Saturday, November 22, 2014

Special Guest Star: Robin Williams

Attending the 1978 finals of the San Francisco Comedy Competition , I had my entire psyche blown out to smithereens and reassembled. This wasn't due to the comics in contention that night. As good as they might have been, none of them could came anywhere near the the outrageous brilliance on display during the guest set, forever upstaging them into showbiz oblivion. 

Robin Williams took the stage that night and kept it for his very own.

MORK AND MINDY had not yet hit the airwaves, but Robin was greeted by that crowd like a hometown hero. He was their own personal superstar after he had perfected and honed his act all over the Bay Area before singing "Hooray for Hollywood" and began to make his way in the world, then grabbing it by the nuts and swinging them about to celebrate his arrival on the scene. In San Francisco, clubs like The Holy City Zoo, The Other Cafe and The Punch Line, the site of this competition, Williams leapt to the front of the pack in the West Coast branch of the 1970s comedy revolution. He had even entered the first SF Comedy Competition himself in '76, placing second that year to winner Bill Farley. (Who's Bill Farley? Exactly.)

I knew Williams from his TV appearances in the ill-conceived LAUGH-IN revival and Richard Pryor's short-lived NBC show. But it was his guest stint as that wacky and zany alien on HAPPY DAYS, the most popular show on the air at that time, that made the Earth stood still, myself included. Soon, he was popping up all over the place and had scored his very network show thanks to Garry Marshall, the man who hired Williams to steamroll Richie Cunningham and The Fonz on their very own turf.

The day after that HAPPY DAYS episode, I discovered that the lives of Williams and myself intersected in a very coincidental fashion. We shared the same acting teacher in Mr. Lou Nardi, me at San Joaquin Delta College with Robin not many years before at the College of Marin along with Kathleen Quinlan. When I mentioned the previous night's show to Lou who commented, almost with a shrug in atypical Nardi fashion,
"Yeah. I always knew that would happen." He then went on to tell me how Robin was lightning in a bottle ready to unleashed at the right moment, not unlike a certain blue genie he would voice in another dozen years.

The night at the Punch Line could very well have been the right moment. What I bore witness to that evening certainly ignited a spark in me to pursue a stand-up career of my very own. Throughout my early years on the planet, I had dabbled in one way or another toward this goal, even though it hadn't presented itself as one until that very moment. I identified with the ability to make people laugh and considered it a gift I too wanted to share with the world, even if the world in turn would have preferred a gift card to Olive Garden. But that came later for first I needed to follow the directions to the path that the madman on stage had laid out for me.

Williams didn't so much take the stage as he did lay siege to it, firing off a volley of free form carpet bombs throughout his entire set. It was the equivalent of a fireworks display, calculated perfect in its seeming randomness much to the delight of the audience.

The grand finale was his early signature piece, Inside the Mind of a Comic, taking us an Mr. Williams' Wild Ride of Psychocomedy, an examination of the stand-up experience and his id, giving outrageously accurate views of his creativity, neuroses, insecurities and the beauty of a well timed dick joke. The pacing had been frantic, comedy at the speed of automatic gunfire. However, it had precision as it hit bullseye after bullseye in rapid succession, laying his targets to smithereens. And the pure beauty of it all was that Robin Williams gave us the illusion that it was totally spontaneous combustion. He didn't kill  that night. He decimated. The ovation he received at the end of this set had been so intense I can feel it to this very day. It was in that moment of spent elation that I knew in my heart what I wanted to do with my life.

But first I had to confront Robin somehow. It was imperative that I have connected with this crazed genius, however minor as long as we touched base. After all, we were kindred spirits. We shared the same DNA. We had the same teacher, for Christ's sake. That was my IN. I'd drop Lou's name and Robin would take me under his wing to proclaim me his frat brother. After all, we both belonged to the Fraternity of Nardi.

The Comedy Competition ended rather anti-climatically when the winner was finally announced. Anything would have been a let-down after Williams left the stage. The winner was Mark McCollum. (Who? Oh, he now opens for Bill Farley.)

Once the show was over, I fought my way through the departing crowd, a difficult task after the imbibing of alcohol I engaged in through the evening. Still, I was a man with a mission and could pinpoint where Robin was on the other side of the club, gracious greeting all the well-wishers. He looked understandably spent from his performance and Lord almighty, did ever sweat like a yak in a Tibetan steambath. The volume in the room was deafening as I barreled my way over to him as he was about to make a hasty exit.

"Robin!" I bellowed. "Robin!"

"Hello!" he replied.

"I'm a student of Lou Nardi's!"

"I'm sorry! What?"

"Lou Nardi is my teacher!"

"Oh! Okay!"

The name didn't register. Maybe he didn't hear it over the throng. Or maybe he got a gander at the drunk kid trying to engage him in a hollering conversation and all he heard was:

"Loonarny my t-shirt!"

And he had no answer since he had no idea what the fuck that was all about. Then he was gone.

That was my moment. As brief and fleeting as it had been, I didn't give a flying fig. What I tried to tell him was insipid in light of the fact that he was coming down off the amazing high of that electrifying and brilliant piece of performance art. I was able to get that close to the light. I felt his heat and basked in his glow. And that was enough for me.

It would be swell to tell you that Robin Williams worked his mojo on me by his mere presence when I  eventually became a stand-up comic myself. I did win a competition, acquired an agent and saw a few fleeting paying gigs. I even entered the San Francisco Comedy Competition itself. But it wasn't meant to be and eventually I gave it up. What I learned along the way was what I considered to be completely improvisational on Robin's part was the result of honing,crafting and perfecting a set over time. It was his turbo charged energy that gave the illusion that he was making it all up on the spot, fooling  a dumb schmuck like me into believing that I too could do the same because hey, I was naturally gifted as well. I guess I didn't want to do the work, only the easy way out of Stockton and straight to the top of the heap. Instead I stayed at the bottom of the pile. Lou Nardi told me the same exact thing when we first talked about Robin, but I guess I just didn't listen.

Speaking of the easy way out, Robin Williams committed suicide. The reasons shouldn't matter but somehow do. He was in and out of recovery from various substance abuse problems, the last time in a rehab not too far from my neck of the Oregon woods. His recent diagnosis of Parkinson's diagnosis was a surprise, but was it enough to hang one's self? Perhaps if you don't think you can handle it, especially in light of his recovery. But who hangs one's self on purpose anymore anyway? In this day and age of full disclosure, it wasn't a stretch of the imagination to immediately wonder if this was a Michael Hutchence/ David Carradine incident.

But what else? Robin's comedy over time began to wear thin with the fickle tastes of the public. A performer who is always "on" didn't seem to fit in this world. Where was the real Robin Williams? His intensity grew tiresome to some as he began to be the joke himself, even affording him at the very mention of his name an annoyed eye-roll from the next generation.

I held fast in my admiration of him and became, as I often do, became one of his defenders and sometimes apologist. He still made me laugh and often, but time catches up to everyone. The seams began to show and, trying to rise to that same level, became an effort. Remaining "on" began to wear on him too.

On August 24, Robin Williams turned it off. More accurately, he pulled the plug, then used the cord on himself.

I've had close family and friends that had killed themselves. An aunt, my mother's sister, took herself out when I was in grammar school. I discovered the body of 19 year old co-worker who shot himself in the head in the back of a shop I managed. A few years later, the owner of that same store sat in a garage with his car's engine running a few years later.

In my bleakest moments, I would be lying if I said that I've never entertained the idea of taking myself out of the picture. After all, that's entertainment, isn't it? What stopped me cold wasn't the disposal of my own life, but the lives of those left behind, the ones who have to pick up the pieces in the aftermath, forced to ponder the question "Why do you think this happened?" and dealing with the corpse of the only person that could that could provide the answer. It's a dick move. You've taken away your own pain and gave it to whoever has to clean up your mess. This has nothing to do with my feelings about assisted suicide which I support. Why do I consider that to be humane in light of the easing of suffering while the other to be an act of extreme narcissism even though they achieve the same end result? One is dying with dignity while the other is a dine and dash. Maybe it's the element of surprise. There's the foregone conclusion or the abrupt cut to black that manages to leave everyone in the lurch. I could have said left everyone hanging, but that would be a cheap joke at Robin's expense.

But why not say that? Is it too soon? Robin might have made the same observation himself, perhaps to ease the pain with a laugh, cheap or otherwise profound. I won't deny that it hurt the way he went out, but since he's not suffering any longer, neither should we.

My close encounter with Robin Williams was actually nothing more than a coincidence. We had the same teacher at early parts of our separate lives. While I didn't actually meet him, I did speak to him, even if he might not have understood a word I said. And I had the opportunity to see him live before he was given to the world.  As innocuous as these incidents may seem to be, they will remain esoteric but no less significant to me.

Nanu Nanu.