Saturday, August 31, 2013

Working with Robin Williams

A reader asked me recently to talk about my sordid days doing improv. I started in 1979. Disco was dying and I was looking for the next big thing. My partner, David and I sold a pilot to NBC about a Nichols & May type improv team. The concept was could a man and woman work together and just be friends (long before Sally faked her orgasm for Harry)? To research the arena I called Dee Marcus, director of the improv group OFF THE WALL (still in existence, still performing around town, and still hilarious) and asked if I could audit a class. She said only if I agreed to participate. I figured, what the hell? I couldn’t be much worse than the other beginners.

I arrived and was blown away by how unbelievably great everyone was. SNL quality people performing over a beauty school at Santa Monica Blvd. and Fairfax. These were the beginners? Shit! I was lucky to get through a scene without pissing on myself (although, I know I passed up a sure laugh) After a few trying weeks of this I learned Dee hadn't put me in the beginners class, she put me in the performance class. These were all the top professionals. (Thanks, Dee) The tip off came when Robin Williams showed up one night.

I stayed in the class for a couple of years, learned an enormous amount, and eventually became part of a comedy troop, THE SUNDAY FUNNIES. We played to crowds often fewer in number than the cast.

After many years of sabbatical I'm back, taking Andy Goldberg’s workshop. Of all the improv teachers he’s by far the best. As a comedy writer I recommend improv training. It teaches spontaneity, committing to a character, and creating scenes with beginnings, middles, and ends. The hardest part is going to a deli afterwards and watching your classmates eat fried kreplachs at 11 at night.

One story about Robin. Needless to say, doing scenes with him was an adventure. He is so fast and brilliant he just uses you like a prop. One night I got called up to do a two person scene with him. If you were lucky you sometimes could get in two words. The scene began, he went off in fifteen different directions. I didn't even know what the hell he was talking about. Finally, I heard a beat of silence. He must've been taking a breath. Now's my chance, I thought. I don't know why but the only thing I could think to say was "fuck you". Much to my surprise it got a laugh. He was off and running for two more minutes of inspired word jazz and then it was my turn again. Since it got a laugh the first time I said, "fuck you". It got an even bigger laugh. This became the scene. Robin riffing, me occasionally blurting out "fuck you". And every time I got the biggest laughs.

When the scene was over I worried that Robin would be pissed that I upstaged him. Instead, he took me aside and said, “that was great.” I consider it one of my greatest achievements in comedy.

And I guess he remembers it because every time I see him the first thing he says to me is “Fuck you!”

26 comments:

Rob said...

Great story.

Wish there was a video of your performance with Robin.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I only know about Nichols & May from Kathy Greenwood. I've read in different interviews with her that she listened to their records a lot when she was a kid.

Igor said...

Hey, Ken - There's a meeting I'm having on Tuesday and I'd like to use your line. Who do I call to get that cleared?

DwWashburn said...

I remember several years ago Alec Baldwin accepting his Emmy and thanking Tina Fey who he called "this generations's Elaine May". I thought that was a very spot on appraisal of this funny lady.

AlaskaRay said...

That's funny. A lot of people say that to me whenever I run into them... And I've never even done improv.

Great Big Radio Guy said...

I must be a hot commodity! Everyone I met in Hollywood, their first words to me were always "Fuck you!"

Great Big Radio Guy said...

I owe AlaskaRay a Coke for beating me to it by seconds.

Darlene Koldenhoven said...

Darlene Koldenhoven said . . . Well said about working with Robin. I can just imagine the two of you together.
I had the privilege of working with him on the Oscars one year, singing and doing a bit with him. He was the nicest person just to be around but his amazing energy, his brilliance, how supportive he was of the whole cast, how incredibly funny he is all the time...I couldn't have had a better experience working with anyone else in the business. He IS the Real Deal!

dave presher said...

Hilarious...thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Judging by the stories I've read about Robin Williams over the years, I'm pretty sure his introduction to everyone is "Fuck you."

Anonymous said...

Robin Williams is yesterday's news, less funny every year. His coke fueled comedy rants were funny in the moment, not classic. He pales in comparison to his hero Johnathon Winters. I think he's a better serious character actor than a comic. Otherwise just a bad 70's artifact. Sam Kinosan was 10 x funnier in his short life than Robin in 3 lifetimes.

Anonymous said...

And what is funny, before he moved west (his dad was transferred) when he went to the very exclusive private school Detroit Country Day, he was so quiet and introverted that many, many of the kids who went with him at that small exclusive private high school in the Detroit suburbs even remember that he went there.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Joseph Scarbrough: This is what YouTube is for. Look up some of Nichols & May's classic routines there, and you won't be disappointed.

Ken: great story. I've always been the most impressed by people who, like Groucho Marx, could come up with spontaneous wit.

wg

RCP said...

Sounds like a great experience. As comedically brilliant as Robin can be, I like him best in small doses when he's manic and tend to prefer his more sedate roles.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I remember it well.

sean said...

I remember seeing a video of Robin doing improv with John Ritter which was great,but as an improviser the description of your experience sounds to me like he was a steamrolling douche with an extreme inability to fulfill the primary tenet of improv which is 'Make the other person look good.' Watch true improv geniuses like Colin Mochrie or Ryan Stiles if you want examples of brilliant improvisers who aren't egomaniacs and thus can let someone else shine as well.

kenju said...

I think he is a comedy genius. most of the time.

kenju said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Craig L. said...

After Robin Williams "quit live performance" for a couple years after John Blushi died, he started his "first comeback" in a few small clubs, including one in L.A. where my friend had an "in", so he, I and my then-girlfriend were first in line for the "secret performance" and got a table right in front of the stage. Robin was hilarious, but I could tell he was out of practice. I could also tell when he shifted gears from a bit he'd been doing for years and trying something extemporaneous. One of those times, he looked over the audience for someone/something to set off his hair-trigger mind. He looked at me, wearing an XXL white sweater that might be considered a 'tennis sweater', pointed and said "Ladies and Gentlemen, it's Bill Tilden!" then went on to something else. It got a good laugh, even though most of the audience (including me) didn't get the reference. After the show, my gf explained what she knew about the early tennis hall-of-famer known as Big Bill. To this day, I proudly declare that Robin Williams once mistook me for a great... dead... gay... tennis player. But then anything Robin Williams said about you on stage would be something to be proud of.

kingComedy said...

One story about Robin. Needless to say, doing scenes with him was an adventure. He is so fast and brilliant he just uses you like a prop. One night I got called up to do a two person scene with him. If you were lucky you sometimes could get in two words. The scene began, he went off in fifteen different directions. I didn't even know what the hell he was talking about. Finally, I heard a beat of silence. He must've been taking a breath. Now's my chance, I thought. I don't know why but the only thing I could think to say was "fuck you". Much to my surprise it got a laugh. He was off and running for two more minutes of inspired word jazz and then it was my turn again. Since it got a laugh the first time I said, "fuck you". It got an even bigger laugh. This became the scene. Robin riffing, me occasionally blurting out "fuck you". And every time I got the biggest laughs.


I did improv with him too. Everything you describe is considered BAD improv. self involvement, not listening, steam rolling over other people etc. All very just self serving.You don't do that to other actors on the stage.
I never enjoyed doing improv with him.

Johnny Walker said...

That's a great story!

Regarding Ken's advice on improv: I attended one of Andy Goldberg's improv workshop's (website: http://www.andygoldbergswebsite.com/Workshops.html last year. It was an intense experience to say the least, but I learned a huge amount.

I'm sure some people will hate me jibbering about myself again, but for anyone who has no idea what such a class might be like, or what you might learn, here's my experience. (Note: I hadn't even been in a school play before -- I couldn't have been more of a beginner if I'd wanted -- and like Ken, I found everyone else to just pretty damn amazing.)

So the class is set in a small room with a row of seats and a stage. (It's actually a very small theater.) Each game is performed for the rest of the class: They're the audience, as it were.

The first game required you to get up on stage and be the most X person in the world in, where "X" was an emotion or characteristic. So for example, you may have decided to be the angriest person in the world.

The person already on stage would then perform a scene with you, and try and guess what your chosen characteristic was. (When they got it, they'd work it into the scene: "Ah, you must be Mr Angry!") If they guessed correctly, they left the stage, and you stayed on, trying to guess the characteristic of the next person, and so on.

I was so unbelievably and incredibly terrified that I tried to choose a characteristic that might allow me to use my terror as an asset: Paranoia.

I watched the scene play out with other people first. It was set in a party being hosted in a pub, as I recall. Mainly it had been established that it was a public space and that there was a table filled with alcohol.

Dreading when my turn was going to come, I noticed that each scene roughly played out the same. I just needed something to say when:
1. I entered the scene.
2. I approached the person on stage.
3. When they guessed my characteristic correctly.
4. When the next person came in behind me.

If I had something to say in those moments, I'd probably be OK.

So I went with:

Me (poking head around invisible door): Are there any cops in here?
Classmate: (looking at the invisible drinks array in front of him) Cups? Yeah, there's cups in here.
Me: No, cops. Nevermind...

I enter the scene and nervously walk up to the other person, who's enjoying their drink.

Me: Are you a fed?
Classmate: (taken aback) You must be Mr. Paranoid...
Me: (giving him a worried look) How do you know my name?

So that was done. Maybe things would be OK afterall. The lines I had thought of before had worked, and had even gotten a few polite laughs.

Then the next classmate came in behind me and said a huge load of dialogue in her character. I suddenly panicked. I had been so nervous and self-conscious that I didn't register a word of what she'd said. Thankfully I had my line planned.

Me: Did you follow me in here?

She immediately responded: I wouldn't follow YOU anywhere!

I let out a huge laugh of relief. I got her character, I didn't need to think of anything else to say. Mrs Snooty was left on the stage as I ran off to sit back down and try and lower my heartrate.

The rest of the class was more of a blur, with good moments and some TERRIBLE moments, but here's what I learned from that first scene:

To do improv, you need to be present with what's going on. You can't just think of a few lines and hope they'll fit like I did. The classmate who came in behind me responded perfectly in character. It was seriously impressive, and what I should have been trying to do.

She showed me that she was fully present and aware -- her attention and focus was on me and what I'd said -- not on something she was waiting to say, and definitely not on the bunch of strangers watching us. I realised I was too self-conscious and that improv requires your entire attention.

Johnny Walker said...

(continued)

The second thing I learned is that this is easier said than done. The moment I was back in the audience, feeling anonymous again, my brain lit up with things to say in the scene currently happening. The moment I got on stage, my own ego got in the way again, and that part immediately shut down.

As someone once said: All creativity is a battle to destroy the ego.

Not only could I see how forcing myself to start being more present and aware of what was happening around me could help my creative life, but I also realised that doing improv would probably help me on a personal level, too. Shedding your ego is no bad thing, and when a friend later told me that doing improv had changed his life, I could see how that might happen.

The other thing I learned is that you need to have a character that you're playing. In the other scenes where I didn't have a pre-chosen characteristic I floundered because I didn't have a caricature to guide my reactions. Was I annoyed? Was I bored? Was I enthusiastic? Having some idea of a character makes things so much easier... and this is something I think that would help in writing. Giving characters a disposition not only gives them something to say, but it allows the audience to understand who they are... and nothing brings home the fact that the audience isn't engaging with a character quicker than being on stage and feeling it first hand.

The same goes with keeping the scene interesting, which also seems like a great skill to force yourself into developing.

Finally, the most important thing I learned was to try and relax and have fun. This is your chance to really let go and create -- in a fashion of your own choosing, no less -- how often do you get to do that on a daily basis? In fact, this sort of fun is something we all probably enjoyed when we were children (I know I did), but which some of us forget how to enjoy in adulthood.

In all, it was exhilarating, painful, terrifying, but worth every moment because of what I learned. And that was all from just ONE lesson. I hope to take more classes in the future.

Mike said...

@Johnny Walker: Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Anonymous said...

he left the one love of his life

julia

DP said...

I've taken improv classes. I suck a it. But I did learn a great bit of truth: effective communication is all built around two simple words: "Yes, and..."

Acknowledge and accept what others have to offer you, and continue with it. Even off-stage, it works wonders when people feel that their contributions are acknowledged and accepted.

Anonymous said...


Robin Williams reminds me of the guy who shows up at every party and his everyone in the palm of his hand with his sense of humor and lunacy. Then eventually he becomes a pain in the ass that no longer is funny but wants the spotlight. With all due respect, the man hasn't been funny in years. He has some acting chops, no doubt, but in every movie I've seen that he's been in for 20 years he's either A) Random creepy guy B) Random Perv C)Psycho. He's washed up, brother.


He's washed up, brother.