show, which kicked off its second season Aug. 11 and has a third on the way, is built around her real-life journey from Atlanta’s rough streets to living in suburban Indiana with her family. At age 50, she is back in Atlanta and thriving.
“One of the things about putting this type of mom on TV for the first time in a sitcom is, I tell you I’m a convicted felon,” Ms. Pat, whose language is peppered with curses and N-words, says to The Hollywood Reporter. “I tell you, I made a lot of mistakes. And I think that’s what people relate to.”
By age 15, the Atlanta native, nicknamed “Rabbit,” had two kids fathered by a married man. She was also a drug dealer. Plus, she was shot twice — once in the nipple, the other in the back of her head. The one-time welfare recipient got her start in comedy on the recommendation of her caseworker and never looked back. Meeting her husband, who worked at an auto plant, also changed her life. When the plant closed, the family relocated to Indiana.
For TV, she replicated her family with characters including loving husband Terry (J. Bernard Calloway); their woke teenage daughter Janelle (Briyana Guadalupe) and awkward teen son Junebug (Theodore Barnes); her grown, basement-dwelling slacker son Brandon (Vince Swann); her recovering drug addict sister Denise (well-known Basketball Wives reality star Tami Roman owns the role of the quirky but lovable character with a penchant for fun-colored wigs); and lesbian daughter Ashley (Brittany Inge from Lena Waithe’s Boomerang), who lives elsewhere but pops in from time to time. Collectively, they help the star bring laughs that also cut deep, exploring trauma fueled by childhood neglect, molestation and racism while trying to break generational cycles of dysfunction.
Anchoring Ms. Pat in her actual life is a move she credits to co-creator showrunner Jordan E. Cooper. Working with Cooper, who cut his teeth on the Fox drama Star from Ms. Pat producer Lee Daniels, varied greatly from the five years of development she endured prior.
“What made Jordan the right fit,” she explains, “is he listens. He also did a lot of research. He felt like my life was so interesting that we didn’t have to do much but pull from it. A lot of times when you’re creating a show for a network, they go in and they let these writers drive the story when a lot of times all they had to do was listen to the talent.”
“Honestly, I think the kid became Ms. Pat,” quips Ms. Pat about the showrunner. “All he was missing was a wig and a dress. So I say he became me because sometimes those scripts would come in and I was like, ‘Dang, it almost felt like I wrote this,’ especially the pilot. It was in such good shape with the whole [setting on] the plane and me sitting [there] having a conversation with that white lady [about my life]. All of that was stories I had in me that I couldn’t get other people to put down on paper for me.”
There’s a cynicism and outspokenness to Ms. Pat on- and offscreen that some, including Cooper, liken to iconic TV character Archie Bunker. When they first met, the stand-up comic says Cooper, who idolizes All in the Family creator Norman Lear, even told her “you ain’t nothing but an Archie Bunker with [breasts] and you’re Black.” To their amazement, Lear, who turned 100 in July, also agreed. After viewing the show’s pilot last year, the iconoclast confessed that decades ago he wanted to do with All in the Family what The Ms. Pat Show is doing, but the network wouldn’t let him.
Even more unexpected, Lear sent her and Cooper a video telling them how much he enjoys the show. “That meant a lot to Jordan and that also meant a lot to me because here we are trying to do something different [that’s] never been done before and the king of sitcoms said, ‘Y’all on the right track,’” she smiles.
While the first season outlined Ms. Pat’s past and present, the second season, streaming now, is about healing, she says. In it, the sisters are working their way back to each other after falling out over Denise possibly introducing Pat’s son Junebug to vices that marred their childhoods and early adulthood. The 10 episodes explore a myriad of issues, including death, lingering trauma from childhood molestation and an older woman’s perspective on abortion, while still being laugh-out-loud funny.
Because humor changed her life personally as well as professionally, Ms. Pat, who co-hosts The Big Tigger Morning Show on Atlanta radio and still does stand-up (find her special Ms. Pat: Y’all Wanna Hear Something Crazy? on Netflix), believes it can do the same for others. “I didn’t realize how angry and lonely I was until I became a comedian. And I didn’t realize that there’s so many people out there like me [back then].”
That healing, she shares, is manifested in the show’s first Emmy nomination for outstanding directing for the “Baby Daddy Groundhog Day” episode helmed by veteran director Mary Lou Belli. “That story was true to my life with my kids’ father,” she marvels. “It’s big for me because, [after] that episode, I remember riding in my car crying, and it felt like I had finally won.
“That was such an abusive relationship for me. I met him when I was 12, and he was 22,” she continues. “He was married. He shot me. I went through a lot with this guy and to see me tell my story on my own TV show and to watch it get nominated for an Emmy — hey, you can’t never say what ain’t gon’ happen.”
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