Off the wall

Since I knew and worked with Robin Williams before he was famous (pre-Mork), it seems incumbent on me to add a few words to the torrent that’s been written about him.

As a teen, I somehow landed a job playing piano for an improv troupe, Off the Wall. I’d play something to lead in to scenes, to button them, and we improvised a few songs in every show, all based, of course, on audience suggestions. Sometimes the audience was so sparse, I felt guilty for taking my tiny salary, as nobody else was getting paid. While the group had two or three stalwarts who never left, a lot of the cast floated in and out: some became stand-ups, some got hired to write sitcoms and some quit the business. As we were located on Fairfax Avenue in Hollywood, all hoped that Someone of Importance would see them there and kick-start their careers. A certain desperation sets in – I think of Los Angeles as a place where everybody feels that desperation – we had to be funny, so that we’d get a reputation for witty work, so that more people would see us, and thus increase the likelihood of a connection with Someone of Importance.

One day, we were joined by a wry fellow in rainbow suspenders. Robin Williams was brand new to L.A., and so zany, he was the answer to all our prayers. He’d been Juilliard-trained, so he could send up any style of theatre when we’d call upon the audience to call out styles. Shakespeare was an easy one. Robin strode out, with a classical actor’s stance, looked up, and intoned, “Behold, the moon hangs like a testicle in the sky.” How’d we find Robin? He found us. Dee Marcus, our leader, taught improv classes, and one day, out of the corner of her eye, she saw him in the doorway. “Would you like to improvise with us?” she asked, because Robin looked like someone who could do that.

The rapid-fire brilliance we’re all accustomed to from countless performances and late-night talk show appearances is really best suited to the anything-goes creativity showcase that is improv. As many have commented, films always failed to capture what was so remarkable about Robin. It can be disappointing to see him stuck in one role when you know he could play a thousand. But films pay more than other forms of entertainment, and the man really made a pile of terrible movies. But they all came after I knew him. During the period he was at Off the Wall, television came a-biting: There was a revival of Laugh-In that quickly got canceled, and a propitious guest spot on Happy Days that led to the regular gig that took him from us, Mork and Mindy.

Improvising, he was in his element. We at Off the Wall viewed him as a savior. If two actors were stuck in a scene that was tanking, Robin would jump up from the sides, at any point, and do something brilliant. For example, a conversation at a bus stop plodded on. Robin ran across the front of the stage, like he was a passenger in a bus that was speeding pass. Less than five seconds from him produced long gales of laughter.

My good friend Adam, the funniest person I knew, had an interesting take on this. He felt what Robin was doing was shattering the reality of the improv scene, calling attention to himself, being a class clown who’d do anything for a laugh, even at the expense of the other actors’ work. I saw his point, but knew that those other actors appreciated his ability to inject madness into any moment at any time. More laughter meant more audience, and now we were the “in” thing to see on stage in Hollywood. Adam had seen the show before Robin, and got increasingly enraged by his antics.

At the end of every show, we invited the audience to play Freeze Tag with us. The rules of the game are that, while an improv scene is in progress, anyone can yell “Freeze” and tag out and replace one of the actors, commencing a new scene using a different interpretation of what’s going on in the frozen positions. One night Adam, who could play this game with the best of them, decided to seize the opportunity to confront Robin. He called “Freeze” and, rather than beginning a new scene, just laid into him:

You are just a scene stealer! You yell and invade scenes and are really a pain in the ass! WHY DON’T YOU TRY BEING A STRAIGHT MAN FOR ONCE!” So all he says is “Okay” and he stands completely straight like a tin soldier and the audience erupts and I’m standing on stage and I’ve been destroyed. Luckily somebody yelled freeze and got me off stage but he killed me and it was effortless for him. Not my best moment but I learned a lesson that day. Talented actors can steal scenes and IT’S OKAY! LEAVE THEM ALONE.

As Adam’s friend, I empathized with his deflation. But I also appreciated that Robin, a 25-year-old doing improv, was encountered with a seemingly angry teen rather than a would-be performer, and, in improv lingo, accepted the offer. He got the laugh, which was his goal; his goal wasn’t to put Adam in his place. He was nice.

And it’s said that a lot of comedians are not nice, that their humor is a defense mechanism against deep psychological scars. That wasn’t my experience of Robin. He launched into scenes with gusto, and after a show he came up to me to acknowledge the success of our on-the-spot spot-on send-up of Chinese opera. “Success” seems the wrong word: he was acknowledging the fun of it.

Improvised comedy is ephemeral. You do it, it’s great for a moment, and it’s gone. And we all accept that that’s the nature of the beast. A lot of people have shed a lot of tears for Robin this week. A brilliant dynamo of hilarity has been yanked from the scene too quickly, many feel. But that’s just improv for you.

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5 Responses to Off the wall

  1. misterlou says:

    I have always envied those who do “improv” – I am not, apparently, quick witted enough. By the time MY truly witty idea wanders into my head, the scene is long over and everyone is on to something else. That said, when I was a young man I loved and trained in the theater. I was okay, i guess. But I always, secretly, wanted to be able to do Improv – and I knew I couldn’t. When I first saw Robin Williams, I understood what it takes to be good at Improv – his “stream of consciousness” riffs were amazing. It’s unfortunate that his “consciousness” is now part of the Ages. Thank God we have film and video and our memories to keep him fresh in our minds and hearts – I would trade places with him in a heartbeat if it meant I could give him back to the world.

  2. Michael says:

    I’m with Adam on this one.

  3. Noel Katz says:

    Rare that I comment on the comments, but as someone who’s taught improv for many years, I’ll clear up a misconception: It doesn’t take quick wits to be a good improvisor. I’d say one must be a good listener, observant, truthful and fearless.

  4. Gurukarm says:

    Today on This American Life, they played a piece about a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s, living with her daughter and son-in-law, who happen to be actors adept at improv. The daughter hit upon the idea of using the improv trick of “Yes, and…?” to respond to her mother’s non-sequitors, instead of trying to correct her – the son-in-law turns out to be brilliant at it, because, as you say, he learned to be a good listener, and fearless. Now the daughter runs a website to help others learn it. (http://www.in-themoment.com/) – RW would have also been brilliant at such an idea, I”m sure. Thank you for sharing your memories (here via Neil Kramer, btw).

  5. Sam says:

    Hi, Noel.
    I remember you telling hilarious stories about RW and his characters, including munchkins, and your experiences at “Off the Wall”. Obviously a great experience for you! Williams, for all his troubles, was a class act, and it was sad to see him go early. But, as they say, “Always leave them wanting more.”

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