Robin Williams Wittiest Stand Up Comedy
Williams began his career doing stand-up comedy shows in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1970s. His first performance took place at the Holy City Zoo, a comedy club in San Francisco, where he worked his way up from tending bar to getting on stage. In the 1960s, San Francisco was a center for a rock music renaissance, hippies, drugs, and a sexual revolution, and in the 1970s, Williams helped lead its “comedy renaissance,” writes critic Gerald Nachman. Williams says he found out about “drugs and happiness” during that period, adding that he saw “the best brains of my time turned to mud.”
He moved to Los Angeles and continued doing stand-up shows at various clubs, including the Comedy Club, in 1977, where TV producer George Schlatter saw him. Schlatter, realizing that Williams would become an important force in show business, asked him to appear on a revival of his Laugh-In show. The show aired in late 1977 and became his debut TV appearance. Williams also performed a show at the LA Improv that same year for Home Box Office. While the Laugh-In revival failed, it led Williams into a career in television, during which period he continued doing stand-up at comedy clubs, such as the Roxy, to help him keep his improvisational skills sharp.
Williams has credited other comedians with having influenced and inspired him, including Jonathan Winters, Peter Sellers, Nichols and May, and Lenny Bruce. He attributed their influence to their ability to attract a more intellectual audience by using a higher level of wit. He also liked Jay Leno for his quickness in ad-libbing comedy routines, and Sid Caesar, whose acts he felt were “precious.”
Jonathan Winters became his “idol” early in life; Williams first saw him on television at age 8 and paid him homage in interviews throughout his career. Williams was inspired by Winters’s ingenuity, realizing, he said, “that anything is possible, that anything is funny. . . He gave me the idea that it can be free-form, that you can go in and out of things pretty easily.”
During an interview in London in 2002, he told Sir Michael Parkinson that Peter Sellers was an important influence, especially his multi-character roles in Dr. Strangelove: “It doesn’t get better than that.” Williams owned a rare recording of Sellers’s early radio Goon Shows. British comedy actors Dudley Moore and Peter Cook were also among his influences, he told Parkinson.
Williams performing at a United Service Organizations holiday show held for the Aviano Air Base community on December 22, 2007. Williams was also influenced by Richard Pryor’s fearless ability to talk about his personal life on stage, with subjects including his use of drugs and alcohol, and Williams added those kinds of topics during his own performances. By bringing up such personal matters as a form of comedy, he told Parkinson, it was “cheaper than therapy” and gave him a way to release his pent up energy and emotions.