ROBIN WILLIAMS: Improvising For His Life

(Originally appeared on Sweet Fancy Moses, February 5 2003)

Robin Williams is extraordinary tonight. Robin Williams has never been more in the zone. He is a comedic dynamo and his improvisations have never been more “out there.” More deliciously humorous. And yet more connected to what we, as human beings, find relevant and utterly fascinating.

Robin Williams sits in my basement death pit. Make me laugh, I tell him. And he tries.

Robin starts by taking a handkerchief and wrapping it around his head. He instantly becomes a gay Muslim. He sticks the handkerchief into his shirt pocket and magically transforms himself into Pablo Picasso, out on the town for an evening of fun and dancing. He slips the hanky into his mouth and is now a mangy dog sucking on a favorite chew toy. And what’s this? The hanky is now back on his head and he has become the lead trumpet player for a spastic marching band.

How about something different? I ask him. How about, I don’t know, taking this simple T-shirt and using it as a launching pad for improvised flights of fancy? How about that?

Robin catches the T-shirt and brushes it against his bare stomach. He is a short-order chef who has just finished his afternoon shift and is still scratchy from the grease he inadvertently spilled on his stomach mid-morning. He slams the T-shirt against his left arm and becomes, in a miraculous instant, a rabbi attempting to ward off the evil spirits that live inside his arm. And now the T-shirt is rubbed from one side of his head to the next, back and forth, back and forth. He has become, of all things, a newly born pig, emerging from out of the mama pig with nary a care in the world.

I don’t like this, I tell him. It seems that you are too grounded. Escape from the surly bonds of what we expect from “found” humor; break through to another reality. This one ruled by yourself, perhaps a younger Robin, willing to go that extra mile to make us not only feel, but, more importantly, laugh. So, in light of that, here is a ping pong ball. Make it yours.

Robin picks the ping pong ball up off the dirt floor. He pretends to insert the ball into his left ear and he begins to hop. He is a middle-earth wizard, albeit a wizard with a funny lisp.

You can do better, I say. Move inwards.

The ball is now balanced on the tip of his nose. He is a seal … a seal who just happens to live, for reasons that he does not explain, with an Amish family.

Faster, I say. Dance, twisted genius! Dance!

The ball is thrown into the air and caught with the nape of his neck. He becomes a small town official—a bureaucratic prick on his lunch break—playing with a moldy ball of wax (that he has found the previous night while smoking a joint in the basement of his aunt’s house).

Now listen, I say. Just calm down. We can do this. Together. Reach for the heavens. Mix it up a little. Here’s a popsicle stick. It’s all you. Unleash yourself. Three, two, one, here we go now:

Robin catches the stick and pushes it up his right nostril. He transforms himself into James, a professional tennis player—make that a former professional tennis player—unable to hold down a steady job because of a popsicle stick permanently jammed up his nose.

That’s good, I declare. Real good. But travel another way, Robin. Here’s a black comb. Fly a little. Release yourself.

Robin takes the comb and sticks it above his mouth. He is a midget Nazi with a very bushy mustache …

I shake my head.

… a Spanish bullfighter eating a fake hotdog …

I shake my head.

… an overweight dentist with an out-of-control dental drill …

I shake my head.

… the slide-whistle player for a fancy chamber orchestra …

“No,” I tell him. “No, Robin.”

… make that a desperate comedian stuck in a basement death pit, clutching a black comb and blinking against what little light exists. A former genius, he could have gone so far, and yet has chosen such a different, wrong path. A path that has taken him down that pock-marked road to excess; a maudlin path; a treacly path.

Robin gags loudly and begins to weep. He blinks (weakly) and gives himself a soft hug.

“Beautiful!” I declare, twirling my locks. “That’s it!”

Robin rocks back and forth. What he mumbles, no one could possibly understand. It is incomprehensible, yet sadly stirring.

I clasp my hands together, and, over the roar of the gas furnace, declare:

“Let us meet once again tomorrow. Say, early evening-ish? Or perhaps another night? Friend, we shall go around and around and around. Like two mad clowns on an out-of-control spinning wheel. The world askew and aslant, and we are one. In the meantime, here you go—some rainbow suspenders.”

Robin nods, as himself. He catches the suspenders and crouches as if about to become an alien who crash lands in a New Jersey shopping mall, but he quickly decides against it. Robin smiles shyly. Eyes cast downward, he nods one final time, and then curls himself into a tight ball and falls asleep.

“Until tomorrow then,” I whisper to him softly. “Here go the lights, funny man. Pipe out of mouth, I blow you a kiss. God speed and a fancy Latin phrase …

“Sad clown, I love you.”