The World According to Robin Williams By Roy Sekoff
Way back in 1983 Roy Sekoff, now President and Chief Creative Officer at The Huffington Post, sat down to interview a comedy legend. That legend? None other than Robin Williams. Take a trip down memory lane and pay tribute to one of the greatest to ever grace the stage.
Laugh Factory Magazine: Do you have any recurrent dreams about working on stage?
Robin Williams: What do you mean? A huge foreskin curtain descending on me, or something? No, nothing like that.
LFM: You’re a real proponent of the comedy club scene. No matter what else you’re doing, you seem to always make time for a few sets at the clubs.
Williams: Yeah, I love stand-up. I love watching it and I love doing it. It keeps you alive…literally alive. It also keeps you honest. There’s a great joy in doing stand-up.
LFM: There must also be — particularly for you — a tremendous release in the freedom that stand up affords; being able to present yourself unencumbered by technical constraints or commercial considerations.
Williams: For me it’s therapy. [He laughs] Stand-up is the freest form of comedy, and also the scariest. It’s a lot like playing, especially when I get to jam with other performers…comedians can jam like musicians. We can get together and play. I’ve played with Pryor and Jonathan, I felt like a jazz musician might have if he’d played with [Charlie] Parker: [scratchy-voiced] “I jam-jam with Pryor. We did seven nights in a row one time. Back to back jamming each night.” You get out there and just fly. That’s when I really get off.
Robin is the American flag
LFM: Earlier you made a joke about comedy being therapy, but, actually, pure improvisation is very much like Freudian free association.
Williams: Yes, it is. I went to a therapist for a while, but I think that I can deal with my fears better upon stage…it’s healthier for me.
LFM: Do you feel that stand-up comedy is an art form?
Williams: [He laughs] I can just hear somebody going: [Old Jewish man’s voice] “Mr. Villiams, who are you to talk about art? You touch yourself!” I think that anything is art if it comes from deep inside, if there’s a deep love of it. You know something is art when it grabs you, ‘cause it’s coming from someplace that no one knows about. I don’t know why stuff works. It’s an old cliché, but I find it very Zen-like; you’re locked in this place and then things start coming to you, you just connect with The Big Channel In The Sky. An incredible calm comes over me. It’s like distance running — the feeling that comes over you after you’ve done eight or nine miles — you’re exhausted, but something clicks on and you go into this euphoric state. That’s when it works…when it feels like that. It’s like those gurus, they’re stand-up comics. They’re making the same money going: [Indian accent] “My dear, how many Rolls Royces does it take to screw in your consciousness? Now give me all of your money…Oh, what a schmuck you are!”
LFM: But, aren’t the clubs more cut-throat than spiritual?
Williams: It’s an incredible world, but I didn’t mean to make it seem gentle. It’s not. It’s a very rough world. The first stand-up comedians were probably gladiators going: “But seriously…” Comedy is something that can be crude, but I’ve also seen it raised to a level way above and beyond where it can actually touch into something that is omnipresent and is significant, or that will touch people’s hearts and minds and souls at the same time. When you do that, there’s this little thing that rings inside…it’s like coming in from the cold into a warm place — your whole being goes: “Yeah, that’s good. That’s probably what we’re meant for.”
LFM: You bring up film, is it difficult for you to reconcile your performance style, which is largely spontaneous and improvisational, with the tedium of the filmmaking process?
Williams: Film is very different from stand-up. Because there are so many gaps — thirty minutes of lighting and such. You really need to keep your energy up. Also, when you’re doing movies, it’s practically impossible to get any feedback because people on the set aren’t allowed to laugh…it ruins the take. You only know things are funny when you see the soundman holding his hand over his mouth, trying to stifle a laugh.
LFM: Do you think you’ll ever become involved in the writing of a film script for yourself?
Williams: I think so, but right now I don’t have the discipline. THAT’s also probably why I ended up doing comedy. I was antsy being an actor. I knew that one day I’d be doing Shakespeare — “Alas, poor Yorick…” and end up going: [He mimes his Hamlet rolling a skull down a bowling alley] “Strike!”
LFM: I guess that goes back to the freedom of doing stand-up. You don’t have an editor.
Williams: Well, the audience is an editor. If something’s not working, you can tell immediately. Somebody in the audience will fill in any spaces you leave…some kind of vowel movement from the back.
LFM: Is that Comedy Hell?
Williams: No, Comedy Hell is performing for record company executives. They’re all seated in the front row…with their Howdy Doody jaws…and they’re all talking…and one woman looks up and says [Thurston Howell III stiff-jawed voice] “What do you really do?!” Then she passes out in her drink. Her friend’s taken two ‘ludes and is drinking a candle.
LFM: Not a pretty picture. It works the other way, too: a lot of comedians will devote a great deal of their act to jiving with people seated around the stage. Does it bother you when you see this?
Williams: I’m not bothered by it at all. Sometimes the jive can lead somewhere great. Like Einstein…he said that you will write down a million pages of formula to finally get the fact that ‘Q is not Z.’
LFM: That’s true, but is telling a lady in the front row that she has a real ugly boyfriend going to lead to a humorous or insightful exploration of the human condition?
Williams: No. That’s just someone’s ego trying to get some adulation, going: “Look at me! I’m cutting down this poor man with the bad tooth!” You can get a laugh, sure, but it’s at what cost, y’know? It’s complex. As an actor, I can’t ignore the stimulus that’s coming out from the audience…you just can’t let it go by.
LFM: It seems that a lot of the comedians now playing the clubs are also actors, and that many of them use stand-up solely as a means of moving into acting jobs.
Williams: It’s a vehicle, sure…a jumping off point. They’re doing comedy because it’s the only place in LA they can find to perform in. For me, when I left school, it was, number one, a way of making a little money, but it was also a great release. After I moved to LA, it was a means of getting seen and, eventually, the comedy led to acting jobs.
LFM: What about the stand-up scene?
Williams: I see it expanding. When I was last on the road, I played about 50 cities…and every one had a place where comedy was performed. Little clubs with names like Titters, Squeezers, Chortles…I would go up at these clubs just to see what it would be like. There are clubs all over. The next thing you know you’ll be playing one in Bangladesh: [Indian accent] “Welcome to the Comedy Mosque…two drink minimum.” It’s exciting, but I think there’ll be too much expansion and, all of a sudden, the whole thing might collapse. I have friends who say that one day there will be thousands of comedians and only four clubs to work in. Back when I started there were a lot of people signing up to go on, but now it’s like: “Well, we’ll have five Indian comedians and…” Analyzing comedy is like peeling an onion: you peel a layer, peel a layer, peel a layer, and then you go, “There’s nothing there!” But there is!! Most books I’ve read which analyze comedy are like self-abuse with sandpaper. Ooooooh!
LFM: Where do you see comedy heading?
Williams: I don’t know where it’s going, and I don’t want to. I’d hate to find out it’s like: “Rubber Chickens of the Future.” I hear people say that everything’s already been done; but now, I think, it’s time to undo them.