W. KAMAU BELL

Robin Williams 1951-2014

Glide MemorialI 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.

13 Responses to Robin Williams 1951-2014

  1. Monica says:

    What a wonderful article thanks for sharing, it brought me to tears. I think it is so cool you got to meet Robin Williams and he found you to have the spark. After reading all the news stories today I would have never imagined him having problems finding happiness, but it goes to remind you we all have our own struggles.

    Sorry to hear that you did not do so well at a recent benefit; hang in there, I am sure you were meant to grow from the experience.

    I hope to be able to catch you one day Live!

  2. Martin A. David says:

    You do have the spark…and it is not just a spark of comedy. You are generous (as Robin Williams was) and you are a poet…in your comedy and in your life.

  3. Larkspur Bob says:

    Obviously, everyone loved Robin Williams! I just listened to the Marc Maron interview which was fabulous. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Keep using Robin’s words to help get you up in the morning, what a wonderful gift!

    My wife and I miss your TV show, especially you interactions with people on the street!

    Proud you are a Bay Area Man.

  4. Jan Webb says:

    Thank you for this very moving tribute. Unlike you I was an adult when Robin Williams became part of my conscious world; but I was hooked immediately. My late husband and I saw him in concert in Sacramento at the Community Center (late 70s? early 80s?) and it was a stream of consciousness, insights galore, constant laughter to the point of breathlessness. But it is the part of him you address–his generosity, mentoring, giving back to the world–that has always touched me most. And he saw your gift and let you know he saw it. What a kindness. As an aside, thank you for helping Glide Memorial. Good works matter.

  5. Rosemary says:

    Wonderful memory, Kamau. I was a Mork kid too. The awesome thing is I’m finding that so many people in the Bay Area have a story about Robin Williams. Its amazing how many of my friends are posting pics with him on Facebook, just from around town. And there’s never a bad word about him in them. Seems like he was just a wonderful generous spirit to everyone. There will never be another like him, and he will be missed. We’re so lucky we have all his work to enjoy in the years to come, and we’re lucky we have you too, Sparky!

  6. Abbey says:

    Thank you Kamau for this beautiful tribute and for bringing your spark to the world. I’m sure Robin is proud of you.

  7. Rob Anderson says:

    Many thanks, Kamau, for sharing your memories of Robin Williams. I also grew up in the 70s, and Mork and Mindy was one of my favorite shows. And yes, as with you, Williams was one of my childhood touchstones along with Jim Henson, John Denver and George Carlin. But Williams had a profound influence on me in another way. Although I loved Carlin’s stuff, it was cerebral, so brilliant in an almost literary way, that back then – as a boy and adolescent – I despaired of ever making a go of it myself. But Robin was different, and his first album “Reality, What a Concept” showed me that my own internal goofiness, what New Yorkers call “full-goose bozo”, could actually play on stage.

    And so in college I studied the performing arts, eventually doing reader’s theatre and speech and debate at San Francisco State. In 1988 a comedy troupe based in the dorms, called Ground Zero, had its first paying gig at Uncle Charlie’s in San Rafael, so I approached them with my stuff and, to my joy, they used some of it. That led to me writing jokes for a long-forgotten comic named Tommy Flanagan, and that in turn nearly got me a job as a writer on the MTV show Liquid Television, back when it was being produced in SOMA. In the meantime I did the occasional open mic night at The Other Cafe. But all of it started with Robin who, ironically, I never got to meet.

    Robin, John, Jim, and George, all gone now. Damn, man, I’m starting to feel so OLD.

  8. It’s a strange thing to be so affected by the death of someone I’ve never met but he inspired me from afar and from up close. After Hook, I wanted to be him. In high school drama, we all wanted to be him. I went to College of Marin (where I met you, coincidentally) because Robin went there. The biggest compliment I’ve ever gotten was from a drama teacher there who had taught him and who then compared me to him. While that’s not even close to being true, it was enough to keep me going at the time and continue to pursue my career further and further.

    He was so powerful, so talented, such a presence that everyone in the world felt the loss. San Franciscans felt it harder. Artists even harder than that. And I can only imagine the pain the people who knew him are experiencing.

    Anyway, thanks for the post, Kamau.

  9. Marc Hershon says:

    Kamau, this was a great reflection back on a classic Robin “moment”. I’ve had a number of such “moments” over the past 30 years or so with him – kind of unavoidable being part of the San Francisco comedy scene, even in my capacity as a once-booker and improvisor. He was remarkable in that he was SO big and yet SO accessible. In person, off-stage, he was usually quiet and reflective but never reclusive. I used to think he never even knew my name, although we’d performed on stage together numerous times, because he usually just called me what he seemed to call everybody: “Boss”. Then, every once in a while, he’d throw me a curve ball during a casual conversation in a green room somewhere by using my name. That itself was a funny kind of validation that youra bility had somehow been validated.

    Be well, WKB, and let’s talk soon!

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