08/13/2014 11:18 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Robin on Robin -- Remembering That First Laugh

robin williams

If comic brilliance could be converted to nuclear energy, Robin Williams would have qualified as a one-man power plant. Lightning-quick, wildly unpredictable, and possessed by an endless cast of characters and voices -- on stage and off -- Robin couldn't help but be funny. That's what drew us to him, of course. He gave us joy.

But that joy was nothing compared to the obvious delight he experienced in entertaining us. There's a reason so many of his photographs feature that impish smile of his. He was thoroughly tickled by the fact that he tickled us. That's what he lived for.

That Robin Williams is gone is as inconceivable to me as walking out of the house in the morning and discovering that the sun had disappeared. Partly by design but mostly by a stroke of good fortune (our good fortune), Robin came along and embedded himself in our lives as one of the few things we could truly be sure of: pizza will always taste good, Christmas shopping will always be hectic, and Robin Williams will always make us laugh.

And now that's over. Like most everyone else on the planet, I am staggered by the loss of this exceptional man and dear friend. And in reading the many tributes about him that have appeared this week, there is not a false note among them. He was the genuine article -- a genius, tireless, complicated, and oh so generous. Every time I worked with him, he did it pro bono. He appeared in my Free to Be a Family TV special and on the LP; and he made numerous appearances to raise money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, always creating a fresh one-hour routine for the event.

I was on the set for many of the spots Robin filmed through the years with the kids of St. Jude (see here and here and here), and the bone-deep adoration he felt for these sick children -- and the enchantment they felt for him in return -- was one-hundred-percent authentic. We always wrote the pieces that he would do with the children; but he played and improvised with them, and always made the spots better.

In 2010, I interviewed Robin for my memoir, which in addition to telling my own story explored how some of our most beloved comedy icons first discovered their funny bones. Below is Robin's testimonial -- sans audience, straight from the heart -- and, in listening to the tape again, I was brought to tears. And, of course, laughter.

By the way, the sudden jokes he tosses into the mix are pure Robin. That's how he talked. And it is one of the countless things I will miss about him

God bless you, sweet friend. I hope that you have found the peace you sought. As for us, we remain standing in the aisles for you, cheering your triumphs and begging for an encore. We will never forget you.

* * *

The First Laugh
By Robin Williams, as told to Marlo Thomas

The first laugh is always the one that gets you hooked. And it's usually from a mother or a father. For me, it was my mother. I was always trying to make her laugh.

My mother was the funny one. My father had a good sense of humor, but it was dry. Both of my parents grew up in the Depression, but they came at life in different ways. Hers was extreme optimism; his was extreme realism.

My mother was outrageous funny -- the only woman who ever rendered Joan Rivers speechless. Mom was once standing next to Carol Channing -- who had a frozen smile that looked like Dr. Caligari's -- and cracked, "Whatever you do, Carol, never get plastic surgery." Mom would say anything.

I used to love making my mother laugh. She was the comic influence in my life. My dad was more concerned with the acting thing. He had this great advice for me: "You want to be an actor? Then you should have a backup profession. Like welding."

Mom would also recite these sly verses. Not the "old man from Nantucket" kind, but stuff like "I love you in blue, I love you in red, but most of all...I love you in blue."

She wasn't afraid of the physical stuff, either. She had this bit where she'd pull a rubber band out of her nose. She also wasn't averse to taking the occasional fashion risk. She'd put on hot pants and a Harpo wig if the mood was right. The cowboy hat and evening gown was not out of her repertoire, either. She had this leopard muff -- literally made from a real leopard -- and a hat made from the same fur. At least, I think it was the same animal. I'm hoping they didn't get the whole family. One time she wanted to wear these furs to a zoo benefit. I said, "Jeez, Mom, that's like wearing a Gestapo uniform to a B'nai B'rith event. It's gonna be a hard night, you know?"

So, yes, if you grew up with that, pretty much anything is possible.

Quick joke. How do you get an eighty-year-old woman to say "shit"?
Yell "Bingo!" before her.

I was born in Chicago, went to a private high school in Detroit, and lived in California for a while. My father was in the automobile industry, so we moved around a lot. Some comics grew up in tough neighborhoods, but not me. Where I grew up, people had their lawyers beat up someone else's lawyer. And the neighborhood kids had imaginary agents.

But I started noticing comedians very early on. Jonathan Winters was my favorite. He could even make my father laugh. As a boy, I realized, "Wow, that's a tough gig."

And I've always admired a fast mind. I remember hearing this great story about Elaine May. She was walking across the campus at the University of Chicago, and the wind was blowing her hair straight up into a big mess. This guy walks by and says, "Hey, Elaine, where's your broomstick?" And she says, "Why, do you need something to shove up your ass?"

Quick joke. Two old Jews are sent to kill Hitler. They're sitting in an alleyway rifles and bombs, and they're all ready. Hitler's sup posed to walk by at two o'clock -- but at two, he doesn't arrive. Two-fifteen, no Hitler. Two-thirty, no Hitler. Three o'clock, no Hitler. Finally, one Jew turns to the other and says, "My God, I hope nothing happened to him."

I was very quiet in high school. I went to an all-boys school for three years (that'll keep you quiet). But what started it all for me was when I took an improvisational theatre class in college. After that, all bets were off -- for two reasons: The teacher was a gorgeous woman who was about twenty-five years old, and all the guys were taking the class basically for her. But I also started getting laughs on stuff that I improvised. And that became addictive.

Comedians are an interesting breed of animal. We have this very bizarre combination of masochism and exhibitionism that goes way beyond acting. I suppose it's a kind of legalized insanity, in which you're allowed to do things that, if you did them in any other venue, you'd get arrested.

When I left school, I couldn't find any acting work. So I wound up in the basement of one of those tiny little music clubs and coffeehouses, which were trying out stand-up comedy as kind of a spacer. I thought, "Okay, I'll try it. It's like improvising -- but all alone." Before long, the music scene died out and comedy became more popular.

Quick joke. Guy buys a parrot that is constantly using foul language. Really horrible stuff. Finally the guy gets fed up and throws the parrot in the freezer to punish him. After about an hour, he hears a faint tapping sound from inside the freezer and opens the door. There's the parrot, wings wrapped around himself, shivering. He says, "I swear, I'll never, ever curse again. But can I ask you a question? What did the chicken do?"

But the funniest person in my life was my mother. Big time. I had a pillow that I kept on my couch that had this quote on it, supposedly from Sigmund Freud. It said, "If it's not one thing, it's your mother." Mom looked at that pillow and said, "What does that mean?" I said, "Sorry, Mom, I can't explain it to you without a therapist in the room." It's like that old saying, "Your mother pushes your buttons because she installed them."

My mother died in 2001, a week before September 11th. That was probably good, in a way. The events of that day would have really shocked her. They would have upset her worldview that everything is wonderful.