robin williams steals material -- 11/15/17

Today's selection -- from I'm Dying Up Here by William Knoedelseder. From the moment he arrived in Los Angeles in the mid 1970s, Robin Williams was regarded as among the very best of the comedians -- funny, frantic, with limitless energy. But there was concern about his manic cocaine habit, and soon came a second reason for concern:

"Williams was causing concern among his fellow comics for an­other reason in early 1979. Of the group that emigrated to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, he was the first to hit it big. And no one had ever hit it bigger, not Freddie Prinze, not even Steve Martin. With Mork & Mindy atop the TV ratings, Williams's fame was such that he wasn't merely recognized in public -- he was mobbed. Even at the usually too-hip Comedy Store, newcomer fans began hollering out Mork's Orkan greeting, 'Na-noo, na-noo,' when he took the stage. Williams was embarrassed by such outbursts and uncomfortable being treated like a celebrity. But he didn't exactly hide from the spotlight. He seemed to turn up on every talk show and at every celebrity event; camera crews and reporters trailed him wherever he went. His face was un­avoidable. Time magazine was about to put him on its cover, ac­companied by the headline, 'Chaos in Television, and What It Takes to Be No. 1.'

Robin Williams, as printed on the March 12,
1979 cover of Time magazine.

"In Williams's case, it took a lot of material. Much of what came out of Mork's mouth came straight from Williams's brain. The show's writers left him plenty of room to improvise by salting the script with stage directions like 'Robin goes off here' in place of written dialog. The combination of Mork & Mindy, his club performances, extracurricular TV appearances, and constant media interviews put extreme pressure on Williams to be 'on' dur­ing every waking moment. And it was that pressure, some of his pals said, that led him to commit the cardinal sin of comedy: bor­rowing other comics' material.

"In a People magazine profile, Williams was depicted in full improvisational mode, suddenly interrupting the interview to an­swer a pretend telephone: 'Suicide hotline. Hold please.' It was a funny bit, but, as Williams's colleagues knew, it belonged to Gary Muledeer. He'd delivered the line many times at the Comedy Store with Williams in the crowd. In another instance, Williams uttered the vaguely druggie line 'Reality, what a concept' so often that it became synonymous with him (and later the title of his first comedy album) instead of comedian Charles Fleisher, who had been saying it for years.

"Williams attended a Gallagher show at the Ice House in Pasa­dena one night when the watermelon-smashing comic joked from the stage, 'You know, I think marijuana is great for old people because it slows down time. I gave my grandmother a kilo of Co­lumbian and a ton of yarn, and I got back an Afghan big enough to cover a garage.'

"A few nights later, Gallagher saw Williams on a talk show riffing about marijuana being good for old folks 'because it makes time go so slow.'
'That little f**khead sucked up the essence of my joke,' Gallagher was still complaining decades later.

"Bill Kirchenbauer had a routine about playing Superman as a kid. He'd pull a towel out of his prop bag, tie it around his neck like a cape, run in a semicircle around the stage, then leap and land on a stool balanced on his stomach with his legs straight out in Superman flying position. It always got a great reaction from the crowd, in part because it was such an unexpectedly agile move for a man of Kirchenbauer's ample size. Kirchenbauer was watching Williams onstage at the Comedy Store one night when Robin suddenly hopped onto the stool on his back, imitating the Man of Steel flying upside down. 'Superman on drugs,' he said.

"Everybody laughed except Kirchenbauer, who confronted Williams afterwards and lit into him. 'I'm sorry, man, it just popped into my head right then,' Williams said by way of explanation, 'my mind gets going so fast.'

"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. Richard Lewis, who had a similarly frantic, off-the-top­-of-his-head style, had stopped watching other comics perform for fear of unconsciously doing the same thing.

"Bill Kirchenbauer and others didn't buy it. These were no acci­dents, they argued. A comic knew when he was treading on another comic's idea. They'd all seen one another's act so many times that they knew every bit by heart. And everyone knew the rules: Whoever said it or did it first, owned it.

"Before long, others were exaggerating the Dreesen-Williams conversation as an angry confrontation in which Dreesen had thrown Williams against the wall and threatened to punch him. 'Why do you think they call him Robin,' was one joke going around. 'Did you hear that Canter's now has a Robin Williams sandwich?' went another. 'Yeah, they give you the bun, but you have to steal the meat.'

"There was a measure of envy in the meanness. 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."



William Knoedelseder


I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy's Golden Era




Copyright 2009 by William Knoedelseder


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