It was the spring of 2006 and I was working at the CBS Early Show as a page. Because the Early Show was dead last in the ratings, we normally got the big time celebrity guests after they’d finished their interviews at the Today Show and GMA. They’d take part in interviews referred to as “post-tapes” – meaning we’d tape them after the show finished for the day and air them tomorrow. My job was simply to escort these famous folks to the green room. Generally I avoided saying anything to these people beyond a brief welcome to the show.
On this day, Robin Williams was promoting the easily forgotten film “RV” and he was late. Very late. He came bounding out of the black SUV before it came to a complete stop, his various assistants and goons close behind him. Before we could welcome him to the show, he thrust his hairy paws out.
“Hey, how ya doing? I’m Robin. Are you guys my escorts? I asked for a blonde. HA!” was what he actually said. No BS, these were his words. This implausible cartoon character of a man was really like that, all the time. Honestly, one got the sense that what was hilarious to us was really grating his entourage. They’d probably been dealing with this insane man-child since 5 AM.
The Early Show’s studios were on 59th and 5th in the GE building. It’s long gone now – I think a diamond show room has taken it’s place – but back then, the complex consisted of the CBS studio, a huge skyscraper office building, FAO Schwartz, and the then-under construction Apple Store. The giant glass cube where we all go to get our iPads fixed was then still under a bright blue tarp and workers were hurrying to finish it for it’s summer opening.
As I escorted Robin and his group to the studio entrance, he stopped to take in the store’s construction.
“Ah, the obelisk is almost complete, I see!” he bellowed, and then turned to me to ask, “That’s it, right? The Apple store? The Temple of Steve?”
“Yes it is, sir.” I replied quickly.
“So is the whole thing going to be underground?”
“Yeah, I think so.” I replied, before taking a chance to try and make him laugh with the joke I’d been repeating to the security guards all morning:
“I hear they want to keep it below ground so computer nerds will feel like they’re at home in their mom’s basement.”
It’s a pretty lame joke, particularly as the mid-2000s gave way to this pro-nerd era that we currently enjoy. But I liked it. And Robin Williams loved it. He slapped me on the back and let lose a mighty Robin Williams-esque guffaw.
“Not bad, you should write that down.” he chuckled.
“Thanks, sir. I’ll use it at an open mic.”
“Oh, are you a comedian?”
I quickly demurred. “Well, I wouldn’t say that, but…I’m trying, yeah.”
He stopped. The entourage again collectively rolled their eyes.
“Do you go out every night or sit down every day with a pen to try and make people laugh?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Does it work?”
“Then you’re a comedian. That’s what you are. Welcome to the club.” he said as he slapped me on the shoulder and smiled and we finally entered the studio, to the relief of the rest of Team Williams.
I’ve told people part of that story – the part where I make Robin Williams laugh. But I’ve never told another living soul about him welcoming me to the comedy life. I don’t know why I never shared it. Maybe I didn’t think people would believe what he said. Maybe I didn’t believe what he said. But that day, in one sentence, a living legend made me feel like maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t wasting my life.
In the coming days and weeks, we’re all going to ask what happened to Robin Williams. We’re going to ask what made him allegedly take his own life. We’re going to ask what was wrong with him. Was he crazy? Was he sick? Was he selfish? Was he angry? We’ll ask these but we’ll probably never get the answer.
But I do know one thing: He was a comedian. That’s what he was. He made people the world over smile and laugh. He made children in hospitals laugh. He made soldiers in war zones laugh. And he made a terrified young man not only laugh but believe in himself. I hope I can do that for someone else some day.
After he wrapped up his studio interview back in 2006, something remarkable happened. The director called cut, the interviewer took off his microphone and headed back stage, and the crew re-set the studio. And Robin Williams? He was still being Robin Williams, making light of the precarious places his microphone had been placed. But the weird thing was he wasn’t really making the jokes to anyone. Almost nobody was paying attention to him but me and one or two stage hands. Still, there he was, making jokes by himself, essentially to himself.
When he noticed nobody was really paying attention to him, he looked around and saw me watching him. He flashed the kind of grin a five year old flashes when they get ice cream.
“Well, at least you’re listening. You get me.”