My Evening With Robin Williams

The recent passing of comedian turned actor Robin Williams reminded me of one of the most interesting  nights of my life. It was September of 1987 and I was living in San Francisco. My girlfriend and I decided to see some comedy that night. We looked through the Bay Guardian and found a show called “Three Guys from New York” at the Holy City Zoo on Clement Street.  That sounded like the ticket.

We went out to dinner at a Vietnamese place in San Francisco’s Richmond District, not far from the comedy club.  We met up with one of my business school classmates after dinner and walked over to the Holy City Zoo. We got there early, bought our tickets and sat down on the row that literally touched the stage.

Now, the Holy City Zoo (which is gone now) was not a big place. It seated 60-70 people in total and had a small stage in the back left of the establishment.  I believe it was an off the beaten track folk music club in a prior existence, so the setting was truly intimate. There were no more than 10-12 seats on the front row and I was right in the center!

Eventually, the Three Guys from New York show got underway and they were pretty funny. Obscene, in your face and loud.  But, pretty funny.  All during the evening, the proprietor kept telling us not to bolt early because they “might” have a surprise for us after the New York guys. During the third guy’s routine, my friend pointed back at the bar and said “who does that look like to you?” “That’s Robin Williams” I said.

Williams was standing at the bar with a drink and seemingly analyzing every line the third guy from New York laid on us. He seemed to be critiquing them as he watched and offering encouragement at the same time. When the New York guy ended his routine the proprietor bounded up on stage and said – “Now welcome Robin Williams!” The place went nuts!

The mike stand was close enough for me to reach out and grab it and there was Robin Williams right behind that mike.  Williams proceeded to tell us that Holy City Zoo was his proving ground, the place where he tried out new stuff and assessed whether it was funny enough to become part of his routine. Tonight he said that the audience would be part of the test.

“I’m going to show you guys how good I am”! Shout out a topic, any topic. And then it started…….

First, someone yelled out “Jim and Tammy Bakker”. Williams spent about 10 minutes skewering the fallen televangelist and his then wife. He was an unbelievable mimic; he walked, talked and acted just like the Bakkers. He was especially hilarious with his rendition of Tammy Bakker’s huge eyelashes.

Next, he looked at my business school buddy and his date.  He asked about their relationship.  Joe made the mistake of admitting that it was their first date.  Another five minutes was spent on an incredible tale of how the night would end for them and the probability of them being on speaking terms by Monday morning.

The next topic was “The Harmonic Convergence”. This was a big deal in California in 1987. The Harmonic Convergence was a globally synchronized meditation event which also coincided with a rare alignment of the planets.  It was associated with “all things Californian and new age”. Williams pranced around the small stage expounding on crystals, the messages he was getting from the universe and what those messages were telling him about the people in the audience.

The final topic I remember that was  shouted from the audience was Phil Donahue, that era’s reigning king of daytime talk shows.   At front row center, I was right in Robin’s sights. He looked right at me and said – “you look like Phil Donahue, give me your glasses”.  I didn’t look like Phil but I loaned him my glasses nonetheless.

Now Phil was a prideful and preening kind of guy. This offered rich opportunities for Williams. He replicated Phil’s on stage walk and mannerisms perfectly. At the end of his impromptu routine, he returned my glasses and asked the crowd: “What do you think”? The crowd was ecstatic.

It was beyond funny! I actually injured myself laughing; I woke up the next day with a pulled muscle in my abdomen.  I’ll never forget that 45 minutes!