Standup Guy: Robin Williams was an honorary Filipino American, gone too soon
In a time when all the world could use a laugh, we got a shocker.
Robin Williams, who had spent so much time entertaining the world, had forgotten to leave something for himself.
As someone who had covered Williams as part of the Bay Area’s entertainment scene while the arts and entertainment reporter at San Francisco’s NBC affiliate, I’m still dumbfounded.
Williams had influenced me in so many ways. Not just for being the ultimate minority, the space immigrant Mork. Not just for being an honorary Asian American of Filipino descent by virtue of his second marriage to Marsha Garces.
No, Williams convinced me I wasn’t funny enough.
I remember seeing Williams pre-Mork, as a comic who loved to wear T-shirts and rainbow suspenders, at the open mikes in San Francisco.
Since the 70s, Robin Williams had always been my go-to funny man–and also the world’s.
When we lost our sense of humor, or when the events of the day from the Middle East, the Ukraine, Asia, Washington, and down our block, made us cry “No Mas,” we always knew Williams was there to remind us of the potential for one more laugh. A side-splitting, yet consoling laugh. A laugh that reminded us that things really were all right. That if the world was going to hell in a hand basket, at least the hand basket was Mrs. Doubtfire’s.
Williams was pure comic fusion–a volatile mix of energy and heat that could explode into mirth at a moment’s notice.
And would anyone dare refute that in the world’s current state we need Williams’ counteractive force more than ever?
But we need it live, on stage, with all the humor he could wring from the moment. Any moment. He had the gift to create laughs.
When Williams went on The Tonight Show, he would take over the stage, riff and improv like a jazz man. He’d leave everyone in stitches, as in his first appearance on “The Tonight Show.”
My lasting memory of Williams will always be with a mic on stage at an old comic’s dive that smelled of beer and urine. I had seen all the comic greats at the time. Woody Allen. Richard Pryor. Bob Hope. I had grown up as a kid in San Francisco a standup aficionado. And now in little rooms like the Holy City Zoo, the Other Cafe, and the Intersection, standup was undergoing a renaissance. Not in New York, or Los Angeles, or Vegas. But in San Francisco. It would turn into the first modern comic boom in the 80s, the antecedent to all that we see today on cable and the clubs. But in the beginning, it was just a handful of comics like Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, Kevin Pollak, that were all spawned in the Bay Area standup scene.
At the open mikes in the mid-70s, it wasn’t hard to discover Williams. He was so immensely great, so bright, as a nobody, it convinced a nascent standup like me to sit down and go into journalism instead.
Years later, as a reporter, I interviewed Williams a number of times when he was major star. In the Bay Area where the rock music makers were king, Williams was the all-around entertainment giant–TV, film, standup. But it was often hard to catch him calm enough to talk and be real. I always talked to him on the fly when he was way too revved up after a performance to give me more than a perfunctory answer, which led to a joke. He was always looking for a laugh. That was his truth.
In one of Williams’ early interviews, noted Asian American journalist Ben Fong-Torres captured Williams in a 1980 Parade Magazine article.
On CBS News, Fong-Torres recalled Williams as “an unstoppable talent. You just couldn’t control the guy. And he couldn’t control himself.”
And despite his first burst of fame after Mork at age 29, Williams talked about a future of being “drunk and derelict” trying to impress older women at a bar with the fact that he had been Mork. He had a “sad vision of his future, even then,” Fong-Torres said.
Williams told Fong-Torres: “It scares me. That’s s a genuine fear that the fire goes out. ‘Mork and Mindy’ could end the next year. I don’t know how long it can go.”
An artist’s insecurity? A measure of humility?
More than 30 years later, Williams’ fears came true. Reports say he was back in rehab as a preventative measure.
And by all reports, he was scaling back. He had sold the multi-million dollar ranch in Napa, and downsized to the hardly modest, yet exclusive, Tiburon, north of San Francisco. The impact of his two divorces was getting to him financially.
He still riffed the same line about divorce he used in 1991 after his first marriage. It’s the line that goes, “divorce is from the latin word… meaning having your genitalia torn out through your wallet.”
He changed the organ based on the audience. Sometimes it was more crude than genitalia.. Sometimes it was simply the heart.
But always the wallet.
The clip refers to his first divorce, but he was two years into his second marriage to his Filipino American wife Marsha Garces, with whom he had two children, Cody, 23, who was born in the year of that clip, and Zelda, 25, whose birthday greeting was the subject of Williams’ last tweet in July.
I think of them and all the people and friends he left when he decided to take one last leap into the absurd.