A career at the improv

Williams an anomaly among stand-ups with off-the-cuff, high-energy style

Last December, en route to a Bahrain army base, Robin Williams’ manager, David Steinberg, received a call from the Joint Chiefs of Staffs’ office about the comedian’s next stand-up gig.

Surprise: the audience of U.S. military personnel would also include children.

Steinberg was concerned. Williams — who’s this year’s recipient of the HFPA’s Cecil B. De Mille award — had little time to adapt his typically mature-themed material for the family aud.

“But Robin goes out there and does a show that’s as socially conscious as his previous ones, without any four-letter words in it, without changing his delivery or switching out material,” Steinberg says.

It’s been Williams’ uncanny ability to think on his feet that’s been the foundation of one of stand-up comedy’s pre-eminent careers.

Indeed, Williams ranks right up there with the best of a standout era for stand-up — the 1970s and ’80s.

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In fact, his comedy albums have earned him four Grammys — among comics, only George Carlin has as many — and his 1979 “Reality …What a Concept” went gold.

Over the past 30 years, the Juilliard-trained Williams has remained an anomaly among stand-ups with his off-the-cuff, high-energy, improvisational style — one that’s allowed him to sidestep his way around many of the rhythmic techniques most stand-ups rely on and spend their entire careers perfecting.

If Williams’ stand-up career has been unique, so was his training.

“Robin was the first comedian who brought a classical actor’s training into the realm of stand-up,” notes HBO topper Chris Albrecht, who as manager and co-owner of New York comedy club Improvisation in the mid-1970s, was one of the first to unleash Williams on stage.

“Juilliard was great training,” Williams agrees. “They stripped you of everything you think is acting, and then they rebuild you. They taught a combo of English and method, so you knew how to work from outside and inside.”

After dropping out of Juilliard in the early ’70s, Williams did street mime in New York for a short period. But it wasn’t until he migrated to San Francisco that his manic, stream-of-consciousness comedy style began to take shape.

He’s made it no secret that comedian Jonathan Winters has been his biggest influence from early on. And certainly, hearing Winters launch into an interview between himself and his alter-ego, the mischievous, gun-toting, 10-year-old Chester Honeyhugger, one witnesses the similarity between Winters and Williams’ forte for acerbic personalities.

Another early point of influence in Williams’ comedic development was Harvey Lembeck’s comedy studio in Los Angeles, which he first entered in 1974.

Williams took a liking to Lembeck’s improv motto, “go for the joke,” which ran counter to the popular standard of emphasizing truth in improv.

“It was more uncut,” says Williams of his early material. “The bits were like headers — the football quarterback on acid or the funky Lawrence Welk. It was more about coming up with an idea and riffing on it, then the improv would build.”

In 1976, after seeing Williams perform at the Westwood Comedy Store annex, producer George Schlatter, who was bringing back TV’s “Laugh-In,” scooped him up for six episodes on his sketch show.

“I saw whoever I was trying to see when this bearded guy in overalls and a straw hat takes the mike, holds it over the audience and says ‘I’m fishing for asshole,’ ” Schlatter recalls.

“Robin was a total surprise the first time I saw him. He was raw and took on a whole new delivery. He took this wild imagination and combined it with the irreverence of Lenny Bruce to create a whole new kind of comedy.”

“Laugh-In” soon faded out, but Williams’ career trajectory would point straight up.

Talent manager Larry Brezner spotted him at Lembeck’s workshop. And the next thing anybody knew, Williams was playing a wacky space alien on a hit ABC series.

Those close to Williams say stand-up played a particularly important role in the comic’s life at that time, which had become a bit complicated with success. After “Mork & Mindy” tapings, he’d routinely perform until 4 a.m. at clubs, blowing off the steam that came with newfound pressures.

Like many a young major league fire-baller, the talented Williams’ break-out period was fraught with onstage control issues.

“We invited the United Artists executives at that time to the Comedy Store for one of Robin’s performances,” Brezner recalls. “He did this Shakespearean piece before breaking into an imitation of Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier from ‘The Defiant Ones.’ Not only did he play both parts, but he was also playing the dogs that were chasing them. He was jumping from table to table until he ran over one of the UA executives.”

While this volatility has largely worked for him, Williams’ handlers have since been careful to monitor his shows and keep folks such as HBO producers apprised as to what his act will be from day to day — in particular, to make sure he doesn’t surprise them by spiraling off into 20 minutes of improvised material, as he did on the taping of HBO’s “Robin Williams: Live at the Met” in ’86.

Of course, as his recent family-friendly U.S. Army gig proves, Williams seems to have mastered his heat.

“He’s a much more disciplined comedian than he was 20 years ago, though his process and brilliance are still the same,” says Marty Callner, who directed Williams on HBO’s “Young Comedians” special, which aired as “Mork & Mindy” was taking off. Callner reunited with the comedian in 2002 for his last big TV special, “Robin Williams: Live on Broadway.”

Still, his ricochet style has remained intact — even as both he and his material have matured.

“What’s changed is that Robin’s changed,” Albrecht says. “He’s older. His points of reference are more personal than when he was younger. He went through painful periods of personal growth, he got married, divorced, remarried and this sense of life development has been transmitted through his work.”