“Devastated”. That’s all I could manage to tweet. Along with the tired “RIP …”. Did my dear father, brother, favorite uncle, best friend, or kindred spirit just die? Apparently, he had. Tom Lennon just tweeted his sadness. As did Marc Maron. Then my phone lit up with breaking news notifications from all the usual suspects. I sat down in the quality thrift store. Am I gonna fucking cry in here? It’s 25% OFF Customer Appreciation Day. 50% OFF silver tags. Don’t cry. Not here. Fuck this shit. Go find some pants and jackets for the audition Saturday and that comedy variety show question mark in September. All my other crap’s in storage in Hollywood. I wasn’t supposed to be here in Vegas this long! But my mojo seems to thrive more on stage than on screen at the moment. They like that here in Vegas. The improv. Like he does so well. Used to. Goddammit, don’t cry. Shove the phone in your pocket and stay busy browsing previously-owned clothing. Where’s Alfred? It says it is my size, but it sure don’t look it. Does Alfred have the power to make Master Wayne look like a rock star on stage? Master Wayne doesn’t feel like a rock star. Don’t fucking cry, Master Wayne.
I’m not Master Wayne. I’m not Batman. And Robin Williams and I never met.
The closest I came to meeting Robin Williams was Comedy Day at Golden Gate Park a few years ago. It was early in my New Life as an open Entertainer. What little money I made working background on ill-fated NBC shows and other acting gigs was starting to eclipse what little money I made driving taxis and limos. I hit a skeleton version of the usual open mic circuit in the San Francisco Bay Area and even opened for Lisa Landry. I was still shuffling off my mortgage industry mojo (sorry about that decade, BTW). Kurtis Matthews, who toured with Bill Hicks, would ask me “What does your Dad’s voice sound like? Why can’t we hear that in your act?” That voice hurt too much to share. At Golden Gate Park I was civilian audience, enduring Walter Mitty and Richard Pryor wrestling within, battling for my comedy soul. And enjoying Robin be Robin on stage.
Robin’s magic wasn’t the material. He grabbed it out of the air as effortlessly as his audience of one or 39 or millions breathed it. It was Robin’s spirit: the crouching jester, wandering improv dragon. Bill Hicks said “life is just a ride”. Robin made me feel like I was on that ride with him, and we were laughing our asses off. Were we ditching and mocking dubious authority? Were we just out to play? Maybe with funny voices, perhaps with silly personalities, certainly with naughty notions. Who knows? We just enjoyed the ride. He drew me into his crazy world. I was giddy and grateful to be there. As audience. That one time at Golden Gate Park. And too many times to count from watching on screens his performances on stage, audio, TV and film. But with Robin just a few feet away, my adrenalin rush of joy dwarfed that of watching him on a mere screen. Unlike New Order, the concert is so much better than the CD. (Yes, I’m a child of the 80’s and I was reading books while you tattooed the distilled wisdom of Justin Bieber on your chest.)
I’m now a SAG-AFTRA actor, as well as a comedic improv character. What living I may boast, a comedy in itself, is supported entirely by what I earn as an entertainer. I’ve had the opportunity to meet a handful of notable people in my life, and in these last few years of my show business infancy, work with some as well. In the back of my mind I just assumed that someday I would encounter Robin on a stage or a set somewhere. I caught Denise Richards in a wedding dress for TV and struggled with Alan Cumming for film – both times in a cop uniform, a recurring wardrobe theme with me (not just Gotham or LAPD). I wrote joke tags Hank Azaria used on camera for one of those ill-fated NBC shows (“Free Agents”). Leonardo DiCaprio and I had a memorable experience with a prop on the Clint Eastwood film, “J. Edgar”.
Certainly there was time for my artistic path to bring me into communion with Robin before he shuffled off his Mork coil. Right? I’m still working out my own “act”, finding my “voice”, attempting to let all my childhood demons out to play court jester. Even beyond my recent mustache in short shorts caricature “FFIREHS,” which folks call “Lt. Dangle”, “Reno 911”, “Super Troopers”, “Texas Rangers” or the Village People (I’m black?) … and Tom Lennon calls “bigger”. But yesterday time ran out.
I don’t relate to Robin’s addiction. I do relate to the depression, the paradoxical price funny often pays. After a night in the hospital a few years ago, I tried therapy. At the suggestion of a therapist aunt I read “The Drama of the Gifted Child”. Apparently I need to read another book involving the “Four Steps”. No couches. No secret societies. Just realizing that seeking childhood 2.0 causes more problems than it solves. Access, accept, love and build with what you have. I don’t have to please my parents, an invisible man in the sky, or some poor woman who will never be the better Mommy I never had, no matter how hard I try.
Now my therapy involves working my daily improv act, home cooking, Netflix, discovering Zeppelin & The Stones, podcasts, libraries, the elusive consistent workout and avoiding significant relationships. I give my love to my audience. Via my act. So far all systems are stable. Impulse power gradually increasing. Warp speed becoming a possibility. Scotty is less pissed at me than usual. Spock is fascinated. In a good way. I feel like I never knew so little in my entire life. But everyday I make people laugh, I eat healthier, and I sleep soundly in my own place. I can’t merely tell my son to chase his passion. I have to show him.
It always perplexes me when people attempt to breakdown comedy, as if all one needs to do is have the right “attitude” or some secret formula so YOU TOO CAN DELIVER MONSTER CHUCKLES!!!! … if only you attend the right educational class or motivational seminar – FOR JUST 3 EASY FLEX PAYMENTS OF …! Comedy comes from the pain and darkness of personal experience. The comics I admire draw their power and magic from dark times, spinning heartache into laughter, light and joy. Often as a survival mechanism. Because nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
Richard Pryor was a wife-beating addict – who, by disclosing the ugly details on stage, became a broken human the audience could trust. Jim Carrey’s mother was critically ill when he was a child, but that child would make her laugh … by being Jim Carrey. Sam Kinison went from Jesus preacher to rock star comic who … well, Marc Maron tells the story better (he was there), from his now industry-shaping podcast – the one he created out of professional mid-life desperation – in his garage. Bill Burr turned a horrific heckling Philadelphia audience into a triumph of modern comedy folklore. He now enjoys increasing road comic success and noteworthy IMDb credits, obscure only to those unfamiliar with Breaking Bad, Rolling Stone magazine or interrogation rooms populated by Dave Chappelle.
Greg Proops eternally endures people who think tripping over a copy of “A People’s History of the United States” makes one a terrorist, a communist or a gay – or all four – who fails to grasp the nuanced pain of old, rich, straight, white men. Everyone now knows Greg as that guy who looks like Buddy Holly but not the black guy on that show hosted by Aisha, the chick who became Archer’s girlfriend in real life after she penetrated the UFC ring to fight, maim and kill Drew Carey, USMC. Too many others to mention, you get the idea. The man who gave us Mork, Mrs. Doubtfire and “Good Morning Vietnam!” struggled with addiction and perhaps depression throughout his life.
Am I from Ork? My own parents and brother are so distant from me, I seriously wonder if I was adopted. When my dad got cancer, it took me so long to feel emotional about it, his cancer went in remission. I’m still waiting to feel something slightly stronger than the nano-second “that sucks” I vaguely sense hearing about life in Afghanistan. People who feel like family to me come from the world of stage or literature. Mr. Duda my high school Shakespeare teacher taught me the word “catharsis”, the experience of visiting the tragedies of others and the subsequent relief of realizing they are not your own. It sucks that your girlfriend dumped you and your locker is on lower campus where you only have one class. But did your uncle just kill your dad, take his throne and now is banging your Mom? Sucks more to be Hamlet.
Sitting next to me in Shakespeare class was Larry, who had the audacity to wear the band tee shirt from that Satanic concert I couldn’t afford or attend. INXS. Listen Like Thieves. Michael Hutchence Edition. I was the weird kid with strange born-again Christian borderline Amish parents who believed my lower middle class childhood of Boy Scouts, straight A’s and Christian youth group “activities” was exactly what their specific non-denominational idea of Jesus Our Lord and Savior wanted. My mind labored furiously to cut off curiosity at the pass and suppress all suspicions. I desperately needed to see Mom and Dad as heroic parents who loved me. Seriously, how did a child of The Dick and Marilyn Show manage to dodge the addiction bullet? Grandma Nellie certainly had the booze, cigarettes and Sinatra mojo, dammit! (And the good sense to name her oldest son Richard. He’s the one who wanted to be a Dick.)
I discovered if I channeled in class the latest from “National Review” and “The American Spectator”, suddenly I got the right kind of attention. (I wasn’t a Nazi, I was a Nehls.) But they were not weighing the merits of my arguments defending Oliver North. It took me years to realize I was entertaining, NOT educating, my classmates. In spite of myself. Years became decades for me to discover & let myself in on the joke. My random rants on Ronald Reagan in Advanced Placement English or algebra surprised and delighted classmates weary of the Ben Stein’s in their life droning on and on: “Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?” I provided inadvertent comic relief. Larry not only had the INXS tee shirt. He and the rest of class had catharsis. I distracted them from their high school worries. I entertained them.
It is why I “get” Robin Williams. I never met the man. I don’t necessarily know all the sordid details of the last days I’m certain the humanitarians over at TMZ are busy excavating. You know, to make the world a better place. When Robin’s widow asks us to “focus” on his life, not his death, I wince like a comic did on a podcast recently (Jay Mohr?), reacting to news that Robin had checked back into rehab. We already know enough about the end. He’s gone now.
He is gone now. I miss him. I’m grateful for his life, because his example helped me make some sense of the lunacy of mine. He’s my true hero. Which means losing him hurts like I just got run over by the tow truck from “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” of Jonathan Winters, Robin’s hero who just passed 16 months ago. Robin had his faults, like any human. I now no longer turn heroes into Jesus as the religious taught me. But I do take inspiration. William F. Buckley, Jr. was my high school hero. I spent 30 minutes with him before a Firing Line debate in college. Now I’d trade those 30 minutes in a heartbeat with 30 seconds with Christopher Hitchens. I never met Hitch. Just as I was getting to know his work, loving his mojo, and beginning to embrace the literate entertainer within me, Hitch died of cancer. I suddenly lost my new literary and polemic hero. Feels a little bit like yesterday.
But yesterday’s too close to the bone. Robin’s always been my hero, a kindred spirit, the comic performer who inspires me. If it has taken me decades to allow myself permission to entertain people as a way of life, why am I surprised that Robin has always had such an exalted place in that life? He was the light. He is the twinkle of my grandpa West’s eye, delighting me with that disappearing penny trick, as if I was part of the exclusive fraternity of extraordinary gentlemen. He is the impish spark in my son’s eye, who just discovered his own taste for improv comedy as well as theater this past year in high school. I wish I could see more of my son. Maybe someday, when enough people have laughed at the demons I spin into jokes, I can.
I’m not Master Wayne or Batman. There’s no Alfred to help me pick up the pieces. But with Robin gone, I find this life and whatever may be left of mine that much more precious. Mork made me feel like I too was from my own Ork. And that is actually a beautiful thing. Nanu nanu, brother.