I was having one of those great stand-up comedy nights. And this was about four years ago, when I didn’t have that many great stand-up comedy nights. At that point I was a San Francisco comedian whose options were not necessarily running out but they were limited. So I was happy knowing that going in it was gong to be a great night. I was already scheduled that night to feature for Bill Burr at Cobb’s Comedy Club in SF. This was at the point that Bill was really taking off. His audiences were big and knew they were the cool kids for knowing who he was before everybody else. I knew in advance it was going to be good. But before I was scheduled to go on at Cobb’s that night, I had to do a five minute set at a benefit for Glide Memorial Church, a church with a truly progressive social justice agenda. Forget about “What Would Jesus Do?” Glide was about “What Jesus Actually Did.” Helping the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised. The benefit was a huge deal. It was at The Warfield, a 2000 seat theater. It was filled with the movers and shakers of SF. And the show that night featured, singers, musicians, choirs, and a few comedians. Those comedians were me, Johnny Steele, Selene Luna, Steven Pearl, and Robin Williams.
I had met Robin kinda, sorta before. As an SF comedian we were all accustomed those nights he would just show up around town. He had a home here. And he was sort of still looked at as local, just the most famous one. It wasn’t often that he showed up on the scene. It wasn’t regular. But when it happened. It happened in streaks. You’d show up at Cobb’s on a showcase night and on the line-up behind the desk where you’d look to see what time you were on, you’d read the name of a comic that you’d never heard off… AND THAT COMIC WAS HEADLINING??? Eventually somebody would let it slip that the name was just a sneaky way to say, “Robin Williams” without having everybody freakout. Because that’s what people did when even the hint of Robin was around, they freaked out.
When Robin was on these runs around town, it would start at Cobb’s, then maybe the Punch Line, and then suddenly you’d see him at a full on open mic. He showed up often at The Mock Cafe in the Mission. The Mock was so small I think it was shut down in order to turn it into an elevator. (I’m not kidding.) Robin would show up at The Mock and a room that felt full with fifteen people — and packed to the gills with 20 — would have 50 people struggling to see around the pillar that went right down the center of the “room”, blocking the view of Robin Williams on a stage the size of a twin mattress. People would just be walking by the “club” on their way to dinner or to do laundry or on their way to nothing, and they would see — or hear — that Robin was in there, and suddenly all plans were canceled. No one was turning down a chance to see Robin Williams doing exactly what you wanted him to be doing — BEING ROBIN WILLIAMS! Once the owner of The Mock — who also owned The Marsh — realized what was going on in her C room, she had strict instructions for her to be called the minute he entered the building, so she could get down there right away.
I was there many of those evenings. I got to see him be him at Cobb’s and I got to see him at The Mock Cafe. It was always electric. It was always overwhelming. It was always hilarious. And I always felt lucky to be there. Joe Klocek pointed out to me that Robin regularly got a standing ovation on his way up to the stage, before he’d even said anything. This was before cameraphones were ubiquitous, and yet when he hit the stage suddenly everybody had a camera. He would usually do an hour. The first five was just him responding to people responding to him. And then he would get to work and just be a comic working on bits. Much of which ended up in his “Live on Broadway” HBO special. I’m sure I met him on one of those nights. Maybe I even talked to him. I’m sure he didn’t remember. But he was very approachable. He always hung out with the comics before he went on, even if those comics were the open mikers whose biggest credits were, “I got to hang out with Robin Williams one night.”
That night at The Glide Benefit I actually met him for reals. I was a comic who was on the show with him. And since it was this “big wig” show, all the comics took a picture together. And then the show started. I wanted to do well for a bunch of reasons. 1) Because I always want to do well. 2) Because there’s nothing worse than bombing at a benefit. Trust me. I’ve done it… recently. 3) ROBIN WAS WATCHING.
And although I followed a full-on gospel choir, I had a good set. It felt good. I didn’t drop the ball. I got the crowd refocused from choir to jokes. And then I said good night, and immediately I hopped in my wife’s car with her. And we beat it over to Cobb’s where I featured for Bill Burr minutes later. It was a great stand-up comedy night.
And it was made better by the fact that I later heard that Robin had thought I was funny, and he had spent time looking for me at The Benefit after I had left. And he had asked one of the organizers if he could have my contact info. (I told her that he could because… YES!)
And then one day out of the blue I got an email from an email address that didn’t have the words “Robin” or “Williams” anywhere in it, but it was him. And he told me that my stand-up was a “revelation” and “you got the spark.” Robin had no idea how often I thought of the fact that HE thought I had “the spark.” He had no idea that those simple words helped dig me out of my own dark corners and emotional dead ends. Even now I spend more time offstage wondering if this career makes any sense for me than I spend onstage doing it. And his simple words have often made a difference in me getting up and getting at it again and again.
And I’m not the only comic by a longshot who he reached out to and “bonafide.” He was obviously still a fan of stand-up, and he also understood that kind words from him meant a lot. He just had a generous spirit, which people in positions even close to his position don’t always have. He was generous in one more way too. He donated money to a film project I was working on without even being asked really. He just heard about it and wanted to help.
My wife cried last night when she saw the still from the movie Aladdin that Evan Rachel Wood tweeted of The Genie hugging Aladdin. That’s who he was to her. And that’s when it really hit her that he was gone. But I’m a little older than my wife, for me he will always be Mork. And I’m not being condescending. When I was a little kid, Mork was my hero as much as Spider-Man and The Hulk. As far as I was concerned they all had superpowers. They all seemed bigger than life. To me Robin had more in common with greatest athletes than other entertainers. He had all the tools. His standard was so high the rest of us comics won’t even have to worry about being compared to him. You can still be in the NBA but still be miles away from being Michael Jordan.
When I was thinking about how amazing it is to see so many people show so much love in Robin’s death, one thing struck me. For so many of us, Robin first got us when we were kids. You don’t forget those entertainers who got you back then. But then Robin did near the impossible. He circled back and got us again when were adults. It’s kinda like if Steve from Blues Clues grew up to be Richard Pryor.
And yes, Robin was a complicated human with a complicated history, much of which he covered in his very open interview with Marc Maron. And now he’s gone. I already miss him.