In 1979 I sold my suburban house in Oak Park, IL and moved with my children to San Francisco to do stand-up. Comedy was hot then. Tiny clubs sprouted up all over the city to accommodate the thirst for raw, unfettered routines performed by a steady stream of would-be comics from all over the country. Many of them became celebrities. One of our favorite hang-out spots was the Holy City Zoo on Clement Street in the Richmond district, known affectionately as The Zoo.
On any given night one could walk by and see comics hanging out on the street, waiting for their precious five minutes on the stage, or rehashing a set they had just finished. We were an eclectic crew, for the most part loners, who for whatever reason, had the need for an audience and the instant feedback-good or bad, they provide.
The year before I moved there, Robin Williams had landed the role of Mork, so he was already a celebrity. Landing any television part was the goal of every comic. Even though Robin had an apartment in Los Angeles for when he was filming, he lived in San Francisco. On frequent nights you would find him hanging out at the Zoo. The first time I saw him perform, it was as a member of an improve group, Papaya Juice. He and another bright, memorable comic, Gil Christner, were playing, in turn, classic authors: Chekov, Tolstoy, Hugo.. I was blown away. That they were so knowledgeable in voice and substance was remarkable. It was brilliant. I saw him with Papaya Juice many times, and for all his obvious talent, he was an equal member of the troop, never stealing the stage.
For several years, until it petered out during the mid 80s in San Francisco, comedy was my life. Comedians were an incestuous bunch. We stuck together; partying, having early morning breakfasts, sharing rides, material and gigs. We were an off-beat community in a town known for its eccentricities. Maybe Robin wasn’t my best friend, but for a few short years, he was part of my community and a friend.
Although the Robin I knew was fast becoming famous, it wasn’t obvious in his countenance. He was easy to talk to, interested in others, and generous. Boundless energy yes, but he was not always on. There were way worse offenders. Once when he left for LA, another comic drove him to the airport in Robin’s rental car. When she dropped him off, Robin suggested she keep the car for a few weeks if she needed to. No one would notice. Many of the San Francisco comics stayed in his LA apartment when they were working there. The key was easily accessible.
As I write, I’m in the Amazon rain forest in Colombia. No one speaks English. There are no roads, few televisions and computors. Still, a few nights ago, one of the staff at Amacayacu Parque where I’m teaching English, was looking at pictures of Robin on her computer. “Que lastima,” she lamented. What a pity. Indeed. “Que Lastima.”
I understand why the vile, hate mongering right-wing American radio vultures have been so rude and crude about the sad death of a brilliant, funny, truly good man. With their hearts filled to the brim with anger and intolerance, they can’t even come close to imagining such a person could exist. But he did, and the world will miss him.