Mork and Mindy was my first favorite TV show. I watched it every week before I knew how to read.
When I was 11, I watched Robin Williams An Evening At The Met. It was the first comedy special I ever watched, on VHS tape, rented from our Rogers Park grocery store. I watched it twenty more times before I was 18, I memorized it, and I made the star of that special’s profession my life’s work.
I don’t need to tell you the effect Dead Poet Society had on me, because I imagine it had the same effect on you.
I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Williams on several occasions. Our interactions were brief and I probably spent less than five hours total in his presence. He almost certainly would not have remembered them. But I remember a few things that stood out.
When Robin hung out in the green room or backstage, he was genuinely happy and excited, even thrilled, to enjoy the company of other comics, and treated every comic in the room as a peer. Really. Gave each person equal respect and a share of the camaradarie, just because they were comics and so was he. Even though he also was an Acadamy Award winner, and we were not. That distinction didn’t seem to cross his mind.
Also, while he would drop in on shows he never did more than 20 minutes. He never bumped comedians off of shows and he never kept the waitstaff late or prevented the later show from starting. He gave the audiences a great set and a great experience and then he let the show continue.
He also was totally cool with laughing at himself. He never lost the comedian’s “if it’s in good fun, anything goes” mindset. Unlike Jude Law and Sean Penn who couldn’t handle the lightest ribbing at the Oscars without pouting like babies, here was one of their peers laughing outrageously when Anthony Jeselnik brought him onstage like this: “Our next comedian did a lot of cocaine in the 80’s and was in the movie RV”
He was courageous. He would try new stuff, regardless of how it worked. He took risks every night. He would do challenging shows like Set List, and he would play by the rules. I saw him get many laughs, but I never saw him do safe old bits and take a victory lap.
The first time I met him I was onstage at a late night show at UCB on a Tuesday. I had a joke about Rod Stewart. There was a gross line in the set up, and I always preferred to have an audience member fill it in to soften a harsh bit. I would ask, “What was that rumor we heard about Rod Stewart?” and then fearfully wait until an audience member let me off my disgusting hook.
From the crowd I heard a voice I had heard on the first comedy show I ever saw say, “Seven quarts of semen! Pumped from his stomach! From Mick Jagger!” I looked into the crowd.
“Robin Williams, ladies and gentleman!” I said, the proudest I’d been of anything in my career.
The point of that story is not that he helped a comedian out, or that he was cool with saying something totally nasty in public, or that he was happy to play along with the bit to keep the show going. The point of that story is…
HE WAS WATCHING THE SHOW! Do you know how rare it is for a comedian of his stature or of ANY stature to sit through a comedy show when they could be hanging in the back fucking off like a cool guy? He was sitting in the audience, laughing, engaged, totally focused, and responding to a comedian’s question, because in that moment he was a joyous comedy audience member, fully engaged in the thing that he loved, even at a nothing time slot in a black box theatre for a show full of journeymen comics. That was inspiring. RIP.