Memories of Robin Williams

by Michael Channing

One time, Mork turned a bunch of KKK members colored. He pointed his finger at them and with powers we didn't know he had, he made one Klan member black, another Asian, another blue, one striped, and another with spots. They removed their hoods to reveal their new pigmentation, stared at each other, confused and lost. They didn't know whom to hate, and without hate, they had no purpose. Mork make them powerless by making them different. I saw this episode as a kid, and it stuck with me all my life. Racism is only strong in mass, and it's just a thin veneer hiding a core of low self esteem.

The World According to Garp. Robin was funny and charming as a young man, doting as a father, angry with his wife for cheating, angry at the world for being stupid. And he played a writer. A writer who looked around him for inspiration and found it in a pair of gloves. A writer who attacked the insanity he saw in a group of women who willfully mutilated themselves in a misguided show of solidarity. He railed against their ideology, even if it meant opposing his own mother.

I didn't like Popeye because it was a musical. I can stomach singing in a five minute cartoon because it's over quickly, but a feature-length musical feels like punishment. But Robin was the perfect Popeye, even if it took him an hour and a half to pop out the spinach. The voice, the squint, the mumbling and mispronunciations. Perfect. If only they'd made a series of short films with him more in the style of the Fleischer toons.

I watched most of Bicentennial Man from the projectionist's booth of the theater I worked at in the early 2000s. Robin was a huge Isaac Asimov fan, as am I. I wasn't blown away by the film, but I admired Robin for getting it made. His cartoon face was hidden behind a metal mask for most of the running time, but he was still able to emote. It's a great story, but not a Hollywood story. Asimov himself noted that his stories don't make good movies, and very few have been adapted. But Robin got this one made because he loved the source material.

He was on The Carol Burnett Show once. After a sketch was over, Carol came back on stage and announced Robin wanted to do the whole thing again. So they restarted. Robin ad-libbed a different script, and Carol kept right up with him. It was an amazing thing to see. They were winging it live in front of an audience, on camera. I was astounded by his skill to write on the fly and by her ability to keep up and give just as good as he.

My friend Tony owned Live at the Met, and he played it for me. We laughed hysterically all the way through, but I listened for clues on how to be a comic, how to write jokes for the stage. Didn't learn a damn thing. I was sixteen, hated politics, never did drugs, didn't know anything about sex, so how could I possibly be a comedian? Trying to follow Robin's lead will crush you.

Tony also introduced me to The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen. Robin had a bit part in that one. He played a disembodied head, floating free to think while its body partook of the pleasures of the flesh. He was supposed to be cerebral, but Robin was just manic and insane. Like he often was. It was jarring but memorable. Could he ever just be calm and thoughtful?

Yeah, he could. They showed us Dead Poets Society at Governor's school. It inspired me to read and write poetry (more poetry anyway, I was at Governor's school for the arts after all) and to stand on things whenever possible. I wanted a teacher like that. And when I got a teaching job in Florida, I wanted to be a teacher like that. Failed miserably. Again, following Robin's lead will crush you.

There's an episode of Tiny Toons with either Robin as a guest voice or someone doing an impression of him. He does an open mic and rocks the audience then realizes there's actually one more act after him, an amateur who can't possibly follow him. He comes back on to build up the other act, says they're great friends, gets the audience back on track, and hands the most primed crowd ever over to a green comedian who has the best set of her life. Don't know if it's based in reality or not, but it's a great moment and a good lesson in helping others.

Robin stole a lot of jokes. He admitted it. He wrote a lot of checks to pissed-off comics. But he never meant to hurt anyone's feelings. He was alone and full of voices. He was manic and depressed. He was crazy and intelligent. He did what he did to escape whatever it was that chased him in the dark. He made people laugh, helped out others who wanted that same profession. I have a lot of comedians as Facebook friends, and several have made his picture their profile images. They've posted and shared tributes. They miss him. He was important to a lot of people. They thought he was the greatest, the funniest, the craziest. Now he's gone. And it's crushing.

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