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!”
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.