It was the summer of 1981. I was living in the Grammercy and later Astoria, Queens area of NYC in search of myself on the stand-up comedy stages of NYC. I was terrible but I was ambitious (and in denial) so I thought I would eventually become “one of the best”. I felt wrong.
Nevertheless, I haunted all the old stages of the big city, playing well into the wee hours of the morning at such establishments as Dangerfield’s, Good Times, Bottom Line, Bitter End, The Improv, Catch A Rising Star, and a myriad of venues in Brooklyn and N.J.
One night, while playing at Catch a Rising Star or “Catch” as we liked to call it, I was summoned by the manager to postpone my performance….that “a star” was coming that night to hone his skills. Generally that meant Jerry Seinfeld (or any of the other future cast members of the standup show), or even Rosie O’Donnell who was still doing stand-up at the time.
I had only been in NYC less than a year, working jobs day and night to stay afloat (from bartending to cab driving to a public relations internship). I often did all 3 jobs at the same time, leaving about 2 hours to take the train to the comedy club, perform, go home, catch 3 hours of sleep, and go to my office job. I was 28 years old at the time and it seemed so easy. Today, I look back and shake my head.
About 12 of us (comedians) stood back stage as a surprisingly tall lanky man entered the stage through the back door. He looked so familiar. I’m 6’ 2”. The man in front of me, the one who made me laugh so many times as Mork, appeared to be much taller. Until this day I was certain he was about 6’ 4” but I’m reading articles today that he was only 5; 7”. Maybe it was that he was bigger than life even back then. My peers seemed to also agree….”…Much taller than I expected”.
He greeted us like long lost friends. Though many of the comics did the spread-fingers of Mork with a nah nu nah nu, Robin simply smiled and chuckled a bit and acknowledged in appreciation that they remembered it, but greeted back with a handshake and a hand on the shoulder. He was exceptionally warm. I realized he remembered his “tough early days” of trying to survive as a stand-up. Nothing easy about it (in case someone has not tried).
Catch was in a nice area but the crime rate was very high there (around the East 90s at 2nd Ave). He opened his show, “Welcome to ‘Catch A Stolen Car….”
After the show he bought us all (the comics) drinks chatted and laughed with us, and was on his way somewhere else (parts unknown). This happened a few more times over the course of the year. Especially after making a film, he’d use his “down-time” haunting the NYC comedy clubs (especially “Catch”) to “hone his act”. Though it was always more than a pleasure to see him, I often wondered why he felt he needed his act to be honed. I realize now he knew better. He simply loved to be up-close and personal while he was making people laugh. Movies were great and paid a lot more than comedy, but the comedy club stage was the only place to monitor just how good (or not) one was.
Months went by and we noticed “Mork” was beginning to step into the world of celluloid (Silver Screen). We felt for sure we’d lost our “occasional mentor” but low and behold within a few months Robin was back with his same friendly demeanor and a kind word of inspiration for everyone. And though that was not enough for me to stay in stand-up comedy/impressions (which I loved), I also knew, alas, I could write comedy pretty well, but I’d never be a decent stand-up act. I don’t regret learning that, in fact, it helped me to move on and into other arenas (which also involved humor) of which I still do.
Robin Williams was an enigma. None of us will ever know why his demons stayed with him, but none of us can judge. We all have a certain amount of our own demons of which we should slay before judging others for their own, and, even if we happen to slay them, there’s no room for judgment of Robin Williams (or anyone else). We know that he was trying, and trying hard to straighten up his act and had been working on it for about two decades.
We are a fortunate generation. Many generations never had a “Robin Williams” and though Robin’s inspiration Jonathan Winters was beyond funny and probably one of the best comedians that ever lived, Robin took that a step further, wandering into the volatile waters of drama and suspense, and mastered it every bit as well as he did comedy.
He also loved his family. I’ve heard some say, “Well how could he love his family if he killed himself”? First of all the investigation is not over and there is every bit a chance this was an accident than a suicide. But you ask, “Rick how could that be”? I am reminded of the story of David Carradine’s death which surely appeared to be a suicide but was not (nor was it a murder). Though auto-erotic asphyxiation is not a topic often discussed, it appears it could easily have been what happened here.
And even if it is not, Robin Williams admittedly suffered from a type of depression of the worst kind. He could have easily also been misdiagnosed (as I was) and actually had a faulty vagus nerve, and medically treated incorrectly for so many years. Vagus nerve disorders are not a mental illness (but can mimic one or more) and if left untreated, can, indeed, be even worse than garden-variety depression, addiction, etc. It is very rare to get a correct diagnosis for a vagus nerve issue. I only “got lucky” to get a vagus nerve implant” because I fought it tooth and nail (after reading of the clinical trials) for 8 years.
It is much more important, to me, that Robin Williams be remembered for what he contributed to our culture which is so massive in scope, it would take a Wikipedia to catalog it all. We know he’s gone and I believe the details of that, unless proven foul play which I strongly doubt, should be a private matter of which we’re not involved. We don’t get those details from our friends in the community when they die, only a “surface medical description” such as “heart disease” or “long struggle with cancer”. The media could simply say, “After a long struggle with depression….”.; and lend respect of privacy to his family. In addition to his tv/film/comedy career, he volunteered to go to some of the world’s most dangerous war zones with the USO to entertain our troops. His career needed no boost (it is said that some celebs hop on the USO wagon when their career begins to wane) and, it is obvious that a few have.
But not Robin Williams, not Bob Hope, not Marilyn Monroe…..After writing this paragraph, I realize that though Robin was in a league of his own, yet he was also in a league of selfless people who just wanted to make people laugh or smile….and no bullets or bombs were going to stop them. That’s how important it was to them. Whether one was or wasn’t a Robin Williams fan, one can surely appreciate his character and his patriotism to our country. It really mattered to him, and he gave back way more than he took.
Rick London is a writer, cartoonist and designer. He is best known for his Google #1 ranked offbeat cartoons, Londons Times and funny gifts. He is an activist for animals and eco-causes and lives with his wife nature photographer Lee Hiller in the Arkansas Ouachita Mountains.