Saturday, August 30, 2014
I am sitting in front room rocking chair talking to Tina. She heralds the arrival of a small baby pig into the room as others come up the stairs. It is not only a Francisco-like tall man roommate, but his young short blonde girlfriend. She is moving in unexpectedly and my first reaction is horror and dread. I am not able to hide my reaction from her, even as she is placing a check for $40 on the desk as her half of the rent with her tall boyfriend. He is not visible yet, has not warned me of this change in the living arrangement or even asked. The young girl is some sort of desperate straits, and is relieved and not wavering from the inevitability of moving in. This is a done deal as far as she is concerned and may be saving her own life from the previous arrangement she is fleeing. The little pig is running around, perhaps playing with other small dogs in residence, in a very happy frolicking way. I begin to see the writing on the wall and apologize for my initial reaction. There are hugs and general making nice. She is a sweetheart and I start to make mental adjustments to my new living situation, even asking if she is working during the day. She replies with an "I wish" negative. I have to answer the door several times and knock collected papers to the floor at the bottom of the stairs. I have to pick them up again and again, re-stacking them in their wire basket cubbys attached to the wall. Inconvenient and obviously inefficient. Chris Frieber comes upstairs or is on the street with conversation as one visitor. He also shows me a picture book(?) of old weathered French doors of great architectural splendor.
Thursday, August 21, 2014
I have left a dream-forgotten situation in the Richmond and am on a standard bicycle wending my way through a series of right-angle wooden covered tunnels as an approach to the GG Bridge. I encounter and avoid oncoming tourists who may or may not be on the right path, as it is narrow and does not seem to be designed for this double passage. I am not traveling at top speed so this is more of a pleasant surprise when they pop up from around various corners. After what seems a long convoluted and Byzantine journey, I finally come out near the ramp to the Bridge. I must walk my bike and avoid a muddy patch of long grass that leads down to a path. Tourists from both directions are milling about and I give directions to a few who I overhear talking. I correct their confusion about the name of their location, but restrain from telling them the history of the buildings in the Presidio and the architectural timeline they portray.
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
|Robin and me, Comedy Day, San Francisco c.1984|
Photo Credit: Sue Murphy
Everyone that survived the 80's comedy boom in San Francisco has at least one story that includes Robin as the main attraction. We all wanted to share the stage with one of the best and brightest, hoping to up our own personal game or just bathe in the same spotlight while hoping a little of the fairy dust rubbed off on our otherwise meager talents. As is the nature of ego, others may have hoped to hold their own with his rapid-fire brilliance, or even best the genius of his rolodex mind. I often witnessed the self-satisfaction of lesser talents basking in landing a personal bon mot in front of his adoring audience. The crown jewel of achievement was catching him off guard and actually hearing his surprised chortle of amused recognition of your bit of funny. I often thought his gracious appraisal was at once congratulatory and encouragement to fly further with him to the rarefied air of his orbit. Few did; all tried.
Certainly a recounting of that moment was shared and re-shared in pissing contests with others lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, a battle of "Oh yeah, well once he joined me after my set and..." those encounters became legend in each of our minds and were told as proof that the possession of genius was ripe for the picking, and not the sole proprietorship of one freakishly talented individual. Those treasured moments were likely looped in memory to revisit the thrill, perhaps elaborated and enhanced, and likely called in to service as self-soothing on nights when the gig was less than stellar, singular and truly lonely on similar stages with hacks and wannabes. Our minds, when left to our own devices, yearn to be special, unique and above the pedestrian. The brutally honest part of a performer's brain, or maybe the built-in insecurity and doubt, knows better. That moment was certainly hard evidence of our untapped abilities and the destiny of greatness in the pursuit of stardom; the type of stardom that Robin was scouting ahead and dancing with before our eyes. It seemed wonderful and magical and within our grasp, at least in that glimpse of a moment. At least, at that time within San Francisco's comedy enclave.
One of his kindest contributions was graciously sharing and collaborating, even as his circle was widening beyond the hothouse environment of SF. He allowed us a peek behind the grander curtain, what it was actually like... each bringing our own hopes and dreams of belonging and being included in the exclusive club. I suspect that he also loved to play and required playmates who understood the shorthand and lingo. Maybe just a stretch to keep the comedy muscle tuned and limber, but he was likely seeking the joy of collaboration or making something out of nothing, disengaging the calculating brain and leaving the imagination to its own devices. Nothing is better than being surprised by your own mind and the wonders below the surface waiting to be tapped and un-trapped. It has its own addictive qualities, to recreate that high of the high-wire, to be blameless and shameless for a shortcoming, failure or transgression and move on through the glorious pell-mell of creativity unleashed.
For many he was the reason that comedy as a vocation became a way of life. I watched him burst forth from my small TV on a local comedy show filmed at the Great American Music Hall, on a bill with other rising stars in the comedy scene. He smoked every one of them; that’s not to say they weren't entertaining and garnered laughs, but Robin erased their triumphs with a new kind of authenticity. No one was like him, as his methods were madness and otherworldly; almost foreign and incomprehensible to translate what was happening in real time in this new way of funny. He was the undeniable star of the evening and soon to be for his generation/the ages. I was left speechless, gasping and sputtering with incredulity and vaguely grokking my new aspiration, perhaps similar to mortals gazing on the gods when they deigned to appear before them. That night his talent soared from the stage through the audience and into the stratosphere, transmitted by way of a 13" television. My subsequent journey began to steep myself in countless improv workshops, learning the way of those before me to honor the ancient craft, then performing, and hanging out in comedy clubs for further research or as an insatiable sponge for all things funny. My fellow travelers were possessed with the same compulsive desire and the City's fertile ground nourished and sprouted all sorts and stripes of humor.
|Robin stops by to play with Femprov at Cobb's Pub in the Marina|
Terry Sand joins the trio in a Madrigal.
Photo Credit: Mark Pitta
Of course, my path crossed again with Robin. When he was in town as a respite from his burgeoning career, he also turned up in the small clubs we frequented to grab a bit of stage time. His presence was always met with a murmur of excitement and anticipation among the comics. We knew the night had already become special and we were about to become audience members held in his thrall. The scarcity of patrons in the club magically transformed into SRO. Somehow ‘word on the street’ spread like wildfire and a literal stampede engulfed the room. The subsequent roar of the crowd when he took the stage upped the ante and the energy became electric and immeasurable by standard comedy gauges of entertainment. Everyone sensed, no, knew, they were in the presence of a remarkable entity and it was now our job to witness this shooting-from-the-hip superstar.
Among the working comics, ambition and competition were temporarily put on hold... it was time to be entertained and schooled. Heads up, the Rosetta stone has taken the stage and we had yet another front row seat and chance to decipher the method to his hilarious madness. The clues had to be there, it was just a matter of paying close attention. Doing justice to these performances is feebly captured with mere words. Take yourself back to the first time he flabbergasted you; re-conjure that for yourself and attempt a description. Mind-blowing and boggling all at once, preternatural and spellbinding, and oh-so-very funny only begin to scratch the surface of that singular experience. I’m guessing you’re smiling, but words fail.
Afterwards and off stage, he was friendly and extremely gracious, even as he was inevitably accosted or ogled by a spent and grateful crowd grasping at the hem of his garments. After hours, backstage when the club closed to the public and the ballyhoo had died down, he was one of the gang, all of us still amped from performing or just watching him weave his stream of consciousness.
Was this a form of recharging and a touch of normal he welcomed from the juggernaut of his meteoric rise into the Show Biz firmament? I like to think we offered him a small remembrance of familiar things long since passed by (recently lost) in his life that had suddenly and deservedly leapfrogged over our earthly struggles. There was no turning back from his inevitable path now, but one often yearns for simpler times with mundane surprises. Who hasn't revisited their grade school or attended a HS reunion to take stock and gain perspective on a life's passage? He was shy, respectful and humble beyond the talents he obviously possessed... or maybe just observed our foibles while some were searching for any small acceptance in his eyes. Still, most welcomed his down to earth attitude, and the grace with which he tolerated our embryonic state, as an example and proof that fame and fortune did not necessarily have to expose the inner asshole we all harbor and hopefully keep at bay.
|Linda Hill and I create a Robin sandwich, backstage at Cobb's|
He gave, but boy did he get. I had a small taste of the thunder and lightning he absorbed from a crowd.
Traditionally, Comedy Day in Golden Gate Park was headlined with an appearance by Robin. He followed an amazing roster of local comics who were loved in their own right by an appreciative and knowledgeable comedy crowd gathered for an entire day of back-to-back 5 minute sets in broad daylight in a polo field full of funny-loving folks. In some years the numbers swelled to thousands. Not an easy room, especially for performers used to working small darkened clubs with intimate crowds, half in the bag, focused by a singular spotlight on a small stage. Few of us had arena experience, although it felt like rock star proportions when you took the sun-lit stage.
Obviously, the adoring masses had been hopeful they would be rewarded for their patience with a lengthy set by Robin. If he was in town, he did not disappoint. All kibitzing among the comics backstage came to a halt because it was time to watch him unfurl his brand of magic. The response to his introduction, standard by now, made us all realize the laughs we earned earlier were mere titters by contrast. He was their maestro, orchestrating their now-forgotten exhaustion into a frenzy of joy and laughter. It was mesmerizing to watch the puppet-mastery of it all on the faces of an audience reacting in perfect unison, just as Robin intended. You might think this hyperbole, but I assure you, no exaggeration is required.
When he could finally end his extended set, despite further protestations by the crowd, all comics would join him onstage en masse to take a final bow and thank the audience for being there. Honestly, we all wanted a piece of that goood stuff Robin had whipped up. All of us clambered onstage and I found myself near the front behind Robin. The roar of the crowd was crazy good for the soul and the greedy ego that fuels us all, enough for a lifetime. We were all soaking in this field of people on their feet, clapping, screaming and literally barking with approval. I noted my vantage point behind Robin was pretty special, as most of this adoration was rightfully focused toward him. His sight line was spectacular and this POV allowed me to imagine stepping into his performing shoes.
Comics traditionally returned to the stage to thank the audience…
and take one last bow after Robin's closing set on Comedy Day in the Park (1984).
and take one last bow after Robin's closing set on Comedy Day in the Park (1984).
Knowing when to leave the stage is just as important, so you 'leave 'em wanting more' or, realistically, don't wear out your welcome and the goodwill of those applauding. Expertly, Robin took the initiative; he turned around and reflexively hugged the first person in the sea of comics. It happened to be me. Robin was a hugger, so this did not seem out of the ordinary from the regular hugs received over the years. What I wasn't prepared for was the combined energy from performing and the subsequent received love from his crowd. The hug transferred all of it to me in that embrace. Yikes, like nothing I have felt since. Electric and visceral in impact. A sonic boom of quantum force. It would have knocked me on my ass if he had let go. When he did, he met my shocked look with a knowing gaze, as if to say, "That's what the real stuff feels like every time." I had my share of loving and thrilled audiences and the occasional standing O, but I was never able to replicate or receive that feeling on my own. It was an unexpected gift and a sudden realization of how unique Robin's experience must have been.
Though I flatter myself as part of the 80’s comedy inner circle, San Francisco’s up and comers witnessing and cheering on a comrade’s launch from our ranks to the highest of heights, I have no legitimate claim to really knowing Robin. His recent passing and our cumulative clumsy attempts to make sense of how someone who meant so much to so many could exit a world of such adoration is obviously beyond our ken. Abandoning all that… and us, calls into question our own capacity for handling all the varieties of love he received. We flounder in our own shallow and vapid imaginations about the perceived perks of his life…or the incomprehensible and attendant pitfalls.
Perhaps he had sated the adoration-seeking aspect of a performer’s life long ago; maybe that was never his concern. I cannot fathom the depths of his clinical lows or the heights of the joys he experienced, consistently touching countless souls of several generations along the way, each and every one believing, for that moment, he was our closest compatriot in this folly of existence.
By happenstance, I had a sliver of insight into his world one sunny afternoon 30 years ago. Despite this minimal proximity to a kind and generous man, I am comforted by the certainty that he wasted little time in fully living an extraordinary life. Good speed, Robin.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
I am in school and working on a story, perhaps illustrated, perhaps being hammered out in storyboard form. The pages are laid out on the floor of my bedroom. The book is colorful and may be in watercolor. Barbara Scott is a fellow student and Robin is there in the capacity of teacher. We are looking at the pages and pondering what is not there yet and needs to be filled in where there are missing pages of these brainstorming doodles. There is some discussion and encouragement from both. Robin is also mindful and expectant of an approaching deadline. I am on the stairway finding places for some colorful books to be wedged into niches of the back of the door. Later or the next day, we are now downstairs and the book is laid out on a table. Robin comes to check on my progress that is no further along, though he reads a later chapter and is optimistic about its content. I have other studies and classes that need attending and tended to. I now must take a station wagon across the bay and leave on my trip. On my way I pull over to rest or attend to something on a country back road, and do so in a covered roadside gas station, likely abandoned. When I pull out to continue my journey, I pass Hispanic women crossing this pastoral road, with large sparse trays of cupcakes, the others having been delivered to a school on the right. The frosting is colorful for celebrating a holiday. I imagine their homemade goodness.
Note: Robin Williams committed suicide yesterday - August 11
Note: Robin Williams committed suicide yesterday - August 11
Friday, August 01, 2014
Details of how we got into a large showroom are gone upon waking…although I have flashes of initial dream's location orientation. We are seated stage left near the front of a comic-con type gathering. Before the show starts, we are called away to answer questions, tour and inspect a house across the street with some urgency. Supposedly we have some knowledge of the home (it may be mine or had been). Police are involved, because when we return I look back through the auditorium's entrance portal to see them on balconies and roofs combing the slope-roofed brick abode. I implore Teresa? to witness the goings on behind and over our shoulder, as it appears Frank Kidder and another old-school comedy guy (Cantu) are now part of the police proceedings. I comment: "Thought you would ever see that?…" Upon our return to the audience, we see that our away time has been put to good use by Denise and Joe entertaining the happy crowd with some fireman's carry game with sets of two hapless audience members and have accrued 60 points. Cheering and laughter for these time-fillers, while the original intent of the show/panel is all but forgotten. Later we are all in a van with Charlie Brown among others in the back, on our way to another performance.