Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams and Me: A Comic Reminiscence

When I got out of college in 1982 a friend of mine, Michael "Smooth" Carrington, and I became a comedy team called Bob and Smooth and embarked on a grand adventure to New York to become stand up comedians. Our home club was the Comic Strip on Second Avenue and we did the late, late, late night spots that all budding comics have to cover to hone their craft and not embarrass themselves in front of too many people. By 1983 we were finding a modicum of success, had played some important clubs in New York and had done some out-of-town touring. It was a magical time.

In the fall of 1983, some of the Comic Strip regulars started an improvisation group that performed on Monday nights. Word quickly spread and we were performing before some pretty decent crowds and, if I can be so bold, the troupe was pretty darned funny.

In October, Robin Williams showed up and said that he wanted to perform with us. Turns out that he was in New York to film the movie, "Moscow on the Hudson" and had heard of the improv group. Of course, he knew all about the Comic Strip, which, with the Improv and Catch a Rising Star was one of the big three clubs for comedy in the city. To say that we were thrilled was an understatement and of course we all wanted to perform with Robin, which made for some interesting choices once the improv games commenced.

What I clearly remember was that Robin Williams was both one of the most confident, and one of the most scared individiuals I have ever met. When we were on stage together (tickles me to get to say that) his was a comic beast who spewed funny lines (and some unfunny ones) as easily as most people breathe. He was a joy to work with because, well, anything was fair game, any word was acceptable and any clunker could be turned into a laugh.

I particularly remember Williams' eyes while we interacted with him. His face and body might be in overdrive, but his eyes were very nurturing, giving us a look that said, "it's OK, just say what you want and have confidence in the joke." It was a terrific feeling because those of us in the improv group were certainly very nervous to be on stage with him. If one of us said something particularity inspired, those eyes smiled and winked (without winking) and he would take off with whatever line we had fed him. He was also generous while being a straight man, feeding us lines like comic t-ball stands that we could easily hit out of the park.

Of course, we all wanted to be on stage with Robin Williams and that led to some interesting turns. We played an improv game called tag, which is pretty self-explanatory; two people start a scene and then another comic tags one on stage, the scene stops, that comic leaves, and the new comic takes over. What happened was that we would all tag each other and leave Williams on the stage for an extended time (not that he minded), but it looked like a tutorial with eager comics approaching the guru and giving him lines that he would manically churn into his own private routine. The audience didn't care. Neither did we.

But Williams also appeared scared at times. Perhaps it was the fear that all comics experience when they're thrown into a new situation without a script and need to be funny. Sometimes he would continue to talk even though what he was saying was not very funny, hoping that the next thing out of his mouth would get the crowd going. There were also periods when he would disappear. It was difficult to do that when we played the tag game, but in other games he would say one thing and then withdraw, and he'd have this blank, scared look on his face. It didn't last long, but I noticed it. He also was one of those comics who was always "on," telling jokes but never revealing himself to any of us. I certainly understand that this might have been a function of his not knowing any of us, but my experience with comics who are always doing material is that they really don't know what else to say.

And for all of his fame, even in 1983, he came to the Comic Strip alone, left alone and always said the same thing when he went out the door. He had one of those huge down jackets that were fashionable in the 1970s and 80s and he would hold it close to his chest when the night was over and say, "I've got to go home and feed this thing."  Not terribly funny, but that's what he said.

I also saw Robin Williams utterly destroy another 1980s comic, Eddie Murphy in a performance that, looking back on it now, anticipated their career trajectories. At the time, Murphy was a star on Saturday Night Live and his two movies, "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Trading Places" had put him on the mega-star map. The Comic Strip was also Murphy's home club, (the club's owners were his managers), and he was using it to test out and hone material for his first national tour. The other club's comics, including me, stood in the back to see what Murphy had, and for the most part it was funny, but not spectacular.

In the middle of his routine, though, Murphy made a big mistake. Robin Williams was in the audience and Murphy asked him to come up on the stage and improv with him. Murphy never had a chance. Williams ran comic rings around him and was so stunningly funny that the audience didn't want him to leave. Murphy took back the stage, but the rest of his routine paled in comparison to what we had just seen.

My favorite Robin Williams story, or at least the one that I can connect to him personally, came after Williams finished filming "Moscow on the Hudson" and didn't perform with us anymore. One of the other improv games we played was called Expert, where 5 or 6 comics sit on stage and the audience tells us what subject we are experts in. We were then free to adopt a personality and, hopefully, be funny (I was an expert on water, hubcaps, and WD-40).  A comic named Rob (I forget his last name) had a character he created named Dr. Vinnie, a crude, rude, sexually-obsessed Brooklyn pseudo-doctor. He was very funny and performed the character every week that Williams was with us.

A couple of weeks later, Rob came into the Comic Strip and was very excited. He gathered us around and told us that he and his girlfriend were dining at a large restaurant across the street from Lincoln Center when Williams entered the restaurant. Of course, the place began buzzing as patrons noticed who had just walked in. Williams surveyed the scene, noticed Rob at one of the tables at the far end of the restaurant, and at the top of his lungs bellowed, "Look! It's Doctor Vinnie!" Imagine being in a restaurant and a star recognizes you.

That was Robin Williams. He was accessible and aloof, confident and unsure, always looking for the funny and frequently finding it. I will leave the psychoanalysis of his demons to those more qualified than I to discuss them, but his untimely death has me thinking about the shortness of life and making sure that we experience what we can.

I will say that I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have crossed paths with him and I will never forget those few weeks in the fall of 1983.

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  1. Thanks very much. Was a pleasure to read.

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  2. Thanks for posting. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Wow Bob what a great story! I know how talented you are and have known since HS. Thanks for sharing this story!.

  4. Thank you for your story...Robin Williams was a comic I grew up with. Dead Poet Society is one of my favorites and I often show the clips to my high school students so they think to be extraordinary

  5. Thanks Al and Ron. He certainly was a terrific talent.

  6. As always, personal and insightful writing. A pleasure to read.

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