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RIP, Robin Williams, San Francisco Comedy’s Original Success Story

By 08.11.14
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As you probably know by now, Robin Williams has been found dead of an apparent suicide at his home in Tiburon, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. He was 63.

Around 11:55 a.m. Monday, sheriff’s officials said, a 911 call came in about a man who was unresponsive in his home in Tiburon. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Dubbed “the funniest man alive” by Entertainment Weekly in 1997, Williams brought audiences hours of laughter, putting his imaginative spin on characters in film and television. He was lauded for his serious roles as well, winning a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire, the therapist who counsels Matt Damon’s math genius in “Good Will Hunting” (1997), and receiving nominations for “The Fisher King” (1991), “Dead Poets Society” (1989) and “Good Morning, Vietnam” (1987).

Born in Chicago in 1951, Williams became one of only two students accepted into John Houseman’s prestigious acting program at Julliard, the other being Christopher Reeve, who became a lifelong friend. [LATimes]

I always tend to think of Robin Williams more as an actor so good that he could do comedy (realizing he went to Juilliard that now makes a lot of sense) than the usual comedian who dabbles in acting, but the comedy world, and especially the San Francisco comedy world certainly claim him as our own.

You may remember that last month, Robin Williams had checked into rehab in order to “fine tune his sobriety.” He had struggled with alcoholism and cocaine in the 80s, then got sober after John Belushi died, and again after starting to drink again in 2006. What you probably don’t know is that about two years ago, Williams had jumped back into the San Francisco comedy scene, the place where he’d initially become the breakout star at the Holy City Zoo in the late 70s, one of the legendary comedy scenes that helped bring about the comedy boom of the 1980s.

It was pretty cool for all of us knockaround local comedians, some on food stamps (*cough* Matt Lieb! *cough, cough*), most working varying degrees of unrewarding or soul-crushing jobs, to have Robin Williams suddenly haunting our divey comedy spots, those places where we smoke and gossip, swear into microphones and complain about online dating. Exciting as it was, I did worry that something had gone seriously wrong in Robin Williams’ life that he was agreeing to do a surprise guest set at a show in the basement of a video store with the likes of me (he ended up no showing that night, to his credit). I wondered if he was in a funk, and if this was some Royal Tenenbaums-style attempt to revisit the scene of his youth and initial success. Or, if he was just bored and felt like doing some comedy the unglamorous way.

His appearances at local spots only lasted a month or two the way I remember it, but I’m thankful that I got to meet him during that time. It was at a shoot for this comedy game show-style pilot (think @Midnight meets Cards Against Humanity) organized by my friend Connor Pritchard, whose dad Mike was doing comedy with Williams back in the Zoo days. It was mostly just a cool hang out session at a house where our usual San Francisco comedy crew co-mingled with Williams, Big Mike, Steven Pearl and a sprinkling of the guys from the Zoo generation. I didn’t get to talk to Robin Williams much, but it was pretty cool even at the time to see him in what looked like his element – dicking around with his comedy buddies, adding tags and jokes to each other’s stories, and generally trying to entertain each other (and entertain us, probably).

It’s a strange feeling seeing guys your father’s age acting basically just like you and your buddies do, part adorable in the way that some things never change, and part terrifying to get a glimpse of your future and how fast all that time really passes. I recently read the 1979 Playboy article about the Holy City Zoo in its heyday and it gave me much the same feeling. I was expecting it to feel quaint and anachronistic, but it was actually shocking how little the San Francisco comedy scene I knew had changed since the Robin Williams days, other than the names of the people and the bars. The other thing that struck me about it was that even among the comics mentioned as the “golden alumni,” Robin Williams was the only name that you’d probably recognize these days.

I don’t know if comedy breeds depression or if depression breeds comedy (I suspect both), but I get the sense that for every comedy scene, you only really get one Robin Williams. All those guys and girls out there every night, busting their ass, writing writing writing and trying to get better, getting high on the big laughs and suffering through all the shitty nights of people not listening or not understanding, and probably only one of them has that combination of talent, charm, ambition, and luck to turn it into a rewarding career. I always imagined it must be terribly depressing for all those guys who were ambitious and funny as hell but just didn’t quite get to be Robin Williams. And now I find it was apparently just as depressing for the guy who actually did get to be Robin Williams. I can’t decide whether that’s sad or reassuring. In any case, RIP.

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