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Each Time I Saw Robin Williams Perform Live, Something Truly Memorable Happened…
August 12, 2014  | By David Bianculli  | 4 comments
 

Over my long career as a TV critic, I attended three standup shows at which Robin Williams performed live. I have very strong, very fond memories tied to all three. And after reading my fellow critics’ evocative tributes on this site honoring Williams, who died yesterday at age 63, I feel both obliged and honored to offer my own.

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The first time I saw Robin Williams perform live was at the same Los Angeles TV critics’ press tour event which Bill Brioux, also in attendance that day, already has described in his Williams tribute for TV Feeds My Family. It was the summer of 1978, and ABC, during its portion of the semiannual publicity tour for national visiting television critics, rolled out the star of one of its new sitcoms – not to be interviewed, but to do an impromptu comedy act, interacting with the critics in the audience and just going with the flow.

The show was Mork & Mindy, the unknown comic was Robin Williams, and he killed. When he walked on stage, only one or two critics, from the Bay Area, had any idea who he was. By the time he walked off, everybody was buzzing about him. Who was that guy?

In my July 2, 1978 dispatch for The Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel, I may have gotten the spelling of the star’s first name wrong – but I identified the hot new talent just right.

Mork & Mindy star Robyn Williams,” I wrote, “may or may not become a giant comedy star because of this broad comedy show, but he can’t be kept away from the brass ring too much longer. The man is a dynamic comic; if only someone can figure out how to capture and package him, they’ll both be rich for life.”

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The second time I saw Robin Williams perform live was almost exactly a year later. It was press tour again, this time in the summer of 1979, and this time ABC was trying to make lightning strike twice by presenting another unknown comic, and a star of a new upcoming ABC sitcom, to do another improv stand-up act before an audience of TV critics.

That star’s name was Jimmy Brogan – and just like Robin Williams the year before, had made a guest star appearance on an episode of Happy Days, then been rewarded with a shot at his own series. In Brogan’s case, the sitcom was to be called Out of the Blue, and he played a young angel put back on Earth to earn his wings. Williams was on hand to introduce Brogan, then turn the mic over and walk offstage while Brogan did his stuff.

The problem, though, was that while Williams, the year before, was an ad-libbing, free-thinking, pinball wizard of a comedy whirlwind, Brogan was a slow-talking, slower-thinking, droll comic whose entire act was built upon asking audience members what they did for a living, and where they lived, and reacting to that.

Well, when he asked the first person what she did for a living, and she said “TV critic,” he made a decent joke and moved on. When the second person had the same answer, Brogan asked, “You’re a TV critic, too? Do you know this person?” – pointing to the first critic. When the answer was yes, he turned to a third person, got the same occupation as a response, and all the blood drained from his face. “How many people in this room are TV critics?” he asked, suddenly comprehending the makeup of the room. When a sea of hands went up, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to comedy hell!”

But at that moment, out of nowhere, Robin Williams reappeared – unrequested, unexpected, but certainly welcome by all. He grabbed the mic, and the moment, and was off – with no prepared material, but not needing any. He destroyed that room, as he had a year ago. And the next time I interviewed Brogan, after his short-lived show was canceled, he told me that Williams’ merciful rush to the stage was one of the nicest things anyone had ever done for him.

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The third and final time I saw Robin Williams perform live was at the Aspen Comedy Festival in 2000. I was there because I was writing a book on the Smothers Brothers (the book that eventually became Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,’ published nine years later), and Tom and Dick Smothers were being honored at that year’s festival – and because I was not only observing their tribute, but had helped write Bill Maher’s introduction to it, the festival folks gave me access, and a free ticket, to any event I wanted to attend.

Needless to say, I wanted to see Robin Williams. So, going by myself, note pad and recorder in hand, I sat on the aisle about 20 rows from the stage, and took notes as Williams burned through a hilarious series of impersonations, free-form observations, and verbal political assassinations.

And then, without warning, he jumped off the stage and began walking up the aisle. My aisle. And before I could react, he had grabbed my note pad, jumped back on stage, and started leafing through it, promising to read to the audience whatever I’d written about him.

The crowd was howling. But even though I had written nothing uncomplimentary, I was cringing.

“Only half as funny as he thinks he is,” Williams pretended to read, or something like that, as the crowd booed. Then Williams smiled and fessed up. My handwriting was so bad, so unreadable a scribble, he said, that he had no idea at all what I’d written. Couldn’t make out a damned thing. So, after jumping back down to floor level, walking back to me and handing me my notes, he wished me luck on ever figuring out a way to use them.

Thanks, Robin. Fourteen years later, I finally did.

I just wish you were here to read the results…

--

Meanwhile, I'm very proud to be presiding over TV Worth Watching tonight, because I'm proud of all the TVWW writers who did such great work today providing such heartfelt and wonderful tributes. Bill Brioux's TV Feeds My Family column was the first to come in, and I posted a note congratulating him on providing one of the best obituary tributes for Williams I'd yet read. Then I read two others, both provided for TVWW readers: Noel Holston's The Grassy Noel and Ed Bark's Uncle Barky's Bytes. Please read them all. Taken together, they say a lot about who Williams was -- and why we're all here writing about TV.

 
 
 
 
 
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4 Comments
 
 
Sally W.
Thanks to all of you of TVWW for sharing your observations and memories of Robin Williams. He really entertained and touched so many generations, in so many ways.
Aug 13, 2014   |  Reply
 
 
Ha! My verification letters for my post were "GAGHG!" Hahaha! Robin? Is that you?
Aug 13, 2014   |  Reply
 
 
Ohhhhhh. It hurts my heart that he's gone. Thank you so much for sharing your memories of him. I feel like there ought to be a national day of mourning - he was that much a part of our culture.
Aug 13, 2014   |  Reply
 
 
pj bednarski
Wow, David...I remember both of those press events, and you were so right. (Brogan actually was brilliant, when he got a fair chance.) I never thought TV critics could make or break anything unless their praise or damnation was emphatic and universal. For Williams, I think every critic in the country was blown away, and they were all in that room.
Aug 12, 2014   |  Reply
 
 
 
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