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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

‘Love, Create, Serve’

Ten insights into Matt Williams’ new memoir

This time last winter, Matt Williams stood at a podium at the University of Evansville Theatre Department’s John David Lutz Theatre Lab, reading excerpts from his unfinished memoir for a captive audience of family and friends.

“Glimpses” cover provided by Simon & Schuster via Heed Public Relations

Now, that memoir is finished and on retailers’ shelves across the country. “Glimpses: A Comedy Writer’s Take on Life, Love, and All That Spiritual Stuff” details Williams’ trajectory from his childhood in Evansville to building a successful career as a screenwriter and showrunner of “Roseanne” and “Home Improvement,” among other TV shows and films. Now, Williams explores the open terrain of the third chapter of his life — a journey that has brought him closer to God and his true self.

“That was the whole point, to be as vulnerable and honest as possible,” Williams told Evansville Living on Feb. 16, a day before signing copies of his book for a supportive hometown crowd at Barnes & Noble. Here are 10 insights into “Glimpses.”

It began as a project to document life stories and reconnect with his true self.

Williams — who grew up as Mark but changed his first name when registering with the Screen Actor’s Guild in the 1970s — says his memoir is written as “far more Mark than Matt.”

“I write about Matt almost in a disconnected way, because Mark is from Evansville, and Mark experienced this, and Mark went to Hollywood. He just happened to change his name to Matt,” he says.

As such, the memoir helped Williams answer questions about his purpose in life.

“I am a storyteller. I have been my whole life. That’s my definite major purpose, to tell stories,” he says. “At the beginning of the book, it says, ‘Love, create, serve.’ I really believe that all of our purposes is to love — love God, love ourselves, love others — to create something, and then give that something away in service to others.”

Readers, then, won’t be surprised to learn that Williams is donating all proceeds from the sale of “Glimpses” to charity.

Four organizations will benefit. Many Hopes helps children in Africa and Latin America who have been enslaved or otherwise experience injustice or poverty. Hearts United with Haiti runs an orphanage, community center, and school in Haiti that Williams helped build and assists Haitians with financial, prayer, emotional, and spiritual support. Love Does is Bob Goff’s organization seeking justice for children in need through caring for people at increased risk and providing education in conflict zones. Anything left over will go to Save the Children.

For “Home Improvement” and “Roseanne” fans, “Glimpses” connects parts of Williams’ upbringing with plot lines on his sitcoms — and the off-screen antics often are just as funny as what makes it on film.

“I have the formula, that F + E = C². Frustration plus exaggeration equals comedy squared,” he laughs. “Because if somebody wants something really badly and they’re frustrated, you exaggerate how much they want that.”

Williams’ writing principle is simple: Silliness must be rooted in truth. That’s how he turned a story of a garter snake named Babe coiling itself inside the family’s wall telephone into a season one episode of “Home Improvement” that saw a snake slither into actor Tim Allen’s shirt, sending the audience into hysterics.

In rehearsals, Allen did not want anything to do with the snake and told David McFadzean — Williams’s co-showrunner and college roommate at the University of Evansville — that if the snake was harmless, McFadzean should put the snake down his own shirt.

“And he did,” Williams laughs. “He pulled (his collar up), and the snake went down his shirt, and Tim’s mouth dropped open and it’s like, ‘Oh crap, I have to do it now.’ And David — he had a straight face, of course — David was peeing in his pants the whole time. But, it was guys daring (each other), and so Tim had to do it.”

The avenues for presenting comedy to audiences have changed, but the principles have not.

Williams teaches comedy television pilot writing to graduate students at New York City’s Columbia University. Turning the classroom into a TV writer’s room, his students — who have hailed from Mexico, Canada, China, Iran, and Palestine, among other countries — bounce ideas off each other. With such cultural differences, what are they all going to laugh at?

“What’s universal about comedy is it always goes back human behavior, truthful human behavior,” Williams says. “We all — regardless of our cultural background, our race, grief, color — take what’s real and exaggerate.”

Williams’ concept of legacies was shaped in part by his college theater mentor, John David Lutz.

The venerable University of Evansville theater professor, who died in July 2023 at age 83, met Williams when the latter was a 17-year-old F.J. Reitz High School senior. The two stayed in touch after Williams graduated from UE and became lifelong friends, with Williams serving as best man at Lutz’s wedding.

“John David knew Mark and Matt. In fact, he always called me ‘Matt Mark’ as a joke. Even at dinner, he goes, ‘Matt Mark wants to say something.’ … He knew there was that dual nature,” Williams says.”

Under Lutz’s tutelage at UE, Williams blossomed in the performing arts.

“Look at the impact this man had (for) 83 years. Look at the impact he had on this community. On thousands — literally thousands — of students who have gone to Broadway, off-Broadway. There are students who came from here who have gone out into the world. So, his influence continues. His students are his legacy. Everything that he taught us lives on. … That’s the big thing. What are you leaving behind?”

His memoir produced a new experience for the career showrunner: a “glimpse” into the world of audiobooks.

“I’ve never read an audiobook. Now, I’ve been on stage, I’ve acted, sure sure. But it’s tough reading a 400-page book and trying for it to sound conversational and not stilted, and not to be too performance-like. It’s a skill set. I was nervous as hell, but I knocked it out and I only had to go back and pick up a few things where I flubbed lines or words. I tried not to be too boring.” (Laughs) “That was my only rule. Don’t bore the listeners.” (Laughs)

Williams is satisfied having traded in screenwriting for authoring books and musicals, including a multi-year project called “Delta Blues.”

“We just spent a week at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut playing songs for people, getting feedback. We’re in the midst of a rewrite. Musicals take forever; (there are) a lot of moving parts. But the team is intact. We’ve got a script. We’re rewriting and finessing some songs. So, I’m deep into that musical.”

Make no mistake: Although his creative juices are flowing, they are not sending him down the river back to screenwriting.

“I’m not doing TV. I’m not doing film. I don’t want to. I want to get back to writing books,” he says. “Every other week, somebody calls and says, ‘Would you be willing to …’ or, ‘We have an idea for a TV series, do you think …’ And I go, ‘Nope, nope, nope.’ I’m a grandpa who writes books. I’m not a TV producer anymore. I do consult with friends. I’ll read scripts, I’ll give them feedback. I’ll do that. But to get back into the hamster wheel of Hollywood — I’m not going to do that.”

Since completing his memoir, Williams has gotten new glimpses into life, as a grandfather to 10-month-old Soul.

“The biggest glimpse is to really savor and appreciate the small moments,” he says. “I remember the day she discovered she had feet, you know, or the other day she ate a blueberry for the first time, the awe and wonder of life. When you’re sitting there with a child like that, you get to experience it through their eyes. I told Fred and Hannah, ‘Savor those moments. That’s what you’re going to remember.”

“It’s one of the things I’m most proud of in life,” he adds. “I watch my son be a dad to his daughter. And I go, if he’s that good a father, then I must have done something right.”

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Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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