Robin Williams: A Remembrance
Comedian Will Franken reflects on a friendship with the late, great standup and actor, whose passing last year shook the comedy world
It might be controversial to say, but on a national scale, 2014 sucked in the world of comedy. Oh sure, there was Toast of London Series 2, Richard Ayoade did a funny interview and Phil Ellis and Gein’s Family Giftshop both received well-deserved Edinburgh adulation, but there was a whole heap of awfulness too. The rise and fall of Dapper Laughs was sad on two accounts, first for those who hated him, and then for those who loved him. Andrew Lawrence’s surprise campaign against the blandness of panel show guests quickly turned into a tirade against feminism, I think he used the word ‘feminazi’. It wasn’t great. And the Preston Frog and Bucket closed down, one of the most established purpose-made comedy clubs in the Northwest.
Worse still, 2014 is the year that we lost some of our most beloved comedy heroes. From Hollywood stars that made up the fabric of a generation’s childhood, to revolutionaries in the comedy world, a lot of absolutely wonderful talents stepped out of the light last year. Rik Mayall, Joan Rivers and Jan Hooks were among the dearly departed but it was perhaps the suicide of Robin Williams that shook most to the core, laying bare as it did the tears of the clown – and exposing the very real pain of depression among even the most jovial of entertainers.
When luminaries pass, we must look to all the good they left us. Will Franken is an American absurdist comedian now based in the UK, who, while performing comedy in his home country, struck up a friendship with Williams – and kindly agreed to write about his memories. [Edy Hurst]
A few weeks ago I was in Manchester, discussing with a relatively new comedian the stark difference between the level of mutual support apparent in the open spots community and the backbiting gossip evident among more established performers. The conclusion was that you know you've made it in comedy when the majority of your green room small talk is devoted to the fine art of 'talking shit' about other comedians.
It all boils down to jealousy, of course. The further you move from the art of comedy into the business of it, the more prevalent that feeling becomes. I asked Robin Williams once if he ever got jealous. “Oh, fuck yeah,” he said, “I relapsed on it.”
The story of my brief friendship with Robin is one that would never have been possible had I not undergone a severe levelling of ego and a concomitant infusion of humility. Having begun my career in northern California, where Robin was a resident, there were plenty of opportunities over the years to have met him. I invariably declined in those early days. Ostensibly, I didn't want to meet him as a drooling sycophant – but a certain amount of fear, I'm sure, was also at play. “I'll mean nothing in that hierarchy,” my thinking went, “and in these early stages, my self-worth can't handle that.”
Not surprisingly, Robin had carte blanche to show up at any gig uninvited and be inserted into the running order. Undoubtedly, he deserved it. He was, after all, comedy royalty. I remember one summer I was on the lineup for San Francisco's Comedy Day in the Park. Twenty minutes before I was scheduled to go on, the promoter came backstage to announce to the comedians: “Robin's here. One of you may have to follow him.”
“I'll do it,” I announced audaciously and with a trickle of palpable fear running down my spine. I wonder now what I was trying to prove.
How I finally came to know Robin as a friend seems in retrospect such a gradual process. A series of perhaps random or not so random coincidences – like proverbial ripples in the water, yet moving towards, and not away from, the initial point of contact. Sometime following that Comedy Day appearance, I went head to head with Marc Maron at a live recording of Maron's podcast. At the time, Robin was in the audience, sitting a few feet away from my then-girlfriend. I needled her endlessly after the gig to find out his reaction. Suddenly, that had become very important to me. Me, the self-proclaimed iconoclast; supposedly unfazed by celebrity.
"He reminded me that we were lucky to do what we did. He said that a lot of people just had to live with their craziness. But we got to show it off onstage" – Will Franken
But it was at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley where everything coalesced. Robin lived near Mill Valley and used to hang out in the green room there on show nights, sometimes on his own and sometimes with his wife, Susan. By then, for whatever reason, my misguided and reckless pride had largely abated, and Robin and I talked a great deal that night about all sorts of things. More importantly, we conversed in funny voices. Now that was a reality almost too beautiful to comprehend. There I was with Robin Williams – doing camp, black, English, even Scottish voices! – improvising in the lush green room of the Throckmorton.
I didn't know how long I could keep it up. For one, I needed to get ready for my set. But moreover, I was worried I was going to cry. The funny voices might have belied it to the outside observer, but inside I was emotionally overcome with the unreality of it all. There were neither audience nor film cameras around, but there I was, to be sure, acting with Robin Williams!
I finally gathered the chutzpah to ask him if he'd mind sitting in the audience to watch me. He said yes.
Backstage, I waited in anticipation behind the wings. Suddenly, as the compere prepared to introduce me, I heard what seemed to be talking emanating from the audience. “Oh shit,” I thought, “they're a chatty crowd.”
They weren't. A lady was having a seizure in the front row!
An ambulance was called and the show took a forced interval. Meanwhile, I rang a friend and alternated between selfish anger when others weren't around (“This fucking woman has a seizure right before Robin fucking Williams is going to see me...”) and contrived concern when they were (“Anyway, I really hope she's okay...”). After the call, I returned to the green room and sheepishly asked Robin if he'd mind heading back out when the impromptu interval was over. He politely agreed and admonished me with his unmistakable grin not to do any seizure material...
My cherished but tragically short-lived friendship with Robin began that evening. I don't believe I had ever met anybody before or since with whom I could share the same ability (affliction?) of morphing from a funny-voiced maniac in mundane, small-talk conversations into a self-effacing, slightly nervous, but nonetheless genuine person when things got real.
Initially, it was difficult – with the sort of reputation, acclaim, and sheer talent that Robin had – to completely shed the feeling of being somehow beneath him, no matter how close the friendship was. He never did anything to make me feel that way – I'm just speaking objectively. As iconoclastic as I sometimes pride myself on being, at the end of the day an Oscar-winning celebrity is an Oscar-winning celebrity; and when, one evening in those early days, he broke off a conversation with a reporter to run up to me and enthuse about how much he liked a YouTube clip of mine, I had to quickly thank him, go outside, turn the corner, find a little alleyway and have a proper cry after all. It was inevitable – I had been blessed by the Pope.
A little over two years ago, I met Robin for coffee to discuss my plans to relocate to England. There's a lot I remember about that last face-to-face, but the gem that sticks out was when he reminded me that we were lucky we got to do what we did. He said that a lot of people just had to live with their craziness. But we got to show it off onstage.
It was observations like this, uttered away from the limelight and the industry and the insincere sycophancy that must have so often accompanied him throughout his life, that enabled me to recognise him as something much more than an Oscar-winning actor, celebrity icon, or even comedy career advisor. To me, Robin was a kindred spirit.
And that's a very precious commodity in what is often a very lonely profession. [Will Franken]