Thursday, September 28, 2006

Working with Robin Williams

First off, thanks to, James Wolcott, and Lance Mannion for recent referrals. Hopefully, of the thousands of new readers, six will bookmark and stay.


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 Friday nights in Santa Monica, 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’ve recently started popping in on Andy Goldberg’s class. 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!”



For info on OFF THE WALL just click here.


VP81955 said...

Congrats, Ken. That's the comedy equivalent of one of us hitting a home run off Greg Maddux in his prime.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...


Anonymous said...

Now that post took me back. From 1979 to 1981 I emceed inmprov and sketch comedy shows 1 night a week at The Comedy store, where Robin always performed with our headiner troop, The Comedy Store Players, when he wasn't off shooting a movie. I had my own sketch troop in the shows, so I seldom ever appeared in a sketch with Robin, although it happened once or twice, and your description of what it was like "sharing" an improv sketch with Robin is right on the nose. He never meant to upstage everyone. He just couldn't help it.
I seldom visited OFF THE WALL, as I never got on with Dee Marcus, but I had friends in the troop, in particular Hennan Chambers, and went to watch once in a while. They were great, though the best troop I ever saw was WARBABIES, which included Archie Hahn and Peter Regert.
Difficult as doing as scene with Robin was, he would periodically remember it was a scene, not standup. The worst person to share an improv scene with was Sam Kinison. I did that just once. Much as I loved Sam offstage, to Sam, an improv scene was just stand up with people onstage to scream at. You'd never have gotten a "Fuck you" in with Sam. Just a "Fu--" before he screamed over you.
The best improv teacher I ever studied under was the late Bill Hudnut. That was a great class, the only place I ever found myself playing scenes with Carole King.
I miss improv. It was more fun than anything but sex.

Anonymous said...

there are those that would argue that "not letting you get a word in" is a horrible way to improvise... but hey, who's the millionaire?

Anonymous said...

I am not sure if it was on HBO or such, but long ago I saw a Robin Williams performance set, where he introduced and brought out of the audience John Ritter to help out. It was just awful. Ritter seemed unable to find any space in the set which was obviously Williams, and ... I think in his mind, Ritter was waiting to find the moment to say "fuck you".

Which goes to my point about Robin Williams. He seems the type that works solely alone with a big "A". That's not a promising sign for any improv.

He's that kid who never knew when to let the punch line just linger a second, but used any time available to give five more variations of it one after the other, until the audience is laughing AT the delivery, rather than the punch line. Which I guess can be grating.

And maybe the only people that can get in are other Hollywood A list egos that Williams recognizes - Crystal et al.

I was shocked to see him on "Whose line is it anyway" once, and... it was just flat. The others improvised off of each other, together, Williams so obviously could not.

the experience you had, up close, in a workshop-like atmosphere, must have been incredible. And your response must have felt like a relief to you, and got the laugh probably because it was on everyone's mind.

Beth Ciotta said...

I can totally envision your bit with Robin. No wonder the audience laughed. Hilarious. :)

Anonymous said...

Liked the story Senor.

Am a UK based writer trying to break into US TV sitcom writing field - any chance of wise advice, suggestions, pointers, people who'd be keen on a UK import etc?

The worse thing you could say is no, or even: not reply.

Anonymous said...

The first time I met Robin was back in the early 80's. He had done a film called THE SURVIVORS and I was intervewing him in the backyard of his publicist's house in the hills of Sherman Oaks. All was quiet when we set up (TV interview so we had lights, etc.) but when the interview started, every noise interruption imaginable (construction trucks, garbage trucks, jets flying over, gardeners, dogs barking, etc.)It was like a bad comedy sketch. But funny as hell as Robin riffed to all of the sounds. To this day, when I see him he looks at me and says "interview from hell!"

Julie O'Hora said...

Timely post, Ken -- I've been toying with the idea of taking an Improv class at a club here in town where Wayne Brady used to (and occasionally still does) play.

It's kinda terrifying, but that which doesn't kill me makes me a better writer...

Kbene said...

Oh come on, you'll pick up a few more readers than two.

Anyway, I was privilaged to attend a filming of Cheers in the 90's; the one where Woody takes his girlfriend to a motel. I was wondering if you could talk about the Cheers set... any "secrets" or problems or stories connected with it?

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but the Becker thread was too old... why I could not watch Becker... my wife is Dr. Karen Becker, family physician, working in the Bronx. She is a little bit of a curmudgeon, but much sexier than Danson. Just sayin.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, Lance Mannion. Didn't he check into a Boston hospital for a hernia operation? Seems he played Woody at raquetball or some sport, and won. When he scored the winning point, he let out what he called his "victory yell." Lance was finally tracked down by Diane when a nurse at Cheers told another nurse about a patient who wouldn't keep his hands off her.

Barking Up Trees said...

i've also bookmarked your kid as i'm a sox fan since the 70s... he gonna do a pats blog too... ?

Anonymous said...

That's a great story. I love the term "inspired word jazz' that describes RW's skill perfectly.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Andy Goldberg from Off the Wall is great. His class was totally fun. First saw him and Robin (and John Ritter) improv together in maybe 1979.

He also wrote a book -- just google GOLDBERG and IMPROV. Really lays out the building blocks, good character stuff for actors and writers.

Glenn said...

"a reader"? Thanks Ken, and I was going to tell everyone that you were not only funny, but could do a great serious dramatic sketck too. Well, once anyway.

At least now I know why every time we worked together you kept looking at me and saying, "Fuck you." I just thought you didn't like me.

Anonymous said...

Ken, didn't you feel a base comfort level for improv from being a disc jockey? I mean, already being used to thinking of funny things to say off the cuff and on the fly?

Anonymous said...

"The hardest part is going to a deli afterwards and watching your classmates eat fried kreplachs at 11 at night."

I only ordered them because you said they were best eaten late at night.

Newscoma said...

Consider yourself bookmarked from Wolcott.

Tiffany said...

This blog is awesome. Nobody tells the stories about the past anymore. They think people are only interested in the now.

Anonymous said...

so you didn't really work with robin williams you simply said 'fuck you' to robin williams.... im sure other people have that claim to fame as well dude

Wes __________ said...

Arthur 101: "I was shocked to see him on "Whose line is it anyway" once, and... it was just flat. The others improvised off of each other, together, Williams so obviously could not."

You either have a bias towards not liking Robin or were dropped on your head as a kid because you are flat out wrong.
The one time he appeared was pretty good for being a guest on the show. Colin, Ryan and Wayne all had practice with these specific bits having improvised many times before in previous episodes. Robin's style of comedy is very much a one man show and it showed slightly during the 'Whose Line' episode. However, he toned it back and primarily let the main guys do there thing. He was laughing with them and invested in the bits just like they were.
Compared to other guest actors who have appeared only 1 time, he did a damn good job. Just because he is a big time "A List" comedian as you say, doesn't mean shit. The flatness comes from being in a new and unique improv environment where he worked with these guys for the first time.
While improv may not have been his main shtick, he did a damn good job in that setting.
And to continue on the subject of only working with these supposed 'A' listers. You know nothing. The man worked at improv studios with kids multiple times. This article may help shine some light on his improv chops as well you simple-minded idiot:

The man was not perfect and obviously had his faults throughout his career, but to so clearly have a bias without more evidence is pathetic.