The first great stand up comedian I ever saw was Robin Williams. When I was ten or eleven, my parents let me watch my first uncensored comedy show, a rerun of his 1978 performance. If you haven’t seen it you should seek it out. I’m not sure how to find it on HBO–I’m not a cable subscriber anymore–but if you scrounge, you can find a variant of that performance on one of Williams’s early albums, Reality, What a Concept. Among my favorite bits is the one he does after a joke bombs. It starts, “Come inside my mind and see what it’s like when a comedian bites the big one.”
Every year, I looked forward to Williams on HBO’s Comic Relief, as he made co-hosting duties impossible for Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal. I knew he was working in movies at the time as well, but I didn’t catch one until Dead Poet’s Society came out. I was more focused on his stand up work. A Night At the Met was one of my favorite comedy performances of all time. He was witty, he was fast, he was a man in form. In the years afterwards, Williams did other shows and movies, some iconic (Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poet’s Society), some unexpected (Moscow on the Hudson, Insomnia, One Hour Photo), and some best not mentioned (Patch Adams), but for me he peaked that night at the met on HBO.
Age brings comics a tough set of problems. For years they toil to craft a persona that works on stage. Many of those who succeed get stuck in that persona, unable to change it without alienating their audience. A few of comics I can think of escaped that. George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters, and George Burns built personas that could age with them. (In Pryor’s case, it followed him through his increasing infirmity.) I felt, in Williams’s later performances, he was looking for a way to do that too, but hadn’t yet found it.
It’s terrible that depression robbed him of his chance to go farther. I’ve been coping with a milder strain of the illness for a couple of years now. It’s an insidious bastard. It’s brilliant at talking its victims out of doing things that’ll help. For the people who knew him, there’ll be a lot of grieving and a lot of complex emotions to sort out. I wish those in that position the best. In the meantime, I’m going to see if I can find a copy of A Night At The Met. I’m sure I have it around here somewhere. I just need to hear him say that last line, from an imaginary exchange with his young son…
“Come on. Mom’ll be there. You’re not afraid are you?”
“Naw. Fuck it.”