Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams and Making Live Comedy Live

Robin Williams was funny, lightning fast, and a gifted improviser, but what really set him apart as a comic was that he let his audiences share the experience of what doing standup comedy feels like. He didn't do that explicitly. It probably can't be done explicitly. But he did it, maybe better than anyone else ever has. It was the core of his gift, because a great comedian is not merely funny. A great comedian creates a relationship with the audience, and the relationship Williams created with his live audiences was something fundamental and profound.

Performing standup is a frightening and disorienting thing, even for pros. Standups talk about their art form as analogous to boxing, saying that if you don't stay in training you can't -- don't dare -- get into the ring.  A live performance is always in danger of spinning out of control. You can lose the audience in a split second. Any comedian who's performed enough to learn even the basics of the craft has had the experience of bombing out in front of a live audience -- dying, as comics always put it -- dozens and dozens of times. An extremely original comedian has died even more often. That is a miserable experience. And even experienced pros, even stars, still sometimes have a performance come totally unglued. They have all learned to keep that from happening by maintaining firm control of the performance at all times.

Comics learn, gradually and painstakingly, to conceal their fear and anxiety from the audience. And it is right that they should. Watching a comedian fail on stage is depressing and embarrassing, without any hope of insight or catharsis. Comedians do their best to shield themselves from that public humiliation. They learn to project confidence to the crowd and to keep their failures of confidence hidden. The audience should never catch any scent of flop sweat, no whiff of the performers' insecurities or fears of humiliation. The art form, like every art form, works best when it is grounded in emotional truth, but creating comedy requires concealing the emotional truth of how creating comedy feels.

Williams was absolutely in control of the room. Audiences ate out of his hand. Watching him was nothing like watching an open-mike novice falling apart. But watching him live, when he first emerged on the standup scene in the late 1970s, was also a bewildering and disorienting experience. The speed at which he changed direction, leaping from one bit to another and then back, was then something totally new and unexpected. People were often under the impression that his entire act, every single word, was improvised. (Of course, it wasn't.) It can be hard to remember, thirty-five and nearly forty years after Williams emerged, how radically new he seemed. But he did. It was like he was free associating at lightning speed.

Robin Williams wasn't the first comic to improvise on stage. He wasn't the first to do strange or emotionally raw material on stage. To be honest, his success was never about the material per se; there were much better joke-writers in his generation. And he was definitely not the only 1970s comic disguising his act's formal structure; that had been going on for decades. But what Williams's performances did was turn the basic relationship of live stand-up inside out. His disorienting speed and rapid changes of direction created an exhilarating and slightly scary experience for the crowd. They became the ones who had to live with their fears and accept that the room was out of their control. But they also got to feel the energy of that, too, the nervous excitement that performers channel into their stage act. Watching Robin Williams in person was basically sharing his performance-night adrenaline high.

One thing this did was free Williams to admit his own anxieties, the worry driving the comedy, without relinquishing control. If you listen carefully to his classic Live at the Met album, the phrase you will hear him say most is "Oh, no!" He says it dozens of times in that set, as a segue, as a punctuation mark, as a space-holder to cover an audience laugh. But what he is saying, over and over, is still, "Oh, no!" (The second most common phrase is "Don't you see?") During Williams's first appearance on The Tonight Show (then an important rite of passage for any comedian), he openly talked himself through his anxieties between doing bits. ("Okay ... you're on television ... he [Johnny Carson] means you no harm.") The streak of anxiety in Williams's comedy was never a secret. He was sharing it with us all along.

But the more important thing was that Williams's approach allowed him to build a deep emotional bond with the audience. Live comedy is about a relationship between the comic and the crowd, because the crowd is a crucial element of the performance. A standup act is not the same if it is done for only one person. A tiny audience mutes the comedian's effectiveness. But as the crowd grows larger, so does its power, and the more audience members there are the more they can set each other on to laugh. Standup is a fundamentally social art form. When a comedian has successfully worked a crowd, it creates a powerful feedback loop, with the audience's laughter feeding the comedian energy and confidence, which she or he uses to make the audience laugh harder, until the laughter becomes irresistibly contagious. The comedian has a microphone, but the audience is the amplifier.

Great comedians bond with the audience on an emotional as well as an intellectual level. Williams created an exceptionally deep bond with his audiences, because he shared with them a core truth, the scary excitement of performing live comedy, that other comics had to deny. Williams could not talk about that directly either, but he communicated it to his audience by making them feel the same things he did. That was what made him electrifying on stage. His entire act was about the experience of performing. He was the livest of all live comedians.

And what Williams's act implicitly said was, This is a little frightening, but it's fun. And here we are doing it! He created an act that felt unpredictable and kept the audience off balance, but also created the sense that if they didn't know where any of this was going they were still all in it together. That is a powerful and intimate bond. Williams's live act, in his younger days, felt utterly chaotic, but audiences gave themselves permission to enjoy it, because Williams made the chaos feel safe. He was the benign lunatic. He could do anything on stage, because he had earned the audience's absolute trust.

In his early days, Williams used to close his shows with a quote from the great cult comedian Lord Buckley, who had used it to close his own act:

People are the true flowers of life, and it has been a most magnificent pleasure to have temporarily walked in your garden.

I wish I had the chance to tell Robin Williams the same thing tonight. Thank you, Mr. Williams, and rest in peace.

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