Experiencing Robin Williams During the Golden Age of Comedy (That Almost Nobody Knew About)

GELFAND’S WORLD-There once was a golden age of standup comedy, and it was the 1970s. Some people like to talk about New York and its club called Catch a Rising Star, but to me, the center of the comedy universe was the Comedy Store over on Sunset Boulevard right here in Los Angeles. 

On Monday nights it was open to all performers and no cover charge, and you could nurse a couple of beers for most of the evening. You spent most of the time watching truly untalented, unfunny people try to get a laugh. And then there were the few, the gifted, the unknowns like Steve Martin. 

Those of us who became addicted to Monday Night at the Comedy Store lived for that magical moment when some unknown like Father Guido Sarducci turned out to be really good. One late night, I walked into the Westwood incarnation of the Comedy Store and discovered this guy named Robin Williams. 

His designated chore, he told the audience, was to explain that the show was over and that we should all go home. Somebody from the audience spoke up, and he came back with a joke in an unusual sort of voice. Somebody said something else, and he went into a short routine. 

He had us. Nobody was going to take one step towards the door while Robin was working the room. About forty-five minutes later, we all left, a little exhausted and marveling at this uniquely funny guy who was taking stage comedy to a whole new level. 

I actually only remember one line from that long ago night. In response to some audience heckler, he picked up the whole microphone stand, held it with the microphone pointing towards the audience, and shouted, "Let's go fishing for assholes!" Heckler hooked! 

By now, everyone refers to the movies and the television series. But to me, Robin Williams was the guy I saw from 12 feet away, making a live connection with a live audience. He was the guy that we would encounter at the top of the stairs at the Sunset Comedy Store, the guy who would reply to your hello, even answer a question or two, and not make a big deal of it. 

And when he got up on stage, he was devastatingly good. Not just funny, but somebody who had a literary background which gave him insights he could work from. He had the instinct to make fun of the way Shakespeare was performed, and then instantaneously switch over to Tennessee Williams. 

He could do foreign accents and he did a drawl that I now understand was a sort of Jonathan Winters. In short, he was somebody with all the tools of a stage actor, and was also an impressionist who used impressions for comedic purposes, rather than just to do impressions. 

At the time, we certainly didn't know anything about his problems, what the common cliche has come to refer to as inner demons. Much later I heard some whispers that in his early life, he was intensely insecure, constantly in need of reassurance, and that this affected his private life. We, the general audience, certainly heard nothing about drinking and cocaine use until he himself brought it up. And because he was Robin Williams, we didn't take it all that seriously. 

Meanwhile, in those rare days, we had Robin Williams as a standup comedian. He once referred to the process of standup as working in "a sweaty little nightclub," suggesting that he was impatient to move to higher and better paying slots. But for those moments, we got the real thing. It was like having Pavarotti drop by your neighborhood bar and break out into Nessun Dorma. 

And then came the television spot, and that led to a children's show called Mork and Mindy. Local trade talk was that in some parts of the scripts, the writers would just put in, "Robin goes off here," meaning that they left it up to Robin to improvise in some way that they couldn't write, much less imagine. 

It's not surprising that most every wannabe standup comedian is looking to get that big break, which could be a comedy special of his own or a television series. Mork and Mindy made Robin Williams into a nationally known star, but it was also a straightjacket. Where he once could talk to the Comedy Store audience about whatever he wanted, he was now chained under the demands of television standards and practices, and doing material that wasn't exactly literary. 

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For the last years of his Mork gig, Robin wanted out. Everybody in town knew it. People who cared about comedy (the few) wrote about it. 

Eventually he got off the television show that had opened up the big door for him. It made possible all those comic movies, comedy specials, and serious dramas. 

I think the golden age of comedy lasted part way into the '80s. Since then, it's been kind of corporatized. There are well known comedy clubs -- several in the extended LA area alone -- where the young wannabes ply their craft. Some of the better ones are also taking acting lessons. That helps. But that revolutionary era that began with Lenny Bruce and Mort Saul, and then exploded with the 70s class, I'm not so sure we will get that back. 

Part of the whole 70s comedy revolution had to do with the idea of a comedy club itself. It was kind of a crazy idea. Before then, if you were going to have a nightclub like Ciros (which later became the Comedy Store), you would have glamorous singers, maybe even a small orchestra. The comedian, if you had one at all, was there to provide some break time for the real performers. The idea of doing nothing but comedy would be like having a restaurant that served nothing but soup and salad, or nothing but coffee and pastries. The Comedy Store was predated by improvisational theater groups like Second City in Chicago, or the Committee in San Francisco, but the idea of throwing open your stage to all comers comedic was pretty new here in LA. 

So Mitzi Shore and her Comedy Store were pioneers, and those of us who were to become comedy junkies had our fix. The point is important, because the comedy club circuit provided a training ground for comedic kids who now could think of comedy as the headline act rather than as the guy who took over after the strippers left the stage. 

I can remember seeing lots of beginners who ultimately made it big. David Letterman passed through, and Jay Leno made a start. Steve Martin was an irregular regular. Al Franken and Tom Davis were enormously funny, even if one went downhill so far that he is now a U.S. Senator. A friend reminds me that we once saw a guy named Jerry Seinfeld, and for the life of me, I can't remember anything about him or his act. I hear he went on to a television gig of his own. 

In the beginning of this little story, I mentioned that a lot of the performers at open-mic night (which we called "amateur night"), just didn't have it. We got to know them by name and by the lines that they kept using, show after show, even though those lines never got a laugh. I wonder what they were thinking? 

You could tell when the comedians knew they were doing badly. They would start going to the standard jokes on sex and drugs. That's a way of drawing a few nervous laughs out of an otherwise bored crowd. 

Robin Williams, like some of the other great ones, didn't have to descend to doing nothing but sex jokes, although he had a few of his own. And at the time I saw him, he wasn't one of the major drug humorists. He built on stories and literary devices and voices, and out of this came the distinctive showman that we, from a great emotional distance, knew as Robin Williams.


(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net)







Vol 12 Issue 66

Pub: Aug 15, 2014