To be a standup comic in the San Francisco Bay Area is to live in Robin Williams’ shadow. He lived here. He came up here, performing in the legendary Purple Onion and Holy City Zoo comedy clubs. Every so often, my Facebook and Twitter feeds would light up with posts reading “ROBIN WILLIAMS IS AT MY SHOW” or “Robin Williams saw my set and told me I was funny!” or simply a photo of an open miker, beaming next to a comedy demigod who looks exactly as kind in reality as he did on the big screen in his Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting “inspirational teacher roles.”
I never met Robin Williams. Not once. I never found myself standing in a room with him, and even if I had, I doubt I would have approached him. I don’t take photos with celebrities, as a rule—it always feels self-serving and weird to me, a strange visual humblebrag that my Midwestern upbringing tells me is inappropriate. And what on earth would I have said to Robin Williams? “Hey, I’m a comedian, too, sort of. I have a day job, but someday I’m going to quit, and then I’ll be a real comedian, like you.” That, too, feels gross—if I couldn’t tell Robin Williams “I’m a comedian,” full stop, with no qualifications, then I wasn’t really a comedian. I would wait. I would become a real comedian. And I would run into him some other time, later.
I thought I had more time. We all did.
So, Robin? I’m a comedian. Thank you for so many years of laughter.
Despite your enormous success in television and then in film, you never stopped doing standup comedy. You were a working standup comedian for over forty years. You never stopped because you loved it. It was obvious. It was obvious the night I heard a bootleg recording of your improvised Shakespeare for the first time. It was obvious anytime you were at a glitzy Hollywood awards show and for the few minutes you were presenting or accepting an award, the Oscars became a comedy club. It was obvious in every special you recorded, all the way up to 2009’s Weapons of Self Destruction, when you proved that nothing—not age, not a years-long struggle with substance abuse, and not even a heart attack could dull your manic genius.
It’s no secret that some of the funniest people in the world are afflicted with depression, but today I’d rather focus on how fortunate we were to have this remarkable man with us for so long. Regardless of his personal demons, he created comedy that will live on for generations, and that is something to celebrate.
Like most of you, I never met Robin Williams. Like most of you, he made me laugh many times. And like most of you, I will miss him terribly. Whether you grew up watching him on Carson, as Mork from Ork, voicing Aladdin’s friend Genie, or delivering Oscar-worthy film performances, it’s safe to say he touched your life.
Robin Williams once said “Comedy is acting out optimism.” In honor of his tremendous life and legacy, please act out some optimism today.