“Ladies and gentlemen, from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City: Robin Williams.”
Sometime in my last two years of high school, a friend loaned me his CD of Robin Williams’ 1986 stand-up album A Night at the Met. You should know that I graduated from high school in 1999, so as I was driving around my eastern North Carolina hometown laughing my face off to this album, it was already over 10 years old.
Some comedy is timeless, but A Night at the Met is shot through with contemporary references. Ronald Reagan I knew, sure, and Gorbachev. I sort of understood who Muammar Gaddafi was. I certainly didn’t know enough then about the Reagan administration to get the joke about Disney’s Goofy being the Secretary of the Interior. It’s possible I don’t get that joke now. He mentioned Adnan Khashoggi within his first minute on stage.
But I still laughed my face off. I memorized the whole album, and while most of it has faded now, bits of it still bubble up in my mind.
“Bring a lunch. Stay for the day!”
I can’t say A Night at the Met ages particularly well. Those current events references don’t help, and certain bits leans on really broad, dumb stereotypes. It’s very 1986 — not that my sense of taste or perspective was developed enough when I was 16 or 17 to see any of that. I just knew that it made me laugh.
Then it passed from something that made me laugh to something that changed the way I looked at the world.
I am not a comedian. My wife and friends will attest to this if you require proof. But late high school is where I started to find my own personality and, with it, my own ability to make people laugh, at least in conversation if not on stage. A handful of stand-up albums and books, A Night at the Met among them, were important in shaping what I thought was fair game for laughter — which was everything, basically — and how to get it.
Williams was the kind of comedian who would imitate or create characters, often for just a few seconds, to build bits around. He carried all these voices inside him, brought them to life momentarily, and then riffed off them as his own straight man. Here, listen to his bit about alcohol from that album. Most of the little characters he does are lampoons of drunks — though the whole time, he’s really talking about himself. (He starts the bit saying he had to stop drinking because “I used to wake up nude in front of my car with my keys in my ass.”) He puts on these tiny plays that are realer-than-real, and, as people say, funny because they’re true.
That style has influenced the way I talk to people to this day — probably often to the detriment of my relationships, but so it goes. Something about the creation of little characters and scenarios that were funnier than the real world was and remains very attractive to me.
I’m not saying I wanted to be Robin Williams. I’ve never been pointed toward acting and comedy, nor have I ever harbored the notion that I was that funny. Another thing I knew I could never match was Williams’ pace. His rapid-fire riffing, often just with himself, is what people remember him for from his comedy specials, talk show appearances, and even whole movies built around that ability. When performing, he was, more often than any other mood, manic.
Manic. There’s a word that wants to follow that one. I know we don’t say that anymore. Still, they’re a pair in my mind.
I think all funny people have a darkness in them. I guess we all do, but you know, the stereotype of the clown crying on the inside is a stereotype for a reason. The sadness was always there. It’s how come he was so good at what he did.
That doesn’t explain anything, of course. Depression kills. We know that. That doesn’t make any particular victim of the disease any easier to take.
Everybody has their Robin Williams thing, it seems. Maybe yours was Good Morning, Vietnam. Maybe it was The Fisher King. Mine was A Night at the Met. He created everything from tiny characters to whole worlds, and pulled inspiration from everywhere, and spit it all back out in this beautifully inspired mania. It lit me up. It opened my eyes.
I guess what I’m saying is thanks, Robin Williams. Thanks.