By: Aaron Alexander
The shock came and the sadness lingered. The tributes have all been written, read and shared. The issues have been debated back and forth by people with wildly varying levels of basis for comment. And now, people, broadly speaking, are moving on.
But I know that from now on, every time I step on stage, I’ll remember Robin Williams.
I’m lucky enough to perform improvised comedy, which puts me in a similar relationship to Robin as to Argentinian striker Lionel Messi – we play the same game, same rules, same tools, but only one of us can make you re-evaluate the limits of human potential while doing it.
On the other hand, I reckon scoring a goal gives me the same joy as it does Messi (if not more, as he actually does it with presumably monotonous regularity). And I think I know just a little of the feeling Robin Williams had when he was in the Happy Place: on stage, with a live audience, in free flow, riding waves of laughter.
All of us who improv live for moments in the Happy Place, where you’re in tune with each other and the audience, and a creative chain reaction can occur. While we live for it, on stage Robin Williams just lived in it. He had a direct connection, an all access pass, he could see the matrix, hear the music of the spheres and conduct it from an inflatable throne in his bouncy castle in the kingdom of fools. And he will always rule there, like a trickster god of ancient mythology.
If you watch his early work – and you must – alongside how funny he is, you’ll notice one other thing: how much he loves the audience. He wants to connect with them as individuals, share a moment, push their buttons, do whatever it takes to tickle their fancy. In his 1978 Live at the Roxy special he arrives on stage through the audience and within minutes he’s back among them, literally climbing the walls to get to more of them. They are his material.
One of the basic principles of improv is to say ‘yes’ to everything that comes your way. Take any offer as inspiration, and build on it. Robin Williams had a boundless capacity for saying ‘yes’ to inspiration. And he could find it almost anywhere – a light fixture, an audience member’s hair, a piece of set, an awkward body position – any offer could spark a character, a voice, a line. And the speed…everyone talks about it. To work at that speed there’s simply no room for fear or self-doubt.
And most importantly, he’s so transparently, blissfully happy in those moments. Yes, I know, cocaine and so on, but that’s not what I see in his performance (even if that’s what he felt he needed to get there in those days). I see joy. And it’s his generosity with his joy that lifts us up. His is not a comedy of cynicism, the stand-up with biting observations puncturing complacency. His is the inner child given absolute permission to run free in a world of infinite possibility. Part Genie, part Peter Pan.
That joy in play, in free creation, I don’t believe it ever left him. He worked with the famous Second City improv company before he was famous. Years later, a global superstar, he could turn up backstage at a Second City gig to perform – not solo, but sharing the stage and scenes, generously, with young improvisors. You don’t do that unless, purely and simply, you Love the Work.
As we all know now, there was a darkness inside him as well. On one hand it may have given him the power to deliver dramatic performances that stunned the world with their weight and raw intensity. No one expected Mork to win an Oscar. On the other hand, it was a darkness powerful enough to overwhelm the light within him. But while we must learn from the sorrow and the tragedy, that should not be the legacy of a man who spent his life spreading happiness across the globe.
We all have our memories of Robin Williams. To those of us who are driven to walk on stage with no script and no safety net, he will simply always be the master. We’ll try to squeeze and channel just a few drops of the creative quicksilver that ran in his veins. We’ll hope that maybe one day in a scene we’ll hear his voice in our heads, Obi Wan-style, saying “Go for it. Climb up there. Do that voice. Don’t think, go with it. Just say ‘yes’, goddammit!”
I’ll always be grateful that he walked among us, that he made us laugh, and cry, and love him.
He was the Greatest of All Time.
Vale, magister ludi.
Aaron Alexander was scheduled to write a DOTW blog post about The Improvisors Go to the Movies (7pm SUNDAYS, August 10 to October 5), but following the tragic passing of Robin Williams, no other subject for a blog about comedy improvisiation seemed appropriate.