Robin Williams honed his zany, rapid-fire comedic persona in the hothouse environment of Los Angeles comedy clubs in the mid- to late-1970s.
Even in an scene that nurtured such notables as David Letterman, Andy Kaufman, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, Sam Kinison, Elayne Boosler, Tom Dreesen and George Miller, Williams’ unique style made a huge impression. From the start, Williams was endowed with the incredible ad-lib and improv skills that friends and fans have hailed as comic genius since his death Monday of suicide at age 63.
“He seemed to be omnipresent back then and was a topic of discussion wherever he went,” said author-humorist Merrill Markoe. He was a tough act for other comedians to follow — akin to a “comedy cylone,” she added. “In his act, he was id, ego and super-ego all at the same time.”
Off stage, there was a gentleness to Williams that was always quite the contrast to his hyper-kinetic performances. “Robin was always very gentle, very humble and very polite,” said Chris Albrecht, CEO of Starz who was a close friend of Williams’ since the late 1970s. “He was someone who was very happy in social situations to let someone else be the center of attention.”
Like many others in that cocaine-fueled era, Williams lived in the fast lane, especially as he became more successful. He was candid in later years about his struggles with drug and alcohol addiction. Friends and colleagues say Williams was not a particularly voracious partier by the standards of the day.
“Anybody who grew up in that time had those experiences,” said Albrecht, who befriended Williams in 1977 when Albrecht was running the Improv comedy club in New York. “Robin was not unique in that way. It was just the ’70s.”
George Schlatter first saw Williams as a street performer in San Francisco, when Williams was working out of the famed Bay Area comedy club Holy City Zoo. A year later, Schlatter saw him in L.A. at the Comedy Store and cast him in the 1977 NBC special “The Great American Laugh Off.” Williams was supposed to do a five-minute bit, but it extended to 15 minutes “because people could not believe what they were seeing,” he said. “It was character after character and that unbelievable machine-gun delivery.”
Schlatter notes that Williams’ material was enriched by the fact that he was highly educated, having attended Juilliard, and had great curiousity about the world.
“He’s one of the most well-educated comedians we’ve ever had,” Schlatter said. “Part of that came from the wealth of knowledge and expertise he developed at Juilliard.”
During his club days, Williams was already sporting the rainbow suspenders that would become a signature on “Mork and Mindy,” and he would startle auds by spewing out phrases and voices and bits of Shakespearean dialogue one minute, and then walking on table tops, picking up objects and improvising riffs about them the next. All the while he’d be having lightning-fast conversations with himself about his act and how it was going while he was doing it. It was anything but the set-up-joke-set-up rhythm of most of his contemporaries.
Schlatter recalls being impressed after seeing Williams on stage at the Comedy Store in Westwood dressed in a straw hat and overalls. “He extended the mic stand over the audience and said ‘I’m fishing for assholes.'”
Markoe remembers first meeting Williams while he was performing with an improv group dubbed Off the Wall that had a residency at a Fairfax Avenue club in Hollywood. In those days, Williams was an ardent fan of Kaufman, which led to his friendship with Kaufman’s writing partner, Bob Zmuda. Zmuda would go on to create the Comic Relief telethon series that Williams, Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg hosted on HBO in the 1980s and ’90s.
“Robin came to every Andy Kaufman show,” Zmuda said.
After “Great American Laugh Off,” Schlatter cast Williams as part of the ensemble in his revival of “Laugh-in” as a series of specials for NBC. Markoe worked on the show as a writer. Markoe jokes that Williams was the only cast member who validated Schlatter’s assertion that the show was packed with “stars of tomorrow.”
“You didn’t really need to bother writing for him,” Markoe said. “When the camera was on, he blew through doing what he did and stole the show.”
Before Williams could move on to the series-regular role that would make him a mega-star, on the ABC sitcom “Mork and Mindy,” he had to go through arbitration against Schlatter to end his “Laugh-in” contract.
The settlement decision — which noted that Williams made $1500 per hour for “Laugh-in” and stood to make $15,000 per episode for “Mork and Mindy” — landed on page one of the Aug. 23, 1978, edition of Variety. In his decision, arbitrator Edgar A. Jones Jr. slammed WMA for repping both Williams and Schlatter Prods. in the deal. Jones concluded that in the agreement, “the mutuality of obligation was so disproportionately advantageous to the producer as to fail to pass muster as an enforceable contract.”
According to Schlatter, there were no hard feelings and the two remained friends.
After “Mork and Mindy” made him a pop culture sensation in the fall of 1978, Williams moved beyond the L.A. club scene to national tours and recording hit comedy albums. The heady experience of quickly gaining fame and fortune fueled his off-screen excesses. By Williams’ own account, the death of his friend John Belushi in March 1982 from a overdose was the wake-up call that set him on the path to sobriety. Williams had been with Belushi at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood hours before the “Saturday Night Live” star was found dead.
Williams mined his battle with addiction for material in his stand-up performances, which offered featured lengthy riffs on his highs and lows while on cocaine. “Cocaine,” Williams famously declared, “is God’s way of saying you’re making too much money.”
Although friends knew Williams had long wrestled with internal conflicts, the news that he died by his own hand was no less devastating.
“He was a sweetheart, and that just makes it more shocking,” Zmuda said. “He would talk about his depression and his alcohol problem in interviews but he’d do it in a funny way, so you thought ‘He’s got a handle on it.’ Obviously he didn’t.”
As Albrecht observed: “It was always a joy to see Robin, he was always so full of life. That’s why the news from yesterday is so hard to fathom.”