Years ago, I read a book called I’m Dying Up Here, about the L.A. standup scene in the ’70s. There was a passage about Robin Williams that’s always stuck with me. As I recalled, Williams’ mind would naturally go so fast (or maybe he was so coked out) that he’d inadvertently repurpose his friends’ material. When Tom Dreesen confronted him about it, he apologized so profusely and sincerely that Dreesen came to defend Williams against less forgiving comics (like Gallagher) that considered him a joke stealer.
I just went back and found the passage:
Tom Dreesen had a talk with Williams after he heard a line of his come out of Mork’s mouth in the show’s closing voice-over, when the lovable alien always reported his earthly observations back to his home planet. Williams was so apologetic and seemed so genuinely distraught over the “mistake,” that Dreesen believed it truly had been inadvertent. He knew that Robin absorbed influences like a sponge, and given his wild performing style, it seemed entirely plausible that when he got on a roll and was literally spinning onstage, he really didn’t know what he was going to say next.
But now, after Williams’ death, it’s the other part of this passage that resonates more — the part where those other angry comics, envious of Williams’ success, started to push him out:
Williams had everything, all the talent, success, and money the others dreamed of. So, the idea that he would stoop to steal material on top of all that made people’s blood boil. It wasn’t like he was Ollie Joe Prater, who stole material all the time but wasn’t very good, so nobody gave a shit. Ollie Joe didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting on The Tonight Show. But what if Robin blurted out one of your bits while yukking it up on Johnny’s couch? Accident or not, that material would be gone forever: You could never use it again or audiences would think you stole it from him. That’s why Kirchenbauer, Gallagher, and a few others decided they would no longer perform in front of Williams. If he was in the room, they wouldn’t go on.
There’s no way for any of us to understand what Williams dealt with day to day, so I don’t know if this early isolation contributed to Williams’ struggles. But we think of mega-fame as the ultimate goal of entertainment. In this case, way back when Williams was just a dumb kid trying to make people laugh, his fame—and his natural talent—was a reason for his friends to shut him out.
As a comedian, it’s easy to feel envy. I’m always happy for my friends, but feelings of inadequacy and envy inevitably creep in. It’s something that I try to be conscious of and counteract. But re-reading this story about Williams inspires me to go the extra mile. When I see someone as a threat, I can shut them out, or I ask them how they see themselves, and maybe help them feel a little less alone.