My best Robin Williams memory comes from watching him perform live, from about ten feet away, at a tiny tiny club in the Mission District in San Francisco called The Mock Cafe. When I first started performing there, I think it sat about 11 people, and two of those seats had their view blocked by a support column. When Robin started dropping by to perform there on occasional Friday and Saturday nights, I think they’d expanded to hold about thirty, maybe forty if they broke the fire code. Anyway, my sketch group kind of accidentally ended up “opening” for him one night, meaning we did our little set and he then went up and erased all memory of us from the audience with forty five minutes of blistering improv’d stand-up. He was sweating like a beast within ten minutes. I had a friend in the front row who was a budding entomologist and had a multitude of gorgeous insect tattoos. Once he saw her, and her ink, his eyes lit up and he did about fifteen or twenty minutes on the life, thoughts and inner monologue of a bug.
Throughout his freewheeling set, whenever he started to lose the thread, he would return to my friend and use her as a springboard for further riffing. Backstage and out on the sidewalk between sets, he was warm and gracious and friendly and as many others have said, treated everyone like an equal. He obviously was energized by being in a place where real comedy was happening and up and comers (and never-quite-wases like me) were getting their feet wet. I remember riffing with him about the odd fact that Martha Stewart and P-Diddy were friends who hung out in the Hamptons together, and I made some crack about them making a gingerbread crackhouse together. He liked the line enough, I thought I saw the glimmer of the joke thief in his eye. I wouldn’t have minded, to be honest.
The first time I met him, outside that same club just a few weeks before, I was just drunk enough to think “When am I gonna be this close to Robin Williams again?” so I hit him up for a ride home. He found a very nice way to say no, because he had to pick up one of his kids and only had the “small car.” “Next time, I’ll bring the big one and we’ll all go!” he said. Then he tried to offer me 20 bucks for a cab but there was no way I was taking his money. I probably should have been embarrassed but he was just so goddamn sweet about the whole thing.
He did a lot of things over the years, between those days when me and my best grade school buddy would sit around listening to “Reality…What a Concept” and memorizing his bits, and the less illustrious film roles that we all couldn’t help but question and mock, but he was a truly funny man and a force to be reckoned with. I’m forever fortunate I got to see him work and sweat up close and bask in the glow just a little.