What Robin Williams Taught Me About Being a Comedian

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 13 2014 4:48 PM

What Robin Williams Taught Me About Being a Comedian

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Robin Williams in 2012.

Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in Vulture. Read more on Robin Williams.

It is sometime in 1990 or 1991, and I am in my friend’s basement and we are giddy over the movie we are about to watch - Good Morning, Vietnam. We are excited because Robin Williams is in this movie. And one undebatable fact when you are 11 in the early ‘90s is that Robin Williams is funny as shit.

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We put the tape in. And we do not understand this movie. The cultural significance of Vietnam means nothing to us. The sad parts are confusing, and we talk about the Beastie Boys during them. But anything resembling a joke we laugh hard at. Because Robin Williams said it. When we were younger, we pretended to sleep while our parents watched his stand-up, and we laughed even though we didn’t know why he sweated so much or moved so fast or referenced a thing called cocaine so often.

*

It is the early 2000s and I am sitting in my room, in the basement of a house on Hamilton Street in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I am depressed, because I was depressed every day back then. There is nothing about that sentence that’s hyperbolic—I suffer from depression every day. I sleep on a small foam couch and eat all my meals at a very weird pizza place called Tata’s and make no effort whatsoever to improve my state of being.        

And on this day in particular, I sit on my small foam couch-bed and I stare at my television. Mrs. Doubtfire is playing because this is the early 2000s and Mrs. Doubtfire and Groundhog Day are legally required to be playing on cable television at all times.

I start laughing. I’m already in my 20s, and Mrs. Doubtfire is not for me, and I am already cynical enough to realize that this movie is trying to convince you that a hero can be a man who neglects his family and then deceives both said family and the United States court system by cross-dressing. I still laugh, though, because Robin Williams is so funny. He is funny enough that I am crying laughing, even though I know this movie’s main plot points describe a horror movie, not a comedy. And I realize that Robin Williams is the only reason this movie is well remembered because the actual plot is completely insane. I’m sitting there, realizing that this movie is not for me and it is very weird, but I am laughing, and the laughing feels good, and I haven’t laughed in a very long time because I am depressed every day. And I realize that Robin Williams isn’t just funny, he is funnier than my omnipresent emotional pain.

*

It is sometime in the late 2000s, and I’m so close to being a professional comedian that it hurts. I pay my rent picking up commercials and some larger acting gigs and teaching improv classes and doing shows on the road, so I’m some combination of an actor and writer, but what I’ve always wanted to be is a comedian. And one of the things that I do in my capacity as a creative type leaning towards comedy is I organize a show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York City called Asssscat. And this show means the world to me because it’s been around for over a decade and is something of an institution, and when you are in that show, you feel a connection between performer and audience that is completely unparalleled.

But this show also stresses me out. Because I now organize it, I put a lot of pressure on myself to put together the best possible casts. So I am always bothering the improvisers who are on Saturday Night Live, the writers from Colbert Report, and the guys from Conan’s staff to come do it. And they’re busy people, and I hate being the one that bothers them each week with my dumb text messages begging them to come do this show, because not only am I being very annoying, it’s also a weekly reminder that I’m not quite where I want to be. I would like to be the person who gets annoyed, not the person who does the annoying.         

And on this night, I’m in the back of the theater, tired and stressed out by all this self-defeating thought, exhausted by it before the show even begins.

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Robin Williams in 2013.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

And Robin Williams walks into the green room.

My brain does not compute. Robin Williams is here, shy and short and clearly a little uncomfortable about walking into the green room of this established show. And quietly, to no one in particular, he mumbles, “Hey, if it’s not too much trouble, I’d love to be a part of this show tonight.”

And I say, “Yes, absolutely, please, let me introduce you to everyone,” shepherding him to the couches in the back, taking his coat, excited he is here but more so scared that he might leave.

But he doesn’t. He comes onstage and I get to introduce him, and the crowd goes apeshit. This is a show that Amy Poehler does regularly, that Jason Sudeikis and Bobby Moynihan and Seth Meyers and Rachel Dratch and Horatio Sanz and so many other stars of current comedies do. And the crowd loves them. But the crowd loves seeing Robin Williams, passionately, with a connection that goes back to their childhoods.

And I realize in that moment—no matter how many Mrs. Doubtfires or Patch Adamses he does, Robin Williams is so funny that any comedy nerd will always love a chance to see him perform. Billy Crystal? I bet they’d be happy, but maybe a little confused. Chevy Chase? I did the same show a few times with him and the crowd was respectful, but not thrilled. With Robin Williams, they are beyond thrilled. To a crowd that loves improv, Robin Williams is like Chuck Berry. For a lot of them he is a little dated, or a guy their parents liked, or someone that they’ve heard the legend of but maybe never knew at his best—but when you listen to his solos and his spirit and his energy, there is no denying that he is rock and fucking roll.

Robin Williams is comedy, but he is also, in his own shy way, rock and fucking roll.

And we get the suggestion for the show, and some idiot—I cannot stress enough how much of an unfunny idiot this faceless person in the crowd is—shouts, “Flubber.”

And Robin Williams looks down, smiles, and makes a comment to diffuse the tension. Whereas most, if not all, people of his celebrity would have filled with anger, he gets the joke, shrugs it off, then proceeds to improvise around that stage like the Tasmanian Devil.

At UCB (and really, at all improv theaters), you are taught to really try to take care of the people onstage with you. And a lot of times, when people grab too much focus or get too aggressive about hitting the punch lines for themselves, improvisers can frown at it and see it as selfishness or ego-driven. Robin Williams is clearly more of the “let the dog off the leash” philosophy. I can’t explain to you how little he cares about any of the rules. He enters every scene and trumps the funniest thing happening with something even funnier. If something is making him feel boxed-in or impatient, he just changes it without regard to the track anyone else was laying.

Yet we are all elated. Because Robin Williams may not care about any of the rules, but he absolutely cares about the people. He cares about the people onstage with him having a good experience, and you can sense that pouring out of him alongside his sweat. He cares about making sure we all could look him in the eye and know we are in it together, and he cares about making every single person in that basement theater have a good time. He doesn't ooze confidence—not at all. He seemed nervous until the second he got onstage. What he oozes is empathy—an empathy that gives him both the need and ability to make people have a better time than they were having before he got onstage.

I’ve rarely been steamrolled onstage like this in my life. But I’ve also rarely felt so much adrenaline. Part of this, I’m sure, is being up there with someone I’d admired so much for so long. But a big part of this is also the joy of realizing I am in the presence of an impatient, wonderful, big-hearted genius who was still humble enough to ask if he could be on my show before he stole it.

At the intermission, we are in the green room, everyone jabbering a mile a minute because there is so much energy in the theater that night.

Except for Robin Williams.

He is standing quietly against a wall, a look of discomfort etched on his face. Onstage, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. He was relentless. It was impossible to not feel his impact.

Offstage, he is Boo Radley—hugging the corner, hidden, uncomfortable.

I make eye contact with him. He glances down to the floor, towards a cooler kept backstage filled with drinks for the cast. Bottles of various brands of beers jut through the ice and poke over the edge of the cooler.

“You guys sure don’t make it easy, huh?” he asks me, quietly, with a small smile on his face and a deep and real pain in his eyes. And I understand that all the rumors I ever heard about his demons and struggles are true.

I ask one of the people working at the theater to quietly remove the cooler from the green room for the rest of the night. And I realize, comedy is his drug now. Making other people feel better is his way of feeling better.

And I think about being depressed on a foam couch watching him in a movie almost a decade prior and I wonder, “Who makes him laugh when he feels that way?”

*

It is Monday night, a little before 7 p.m., and I am in a vegan restaurant on Thompson Street with six of my friends, and we are planning a show that will take place on public-access television on Wednesday night. It is called 18th-Century American Gladiators, and it will feature people dressed as America’s founding fathers fighting audience members live on the air. And I am nervous because I have a stand-up set scheduled for 7:45 tonight and the meal isn’t coming, and I’m cutting it real close.

A few minutes into our meal, my friend Noah looks at his phone and says, “Robin Williams just died,” and we all tell him to shut up because he’s sarcastic and weird and it’s a strange thing to lie about. And he says, “No, it’s true,” and we all get out our phones and look for ourselves and the whole table goes quiet as our food gets cold.

And even in the initial reports, it says that it’s suicide, because of course it is.

And I think about the dumb show we’re preparing for Wednesday, with its wigs and idiocy and ambitiousness and honesty, and how it will be manic and heartfelt and will aim at the guts of our audiences, and I wonder if Robin Williams would have enjoyed it.

*

It’s 7:50 p.m. Monday night, and I’m onstage at the Stand, a stand-up club on Third Avenue in Manhattan. And I am not getting laughs. My first joke is clunky and they sense that it is unpolished when I am specifically trying to hide that, and I reference that in a way that feels like an apology, and the crowd smells that rat.       

So I ditch the other new material I am working on and I go with some stuff that works more often than not. And I am so familiar with this material that I can actually think about other things while I say it. The words are unconscious to me, and the pacing is familiar, and these jokes are like riding a bike.

And as I tell a joke about being born, I think to myself, I bet Robin Williams never once had a crowd as quiet as this. I bet he never let them be this quiet.

And I approach my last joke, and I put more energy into it than I ever have before. I stalk around the stage and talk faster and care more and start sweating. And I realize that any time I have ever apologized for a joke, it has been a mistake. And any time I’ve allowed my jokes to get so comfortable that I can think about something else while I say them has been unacceptable. And I have the crowd back, and in fact, they are laughing harder than they usually do at this joke, because I am choosing to be alive and I am choosing to make it feel more nervous and dangerous, and I get them back, and they are feeling it with me as I rush past them. They are grabbing at the last thing and trying to laugh at it while they can even though I’m two beats ahead of them. And for a nearly imperceptible window, and to a fraction of a degree, I realize I am forcing them to have a good time like I once watched Robin Williams do.

*

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Robin Williams in 2006.

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

It’s 9:09 p.m. and I’m writing this in Joe Junior’s diner, just a few blocks from the Stand. And it’s dawning on me that I now live in a world without Robin Williams. And I think about the times he affected my life.

And most of all, I’m thinking about how I got to stand on a stage with him once. And how that is a point of pride I will always have. That is a thing I will always be able to say. It’s a thing I once told my mom to impress her, and she was impressed.

She asked me if he was nice. And I said yes. And she was even more impressed by that.

“I always thought he would be,” she said at the time.

And I think about how I just got paid a few bucks to do comedy. And how I had a half-hour stand-up TV special air a few months back. And I’m realizing, right now as I type it, that I am what I’ve always wanted to be—a professional comedian.

And I’m typing these words as a way to sort out the feeling I have in my gut, and that feeling roughly translates to: I didn’t know Robin Williams well, or at all, really. But I stood on a stage conversing with him in front of a crowd, and I got to feel a monstrous energy emanate from him, a runaway train that remained positive and inviting and intriguing; and I got to feel a crowd respond to it, and when I think about what I learned that night, as a performer and a fan and a guy, I realize it’s that Robin Williams made people laugh for all the right reasons.

He was funny as shit. But he could make shit funny. Not shit meaning “stuff”—shit meaning darkness and awful situations and separated families and cancer-stricken kids and even aliens who feel alone in the world because no one else will ever truly know what it is to be him. And because of that, even more so than his talent, he’s one of the ones the rest of us will be chasing from now on.

Chris Gethard is a comedian based out of New York City. His book of personal essays, A Bad Idea I'm About to Do was published in January. He is the host of the cult hit public-access show Chris Gethard Show.

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