Timmy Williams, 28, is one-fifth of The Whitest Kids U'Know, a New York-based comedy troupe he joined as a college student in 2001.
PORTLAND — Timmy Williams has a glass-front chicken brooder in one corner of his living room and a rabbit in a cage in another. The guest room is dominated by a table full of just-sprouted lettuce, broccoli, spinach and kale soaking up grow-light. And the fridge in the step-in kitchen holds his own home-brewed ginger beer, along with a freshly made pumpkin pie. He's particularly proud of the pie.
"I'm trying to prove," Williams says, "that you can be bad-ass AND bake."
Which is funny. And explains why the shelf by the TV includes at least one boxed set of DVDs with Williams' picture on its cover.
The newest urban farmer in Rose City is also a TV star. Williams, 28, is one-fifth of The Whitest Kids U'Know, a New York-based comedy troupe he joined as a college student in 2001.
The group is still together, and Williams will soon rejoin his mates to write and shoot their show's fifth season. But he won't be away for long: Portland's relaxed pace, and the balance between funky oddities, cosmopolitan culture and the balm of nature, won him and his wife Kristin, 30, over for good. "We want to grow our own food, raise our own animals and make stuff on our own. We've already made our own cheese, our own pickles and pizza dough."
Along the way he's making himself into what may be an entirely new breed.
"I want to be a comedian-farmer."
Sitting at his small kitchen table, a glass of homemade ginger beer in one hand and a frequently ringing cell phone in the other, Williams describes his plans with a kind of electric enthusiasm. His cheeks flush with excitement, his already-boyish voice climbs to keep up with his excitement.
Forget the intricacies of showbiz for a moment and tune into what's really cool: the secondhand chicken coop outside that will house the four growing hens (all named for the other Whitest Kids, despite the obvious gender discrepancy). Soon the ragged back lawn in their Rose City bungalow will be plowed under to make room for lines of lettuce, broccoli and other leafy greens that will prepare the land for subsequent seasons of potatoes, carrots, cucumbers and who knows what all.
If they can turn their ordinary-sized backyard (about a tenth of an acre, Williams estimates) into a minifarm productive enough to feed themselves, Williams and Kristin will head further from town for a larger spread where they can produce crops large enough to send to market.
"And I keep thinking about building a stage, too. In the summer we could have outdoor comedy festivals!"
Meanwhile, Timmy and Kristin — she's training to be an electrician — are already eager adopters of the do-it-yourself life. Kristin makes her own pickles. Their homemade pizza is entirely handmade, from the dough to the cheese. Nothing TV-glam about that.
But then again, when Williams went to Hollywood last month to help his troupe-mates present a trophy at the Independent Spirit Awards he ended up in the hospital — no DIY here — felled by a fired-up appendix. Too sick to stand onstage, he spent the show in the front row. Just beyond the grasp of the spotlights and not unhappy to be there, it seems.
Everything comes with a context, and for Williams a lot of it stems from his childhood in South Dakota, where his dad sold used cars and his mom worked as a teacher. The oldest of six kids, Williams studied English for a year at a small Catholic university, then in the late summer of 2001 transferred to Brooklyn College in New York to pursue his deepening interest in film and writing.
Williams had been in school for a week or two when he learned, in the middle of a class lecture one Tuesday morning, that the entire university would shut down for the foreseeable future. It was Sept. 11, just after 9 a.m. The safest place to go after the twin towers were struck, everyone agreed, was back to their rooms.
Williams' dorm was in Brooklyn Heights, just across the East River from the World Trade Center. Other kids were in the hall, Williams introduced himself, and after a few hours learned he had something in common with the four guys around him. They all were comedy fans toying with the idea of starting their own performance troupe. In the shadow of a nightmare, a bright idea emerged. The Whitest Kids U'Know were formed.
First no one cared, but the crew kept writing, and soon drew a regular crowd to weekly performances at a downtown nightclub. A manager came onboard after another year or two, and then another agent who helped broker their step toward television. Eventually they sold a pilot to the Fuse channel, which aired their first few dozen shows. Later they moved up to their current home on IFC.
The group's pieces trend toward outlandish characters and comic takes on certain grim chapters in history. Perhaps the troupe's best-known sketch is the one depicting the Lincoln assassination as a well-deserved response to a long burst of incredibly profane presidential heckling during a performance of "Hamlet."
So maybe the Whitest Kids can get a trifle dark. But so runs the comedian's creative headwaters, particularly in this age of unrelenting threats, violence and economic turmoil. In another era the Kids might be far more famous, and certainly better paid. He could have his bigger piece of land right now, for instance. But Williams shrugs it off. He already has what he needs. And he'll learn how to make the rest.
Now he enjoys getting to know his neighbors, most of whom are retired, some since before Williams was born. Consider the 90-year-old guy down the street. Williams loves that guy.
"He has an amazing garden."
And when Portland beckons he explores the hot spots everyone talks about. Voodoo Doughnut; the Bagdad Theater; Powell's Books, and more. Williams appears in local comedy shows when someone asks, and most often he prefers to take the bus into town, saving money and gas even as he's tracking the odd characters and absorbing their thoughts and sometimes unexpected actions.
"It's definitely a quirky town," he says.
He takes comfort in the buzz of humanity. He keeps an ear out for material. And when it comes he collects it, gently, and holds on. It's all material, you see. And like any committed do-it-yourselfer, Williams can make something out of nearly anything.