Robin Williams, honorary Filipino-American
At a time when all the world could use a laugh, we got a shocker.
Robin Williams, who had spent so much time entertaining the world, had forgotten to leave something for himself.
As someone who had covered Williams as part of the Bay Area’s entertainment scene while working as the arts and entertainment reporter at San Francisco’s NBC affiliate, I’m still dumbfounded.
Williams had influenced me in so many ways. Not just for being the ultimate minority, the space immigrant Mork. Not just for being an honorary Filipino by virtue of his second marriage to the San Francisco-born Marsha Garces.
No, Williams convinced me I wasn’t funny enough.
I remember seeing Williams pre-Mork, as a comic who loved to wear T-shirts and rainbow suspenders, at the open mikes in San Francisco.
Since the ‘70s, Robin Williams had always been my go-to funny man. But also the world’s.
When we lost our sense of humor, or when the events of the day from the Middle East, the Ukraine, Asia, Washington and down our block made us cry “No mas,” we always knew Williams was there to remind us of the potential to have one more laugh. A sidesplitting, yet consoling laugh. A laugh that reminded us that things really were all right. That if the world was going to hell in a hand basket, at least the hand basket was Mrs. Doubtfire’s.
Williams was pure comic fusion—a volatile mix of energy and heat that could explode into mirth at a moment’s notice.
And would anyone dare refute that in the world’s current state we need Williams’ counteractive force more than ever?
But we need it live, on stage, with all the humor he could wring from the moment. Any moment. He had the gift to create laughs.
When Williams went on the “Tonight Show,” he would take over the stage, riff and improv like a jazz man. And leave everyone in stitches as he did in his first appearance on “The Tonight Show” in 1981.
My lasting memory of Williams will always be with a mike on stage at an old comic’s dive that smelled of beer and urine. I had seen all the comic greats at the time. Woody Allen. Richard Pryor. Bob Hope. I had grown up as a kid in San Francisco a standup aficionado. And now in little rooms like the Holy City Zoo, the Other Café and the Intersection, standup was undergoing a renaissance not in New York, or Los Angeles, or Vegas, but in San Francisco. It would turn into the first modern comic boom in the ‘80s, the antecedent to all that we see today on cable and the clubs. But in the beginning it was just a handful of comics like Robin Williams, Dana Carvey and the Filipino-American comic Lorenzo Matawaran aka Buzz Belmondo, who were all spawned in that Bay Area standup scene.
At the open mikes in the mid-‘70s, it wasn’t hard to discover Williams. He was so immensely great, so bright. As a nobody, it convinced a nascent standup like me to sit down and go into journalism instead.
Years later, as a reporter, I interviewed Williams a number of times when he was major star. In a Bay Area where the rock music makers were king, Williams was the all-around entertainment giant. TV, film, stand-up. But it was often hard to catch him calm enough to talk and be real. I always talked to him on the fly when he was way too revved up after a performance to give me more than a perfunctory answer, which led to a joke.
He was always looking for a laugh. That was his truth.
In the end, reports say he suffered from depression and went back into rehab as a preventive step.
He was under duress after a failed TV comeback last year, and no doubt under financial pressure. He he was still riffing the same line about divorce he had used for years. It’s the line that goes, “divorce is from the Latin word… meaning having your genitalia torn out through your wallet.”
He changed the organ based on the audience. Sometimes it was more crude than genitalia. Sometimes it was simply “the heart.”
But always the wallet.
He used the line during another “Tonight Show” visit in 1991, when he was two years into his second marriage to his Filipino- American wife Marsha Garces, with whom he had two children; Cody, 23, who was born in the year of that clip, and Zelda, 25, whose birthday greeting was the subject of Williams’ last tweet in July.
In his later years, he often joked about his family and his half-Filipino kids. Kids like mine.
I think of them and all the friends and fans he left behind when he decided to take one last leap into the absurd.
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