The Lessons; In Life and in Comedy

The life and comedy lessons that I learned from the brief encounters I had with Robin Williams came flooding back to me since I got the news of his death.

It was 4:00PM Monday August 11th, and I was sitting at the computer writing jokes; ironically, only nineteen hours after we wrapped an Anti-Suicide Benefit Show at the Hollywood Improv to raise awareness for Depression and Suicide. That’s when I got the call from a friend and fellow comedian.

He simply said: “Robin Williams is Dead.”

There was that long silence that follows that kind of message. Longer than normal. That kind of silence that seems to stretch forever. The kind of silence that would make you really uncomfortable on stage.

I did what I usually do when I hear news that I can’t totally process emotionally; I went to jokes: “Leave it to Robin to do this right after the Anti-Suicide Benefit. Ha! If the benefit didn’t raise awareness, this sure will.”

Then I cried.

I didn’t plan it. I didn’t feel it coming on. It was just one of those things that happened spontaneously, you know?

I didn’t cry when Carlin died. That news seriously bummed me out, but I didn’t cry: and Carlin mentored me.

At first I refused to believe it. Like a lot of comedians, I had worked with Robin several times. I even drove him in a limousine every day for a couple of weeks early in my career, when I was cutting down my road work to try to save my marriage.

I remember Robin said to me, “Save your marriage? F*@k your marriage. Save your life!”

Then in a character voice, almost disgustedly, he said, “You’re a comedian. A chauffeur YOU ARE NOT!”

“You think?”

He said, “Yeah Bitterman, you missed the turn about a half-mile back!” Then he launched into a Dudley Moore laugh from the movie “Arthur.”

It was a good laugh. But, that sunk in deep. And later that week after I dropped him off at his jet, I quit the limo and went right back out on the road for good.

I worked with him a couple of times after that. We weren’t buddies. We didn’t call each other or anything. The time I spent with the man was minuscule in a chronological sense, but his impact is eternal.  And each time I bumped into him or had the honor of working with him, he was always, ALWAYS kind.

That’s one of the things he taught me. That in this business, where sometimes people can be so back-stabbing, angry, resentful and use their success to try to diminish you, he was just Robin, all the time.

He taught me that synergy works better than enemy and that being kind to your fellow comedian, your fellow human doesn’t ever hurt your career. It always helps.

Robin Breathed Life Into Comedy

Robin’s career was, in a word, stellar. From the time he was picked up to do “Mork and Mindy,” he was off and running. He was a comedian, but a comedian who had goals beyond just doing stand-up. He started as a comedian in the Bay Area in the seventies, then went off to “study” at the The Julliard School of Drama in New York.

When he went back to the Bay Area, he was a different comedian. He was doing characters on stage. Characters were not new in comedy, Carlin did characters, but it was the way he was doing the characters; BIG, BOLD COMMITTED. He was blowing the doors off the clubs!

He was a pure entertainer. I know, he had a bit of a reputation for stealing jokes. Hell, he stole a couple of mine. But somehow that was different. He was “Robin.” He breathed life into comedy. I could always write new jokes.

He taught me the power of incongruous act-outs in comedy, (a version of solo-sketch comedy), that if you give the audience a clear premise: Like in this video, where he does his version of American soccer and South American soccer, then segues into American Football referees. The set up is clear cut. He sets up the characters, then just brings them to life.

You watch Robin Williams do comedy and you can’t help but feel a bit manic. Because, from the moment he takes the stage, that’s the way he performed and there’s a theory in theater science that the audience is in whatever state the performer is in. When you saw Robin perform, you had no choice but to leave that experience, charged up.

Depression and Suicide

Early reports coming in from the news is that his death was an apparent suicide. Now I think I understand why I cried when my friend called. The sheer dichotomy. In a weird way, Robin, who struggled with addiction and depression and was open about it, represented a certain hope for many.

I have never experienced addiction or depression. The closest I’ve been to that is drunk and tired.

Then it kind of hit me why Robin’s death made me cry when Carlin’s didn’t. Carlin died of so-called natural causes; a heart-related issue. Robin’s death was mired in a more profound tragedy. He died of something seemingly treatable, but obviously misunderstood.

There are close to 15 million people in the U.S. that suffer from depression. And if a man who had the resources to afford and access all the help he needed to deal with it can’t find a way out, what are the other 14 million nine-hundred and ninety-nine thousand going to do?

We need you back, Robin.

Today I’m going to Amazon to buy every Robin Williams comedy video I can get my hands on. Maybe Robin can still help play away the pain and give others hope.

Robin Williams affected us all in one way or another. For me, he was partly responsible for where I am today. One marriage down but still making a living doing comedy.

Save your life, indeed.

You’ll be missed.

    14 replies to "How Robin Williams Saved My Life"

    • Ole Udvang

      Thanks for this Jerry.

    • Wayne Lopez

      Robin truly was kind and generous. We’ve lost a rare human being. I’m sure Robin would riff on that last line ten different directions before you finish reading this post. Thank you Jerry. And thank you, Robin.

    • Ron Sarchian

      Very well said Jerry.


      This was very touching, Jerry. Thank you.

    • Phil Johnson

      I admit, my brain also registered the irony of that suicide prevention event last week. My friend Chris was part of it. I think you’re right on about the tragedy of his end. I think we all wish we could have walked in minutes before and talked him down. Somehow no one was there to do that for him even though everyone would have been.

    • Skyler Payne

      Thanks for your vulnerability, Jerry.

    • Anonymous

      NIce tribute Jerry. And great teaching.
      Your philosophical lifestyle of being kind to your fellow artists is not only a key to your own success, but one of the keys to having a happy life.

      I always considered Robin Williams to be the Eddie Van Halen of comedy.
      “Rock the stage, and have a ball doing it.”

      As Jerry Corley says, let’s make sure we take care of each other.

    • Rachel McDowell

      Thank you Jerry. I have enjoyed reading the ways that he spread wisdom and joy. There are so many lessons in this loss and ‘save your life’ is a big one. Go for the gold and spread around joy on then entire journey.

    • Don Barnhart

      Great stuff! He was a true inspiration to my own career.

    • Craig Wickham

      Thanks for sharing that Jerry, Robin was an incredible human and touched so many people in his life and we all will miss him.. I think that all the tears surrendered upon his passing would fill Lake Tahoe or at least a medium sized spa. It’s funny I cried at his passing and at one of his mentors- Jonathon Winters passing they both shared a little something I could relate to.

    • Jack Martin

      Robin’s death had a profound impact on the world, I haven’t seen this much coverage on a death since maybe Kennedy. Why? You nailed it; he was hope. My wife met him twice (United Airlines flight attendant) I asked her what her impressions of him were? She said there was a sadness in his eyes, if you look at his interviews you will see that as well. She said that he was a very quiet, introspective, kind, considerate, polite, signing autographs while studying his script. We mortals all get depressed and ache for love and acceptance. In a heartbeat the loneliness can overrule rationale. Tens of millions of us would have done anything to help Robin instead he couldn’t cope and left us missing him. Lesson: be sensitive and ask someone how they are doing!

    • Richard Allan Jones

      Never suffered from depression, even though my acting/music career so far gives me many reasons to go there. But Robin’s tragic loss teaches us no matter how successful society sees us, true clinical depression won’t allow you to recognize it in your own mind. No tag lines here, but like the song “Rock & Roll Heaven” ….if there’s a comedy club in heaven, you know they have a hell of a lineup every night…Williams, Winters, Carlin, Pryor, Dangerfield, Bruce, Mac, Kinison….

    • Jerry, I had to wait till now to read this b/c it’s just been so sad, confusing & frustrating. But now that he is ashes are scattered and he’s been laid to rest I felt some closure and wanted to read what you had to say. Thanks for sharing your memories and his direct impact on you. Love it.

    • Chato B Stewart

      So moving and touching the heart. I know how you feel in a small way about getting the news about Robin. While I did not know him. I almost felt like I did via his movies that stand-up… I was being interview for an article for the local newspaper about my cartoons I draw called Mental Health Humor and the main subject was our counties high suicide rate. After talking to the reported for two hours about how I survived my bouts with depression and suicide attempts and used my humor via daring the cartoons got the news. I was devastated. I applaud you doing the “Anti-Suicide Benefit Show at the Hollywood Improv to raise awareness for Depression and Suicide. ” Thank YOU. Have you heard of the viral video for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention encourages people say “HELLLOOO” to suicide prevention with the #DoubtfireFace challenge?

      Inspired by Robin William’s role in Mrs. “Doubtfire,” participants will record a video of themselves taking a pie to the face and saying “HELLLOOO.”

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