I first saw Robin Williams on an episode of Happy Days. He played the strange and quirky Mork from Ork in a really bizarre dream sequence … or was it? Not long after Mork was spun-off to his own show, Mork & Mindy, which soon became one of my favorite programs. In fact he quickly became one of my favorite performers. I watched his stand-up specials and got his albums, never missed an appearance on Johnny Carson and saw all of his films, hell I even liked Popeye.
I saw his stand up twice and got to meet him (sort of) when I was living in San Francisco in the early 90s.
The first time I saw him was at Cobb’s Comedy Club after the show had ended and as we all were getting up to leave, thinking the night was over. The headliner that night, Dom Irrera, came back on stage and said, “Hey, a friend of mine just showed up. Do you guys mind sticking around a little longer?” Robin Williams walked on stage to shocked applause and proceeded to do 45 minutes of amazing improv. His comedy was fired off at breakneck speed, walking through the audience and using anything – a woman’s hair, bottles of beer, a man’s shoe – as the jumping off spot for a joke. Occasionally he would pause for just a moment, as if he were gathering his thoughts, then launch in to another burst of jokes and physical comedy. It was amazing to watch.
The next night Williams appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and used most of the jokes that killed the night before. A small, intimate crowd in San Francisco got to see Robin Williams warm up his material for Johnny. That was cool to be a part of.
The second time was at The Bill Graham memorial concert. This was a huge, all-day event at the Polo Grounds in Golden Gate Park with multiple big name bands. Williams came out about mid-way through as I recall. It was vastly different from the small comedy club. He looked so tiny on the giant stage. And yet he still captured the audience, he still had us laughing.
Around this time I was working in the café in the Exploratorium. This was a ‘please touch’ science museum at the Palace of Fine Arts. It was a pretty cool place and it was not uncommon for celebrities to come in from time to time. On more than one occasion Robin Williams visited with his kids. Eventually they would come by and order food. I never made a big deal about this. I never asked for an autograph or asked to shake hands; I figured he wanted to spend the day unmolested with his children. So I never actually met Robin Williams per se, but I did make him a sandwich several times. So there’s that.
The thing that sticks with me about these trips to the Exploratorium was the way he handled himself. He was recognized obviously. Small crowds would form near him being sure to keep a discrete distance and attempting not to stare as they whispered and pointed. Occasionally he would turn and wave at the onlookers and smile and nod. He would gesture to the exhibits and say things like, “This is really neat” or “you should see this” or “man, this place is fun” Never rude or unpleasant but at the same time redirecting people’s attention elsewhere. I always thought that must have been difficult.
So now Robin Williams is dead. He hung himself because of depression. I don’t know why I find this as upsetting as I do. Of course it is always upsetting when someone dies, but it’s somehow more than that. It is funny how certain artists or musicians or writers become so entwined in your life without really knowing it. You admire their work, it touches and moves you. You are entertained. And if the body of work is long and varied and very good, as Robin Williams’ career was, you feel a connection, you think you know that person.
Look, I know I didn’t really know Robin Williams. I made the man a sandwich, that’s not even passing acquaintance level, but I’ve been watching him perform since I was eight years old. The man has made me laugh till I cried and moved me to tears. That’s special. That’s impressive. That’s important.
He made me very happy during the course of my life and to know that he was so sad while doing it is upsetting to me. It’s as if I have taken something without giving back.
He was a unique talent and by all accounts a kind and generous man. I would have liked to have known him but all I can do is know his work. And that work was incredible.
Goodbye Mr. Williams.