I first saw Robin Williams perform about a year before his career took off, when he was doing stand up in San Francisco, where I lived at the time. I was about 28 years old and I went to a comedy club, called The Boarding House, with a friend, having heard rumors of this hot new comic. About ten minutes into his frenetic routine my friend and I looked at each other, our mouths agape, and simultaneously said, “Unbelievable!” It was unlike anything that anyone else was doing; spiritual, profane, gross, sublime, full of popular culture and also arcane historical references, like someone took the lid off the universal Pandoric subconscious and just let the genie out to roam at will (and this was years before he played the genie in Aladdin, which was the most perfect casting in the history of cinema). He acted out a slow motion tai chi dance in one of his routines, while spouting witty one-liners in concert with the movements, to illustrate how he could manipulate time, perhaps giving us a glimpse into how he experienced reality and how different his experience was from ours, like an athlete in the zone. “Reality, what a concept,” was a getaway line for him.
I’d long been a fan of Jonathan Winters, who was clearly one of Robin’s main inspirations, but that night was like watching Jonathan Winters on steroids to the tenth power (of course, we later learned it was probably fueled more by cocaine, but in those innocent days I’d hoped it was au naturale).
After the second time that I saw him perform I tried to send him a note, via one of the club managers, to ask if he would let me interview him. I was, at that time, a seminary student and a regular contributor to a theological magazine called Epiphany Journal and I believed that Robin Williams was operating about as close to the “Eternal Now” as was humanly possible, and I wanted to know more about his process. There was an Icarus-like quality to his ambitions and I feared that the wing-wax might soon melt but, as a performer, he flew as close to the sun as I’d ever witnessed; it was both inspiring and scary. I never got a reply to my interview request and I doubt that he ever received it, but it was as near as I ever got to him, though I followed his career earnestly till the end.
I saw him perform a few more times during that break-out year, and when I went to catch his set at a different club, about twelve months later, just as he was about launch Mork and Mindy (he’d already done a legendary HBO special, so he was no longer my/our little San Francisco discovery), he was clearly off his game. Normally, (if such a word could ever be used in association with Robin) he had a very clever way of pulling out of a bad joke sequence by stopping the show and directly addressing the audience with a straight face, declaring, “So this is what must be known as Comedy Hell.” Then he’d go off on a comedy hell riff, invoking demons and inner voices that would magically turn things around and win back the crowd. (He also had a “Comedy Heaven” routine that he’d use when the audience was too easy on him, admonishing us by saying, “Now you’re laughing at nothing.” Brilliant!) But on this night even the Comedy Hell trick wasn’t working, so he kept sputtering, working hard to turn it around, sweating profusely, drinking lots of water, knowing that it just wasn’t happening, a little panic entering into what seemed like his coked-up bravado. It was hard to watch but I was glad I got to see him in this situation, though disappointed that he wasn’t as mind boggling as before, because everyone knows that these are the situations that really test a comic’s mettle. It was painful but, by now he was a veteran trouper and he managed to pull out of the tailspin enough to leave us hungry for more, applauding for him wildly; an A for effort. It was on that night that I began to wonder how long he could keep going at this pace before imploding. Amazingly, it took thirty five years, though who knows how many crash and burns he went through along the way -- we do know of a few, but probably not all. Every time he got clean and sober I breathed a sigh of relief and hoped he could keep bouncing back. But his resilience, as we now know, had its limit.
There’s no way to know just how much each performance took out of him, but if any of you have ever laid it all out there (“Left it all on the field,” as they say in sports) -- and I know many of you have -- you know how it is both exhilarating and draining, how there’s always a cost. When I heard of his death I became profoundly sad and it hasn’t surprised me that so many others were equally saddened. Great artists have a way of becoming transparent to and sharing with their audiences their deep longing for something always just out reach. Robin’s performances, at least the early ones I got to witness, and also some of his best film roles, caused us to believe that, even while still out of reach, the things longed for were nearer than ever to our grasp, maybe even achievable but, oh my, at what a cost. The sadness I now feel is a kind of melancholy, putting me in touch with my own longing for what C. S. Lewis called the great “I know not what.” When Robin performed, the “I know not what” seemed almost graspable. But, because it is, in reality (yes, what a concept), still always just out of reach, the quest for it can sometimes wear you out. I wish we had another twenty years of him, but that’s just selfish.
I’ll find my own way to stay renewed in the quest of my own longings, and wish I had been able to help him keep bouncing back. A lot of people are wishing that, even those of us who never knew him. But what a joy it was to live, if even vicariously, in the slipstream of his unbelievable energy.