Brow Beat

How Robin Williams Continues to Inspire Younger Comics

Robin Williams
Portrait of actor Robin Williams, Marin County, California, 1999.

Photo by Chris Felver/Getty Images

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In the summer of 2008 I was living in Los Angeles and taking classes at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater. At the time, UCBTLA ran an open-mic sketch-comedy show at midnight on Fridays called Liquid Courage. You’d show up with your team and your sketch, register on a sign-up sheet, and the first eight or so groups got to run their bits. It was almost uniformly terrible, at least when I went—the half-baked ideas I was bringing with my friends were no exception. But you went up and did your bad bit and basked in the smattering of laughter and sat down and drank cheap beer and watched more bad comedy and knew that it was all part of getting better. Like going to the gym, the hardest part of going up on stage is the going, over and over again.

On this particular night, after maybe four groups had gone, the emcee came to the stage and said, “Uh … ladies and gentlemen, your next act is, uh … Robin Williams.” And out from the backstage of this tiny black-box theater bounds one of the most legendary comedians of all time. He breathlessly explains that he’s working on his next tour and HBO special and launches into a relentless 15 minutes of barely structured material, bouncing from one idea to the next with such abandon it was impossible to tell what he had planned before and what he was coming up with on the spot. He talked through wanting to have an oversized Muppet version of his penis made that he could strap on his body and operate independently of his hands, for instance, then performed a long conversation between himself and his theoretical puppet penis, which of course had its own silly voice.

It was 12:45 a.m. There were maybe 20 of us in the room, all of us the kind of comedy nerds who don’t have anything better to do late on a Friday night than watch untested sketch comedy, which is a risky proposition at any time of day. It feels obvious to say that Williams’ presence and energy filled the room and more, but yeah, it felt like being in a sauna, surrounded by the heat and pressure and more than a little steaming sweat radiating off of this singular human. We all knew Williams sometimes dropped in unannounced at small shows like this one and asked for time, because we were the type of crowd that stayed up late on school nights rereading Wikipedia entries about famous stand-ups from the ’80s. Still, this was our own little show, where we were trying to make our bad comedy better, and there was one of the all-time greats doing exactly the same thing. That stays with you.

Six years later I was doing a sketch comedy show for children called Story Pirates when the news of Williams’ death broke. Our pianist read the news on Twitter after we walked off stage, and the glow from a well-received set flickered out. Each performer felt a tug and a snap on the thread that connected some part of their own comedic development to inspiration from Williams. That open-mic show from 2008 immediately came to mind. Liquid Courage could not have had lower stakes for the semi-regular performers, but the presence of this universally admired comic reminded everyone there that we do this for a reason, that there was greatness to aspire to, and that good comedy hits you like a rubber mallet to the base of the skull. I don’t think those few minutes in a sweaty black box with Robin Williams are the only reason I’m still plugging away, trying to be funny. But he inspired me, as I’m pretty sure he inspired just about every young comedian who got to see him up on stage, working on his craft, getting better, trying to make us laugh.