Robin Williams did a ninety-minute set unannounced at The Mock Café 15 years ago. I was there in the front row, with maybe a dozen other people behind me. After the sketch comedy show that we had come to see was over, the host of the show, Mike Spiegelman, came out and told us that Robin Williams was going to close out the show. Mike was as surprised as we were. It was one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen, standup or otherwise.
I’ve seen all kinds of live shows that blew my mind, a few of which stick out in my memory. Punk shows. Performance art. Spoken word between bands. Poetry readings. Metal concerts. Standup comedy. Sketch comedy. Solo performance. From Fugazi playing in the tiny Anti Club in Hollywood to The Cramps playing before Ice T at Shoreline, I’ve been really lucky to see a lot of my favorites. Honestly, I can’t say which one is the best one, but Robin’s is in the conversation.
He was working out new material for his next big show. Standup comedy being what it is, there’s no way to practice the craft without people listening; if everyone laughs, it works, if some people laugh, it needs work, and if no one laughs, it doesn’t work. The horrible cruelty of the art form is that there’s no way to tell for sure without a crowd. So Robin, not wanting to play against the expectations of a full crowd at one of the two big clubs in town, came down to see what a small gathering of people who were there to watch their roommates and coworkers perform sketch comedy would think of his new act.
Robin took the stage and made us laugh, no different than your friend in high school at the cafeteria table. He looked at each of us like he was looking into us to figure out how our minds worked and what made each of us laugh. Maybe this sounds obvious, but most comics approach the audience with an act that’s meticulously planned out from years of trial and error; every crowd that sees a comic like this sees the same set that every other crowd saw. Robin was able to take this into a personal level with each person, linking one sense of humor to another, forming some kind of comedy train.
This is what I can speak to, as a comic, poet, and spoken word guy for many years, that no matter what ugliness and hardships Robin faced and struggled with, as a comic, he had some truly beautiful moments, and at some point in space and time, they exist forever.
The subject matter ranged from personal thoughts to interpersonal relationships to regional humor to world politics. Scattered throughout were a handful of voices and characters that appeared, disappeared, and reappeared without warning. There were entire conversations he had up there, like an improv group but with all the performers living inside the same brain. There were impressions of public figures that weren’t that good compared to someone like Dana Carvey in technique, but were weirder and funnier than I’d ever seen, and three seconds later, it was on to something else anyway.
Robin sweated through his light blue shirt. Dark patches formed in his pits and on his chest, and enlarged until they met in the middle, and kept growing until his entire shirt was soaked. At one point, I watched a sweat bead run off his nose and hit me. That’s how close I was.
I’ve been studying words since I was a boy. I’ve always been amazed at their power to evoke any emotion by only changing the order or delivery of them, and how an infinite amount of stories may come from a very limited vocabulary. Here’s what really set Robin apart from others for me: his choice of words and how his ideas were connected to each other.
For all the chaos of the act, there was just enough of a sense of control. There was a thread, a connection, between the bits. I struggled to keep up with how one bit was tied to another. But it wasn't completely random. There was a logic to it, buried deep underneath the voices, gestures, and sound effects. But there was the dangerous feel that the roller coaster could derail at any moment and fly off the tracks. It was fun the way punk shows used to be fun, when you really didn't know what was going to happen next.
Last night I had a show at Lost Weekend. I overheard conversations the employees were having with customers about which of Robin's movies were still in stock. They had the darker fare left, strange films like The Final Cut and the brilliant World's Greatest Dad. Everyone wanted Mrs. Doubtfire.
I went downstairs, to the basement, opened my set with a new bit, and it fell flat. No one laughed. It didn't work at all. It was brilliant when I thought of it that morning, alone, while getting ready for my day job. But in reality, in front of a crowd, it was a zero. Comedy is hard.
Comics get known for their TV and film work. That's what makes them famous. But it's the live performances that you have to see to understand who they really are, and to see what they do best. Even a standup special isn't the same on TV. If you didn't see Robin or Greg Giraldo or Patrice O'Neal live in a small club, you don't know the scope of what they did. Out of all the performance genres, it's still usually judged outside its proper medium.
I don't feel qualified to talk about Robin Williams as a man, a friend, a husband, or a father, which is who he really was to his loved ones. I can't speak to his history with depression or drugs that is somewhat documented. I can't hypothesize why what happened yesterday happened. It's none of my business and I don't deserve an explanation or anything. Even with people I knew really well who took their own lives, I never really understood, anyway.
Every comic chases that perfect show like a surfer traveling the globe looking for a perfect wave. When it's working, there's nothing better. When it fails, there's nothing lonelier than a microphone and a stage light. So this is what I can speak to, as a comic, poet, and spoken word guy for many years, is that no matter what ugliness and hardships Robin faced and struggled with, as a comic, he had some truly beautiful moments, and at some point in space and time, they exist forever.
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