Robin Williams Remembered: "No Comic Ever Became So Famous, So Fast"

9:00 AM PST 08/13/2014 by William Knoedelseder
Courtesy of Everett Collection
Robin Williams as Mork with Ron Howard as Richie Cunningham

William Knoedelseder, author of 'I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era,' recalls the late actor's days as a manic standup comedian on the Sunset Strip

An abbreviated version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

The first time I saw Robin Williams perform was at the Comedy Store on Sunset Strip in 1977. He was, literally, the new kid in town, 26 years old and fresh from performing at a club called the Holy City Zoo in San Francisco. I was a cub reporter for the Los Angeles Times and my beat was the local comedy club scene, where on any given Friday night you could catch such not-yet-famous performers as David Letterman, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, Billy Crystal, Tom Dreesen, Michael Keaton and Elayne Boosler, all for a cover charge of $3.00. If you were really lucky, Richard Pryor might show up to work out some new material for his upcoming tour.

Williams bounded onto the stage that night with all the impish, manic brilliance of a young Jonathan Winters on speed with a Juilliard education. As he ran through a 20-minute set that consisted of a seemingly free-form stream of voices and characters without so much as a single joke, I laughed so hard that at one point I feared I might swallow my tongue. It was all so fast and seamless that today I can’t recall any particular bit, but I can still conjure the energy that charged the room. I had never experienced anything like it before, nor have I since. 

So I wasn’t surprised a year later when Williams signed a $15,000 a week contract (big money back then) to star as the lead character in Mork and Mindy, an ABC sitcom that drew upon his wildly improvisational club act to the extent that the scripts often contained stage directions like “Robin goes off here” in place of written dialogue. The show shot to number one, drawing more than 57 million viewers each week. Suddenly, Williams was everywhere—on the cover of Time and People magazine, on every talk show. No comic ever became so famous so fast, not Freddy Prinze, not Steve Martin, not Jerry Seinfeld. He was mobbed in public, with fans shouting out Mork’s greeting, “Nanu, Nanu,” wherever he went. He was unnerved by it, embarrassed, but still drawn to the limelight.

Even with his grueling TV schedule, he continued to perform at The Comedy Store and the Improv on Melrose, turning his ambivalence about his new star status into a mock Shakespearian soliloquy: “To TV or not TV. Whether ‘tis nobler to do stupid shit at 8 o’clock, aye to take the money and run and yet buy a condominium, this all vexes me thus.” As he told one interviewer at the time, “Live performing is my drug. I really do feel like a junkie, not just for the laughs but for the energy.”

Drugs were pervasive in club scene. You couldn’t stand in the Comedy Store parking lot or back hallway for five minutes without someone passing you a joint. But since the comics worked at the Store and the Improv for free, few of them could afford cocaine. Williams was among a small group that gathered regularly in the wee hours at the home of Comedy Store owner Mitzi Shore to snort coke with their idol Richard Pryor, who later nearly died after intentionally setting himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. Drug references began to come up more frequently in Williams’ stage performances, the most memorable being, “Cocaine is God’s way of telling you that you are making too much money.”

It was a funny line that masked a sad reality: drug addiction, depression and suicide stalked the comedy community. Freddie Prinze had all the success that any of his peers could hope for in 1977, when he fired a bullet into his brain in a Quaalude addled moment of despair. Two years later, a comic named Steve Lubetkin, who had helped organize a strike against The Comedy Store over its no-payment policy, jumped to his death from roof of the Hyatt House next door when he became convinced he would never be allowed to work in the club again. Williams privately supported the strike but didn’t walk the picket like Letterman and others. He knew Lubetkin and Prinze, but it took the loss of his friend John Belushi in 1982 to get him to quit drugs and alcohol cold turkey.

I quit the comedy beat around the same time, having come to the realization that people who made their living making others laugh tended to be tortured souls that no amount of love or laughter could fix. I didn’t think Robin Williams was one of them, however. Like everyone else, I followed his career as he moved into acting, won an Oscar and became one of America’s best-known and most beloved entertainers. I was happy for him when he finally admitted publicly that he’d been addicted to alcohol and cocaine during those early club years and said that after two decades of “white knuckle” sobriety he was entering a treatment program to deal with his issues. I saw him a couple of times after that and even talked to him once, briefly. He seemed good. Not all the way there, perhaps, but well on his way.  

In an interview with Diane Sawyer in 2006, Williams talked about the temptation to relapse, likening it to considering suicide. “You stand on a precipice and you look down,” he said. “There’s a voice, and it’s a little quiet voice, that goes, “Jump."

To read more tributes to Williams, please visit here.

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