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August 12, 2014
I showed up at the Zanies Comedy Club on an early-spring Sunday, 1985, the world having come into focus. I was emceeing the shows every night, making a living and working with all the big names of the day: Leno, Seinfeld, Yakov, Sinbad – not to mention the best comics in Chicago. I felt incredibly empowered, the head of my own little operation. I still had occasional work at The Second City – I was doing “opening act” jobs with music stars in arenas all around the city and I felt successful.
A year-and-a-half out of Northwestern University I had found a path in the woods, chasing something I couldn’t quite see, even though every time I’d catch up it slipped away. But there was a definite path now, a direction, and I followed enthusiastically. Occasionally magic happened: sometimes on stage, sometimes in day-to-day life, sometimes alone in a room writing or at the piano as I’d practice.
This night I was met at the front door by Bert, as if he’d been waiting for me.
“Robin Williams is in town.”
Williams, circa 1985, was about to release a couple of major motion pictures, including a movie-version of his standup act (“King of Comedy”). His superstar career in full bloom, who knows why he was in Chicago, except that he was from the area and had personal ties. No matter.
Bert said, “He’s gonna stop by the club tonight.”
Robin had a reputation for stopping into comedy clubs unannounced and doing “guest sets,” as did many of the comedy stars of the day, so this was no surprise. But to have him play Zanies was a HUGE coup. Ever the second-string venue to The Second City’s long-time reputation, the sheer viability of having a renowned movie star stop in for a night would create a lot of vibe.
We were not sold out. It was supposed to be a “regular” Sunday night at the club with a local headliner, a local middle act and me as the emcee. But once the word hit the street the room began to fill. People were pouring in during the headliner’s set, and by the time he had finished, every seat was full, and there were some 30-or-so people standing in the back of the room. Not just fans and people who heard about the event – the Second City actors and staff were there, too.
Five minutes before the headliner finished his performance, Bert came to me and said, “Robin just called. He won’t be here for a half-an-hour. You need to kill 30 minutes.”
Thirty minutes. There are two ways to look at being told to do “30 minutes” in the world of stand-up comedy clubs. It’s a lifetime. Especially, as emcee, I’d already been on stage for 30-40 minutes warming up the audience and setting up the headliner’s set. It’s also a gift: STAGE TIME. Stage time is everything.
This wasn’t unusual at Zanies. Bert and Ricky would often say things like, “I need you to do another 20 minutes,” or “I want you to go on and bring the next act up right away. DO NOT DO ANY COMEDY. Just intro the next performer.” And, of course, “Kill another 15 minutes, we have another act coming in.” So I told Bert, “no problem,” went on stage and did my half-an-hour.
Actually it turned out to be closer to 45 minutes. I did every routine I hadn’t done earlier that night, old stuff I hadn’t done since working in Champaign at Sigma Chi. I threw in new material I hadn’t even written out yet, I improvised with the puppets, I did 15 minutes of “What’s your name? Where’re you from? What do you do?” That skill, which the Zanies bartender Brant called “going to the crowd,” has served me well for some 30-plus years. I floated on the laughs and kept moving, doing my job: killing time for the next act.
Just as fun and exciting was performing for my friends from The Second City, most of whom had not seen me working as a solo comedy act.
At the 45-minute mark, Bert began flashing a light at me from the back of the room. Someone shouted from the audience, “Is Robin Williams gonna be here tonight?” I took a long beat on stage – I saw the easily-recognizable superstar standing in the back, waiting by the sound booth, Bert spinning a single finger in the air giving me the “hurry up” sign. I nodded to the audience, “Yeah, we have a special guest. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome The King of Comedy, Robin Williams.”
He walked on to a standing ovation and performed heat-seeking comedy in that little room for an hour, a genius sharing his gifts with a small audience of Chicagoans and artists. He was energetic, brilliantly funny and bigger than the room, bigger than the city, bigger than whatever I could envision for a career. It was midnight when the show ended. Tony was in the back with the Second City folks, everyone talking excitedly about what had just happened, what a great night we’d all experienced, and how great a comedian Robin Williams was.
Tony grabbed my arm. “I invited Robin back to our place. He’s coming over after we leave here.”
Tony and Maureen Kelly had the coolest apartment that any artist working in Chicago could possibly have, above a bar on North Avenue, a block from Zanies and The Second City, on the third floor with huge windows looking out over the street. I had moved out of there a few months before, moving in with Marsia, so I knew the place very well. I hung at the club for a while then walked over to Tony’s, walked in the open door to the flat and there he was, Robin Williams, eating chips and drinking Coke, talking with Maureen and everyone as if he was one of us. He recognized me immediately and said, “Great job. How long have you been doing comedy?”
So I stood there with a can of soda in my hand, talking with the biggest name in the business, asking him about his newborn child (this was the most animated I’d see him at the party, he was overwhelmed with joy about having a baby), asking him about improvising (“I never go on stage without at least a premise or two in my head”) and generally pretending to be a peer.
The movie-in-my-head had started years ago, but now there seemed to be a point to it, a defined story arc, an answer to “why is this movie being made?”
*This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, “TAYLOR MASON: IRREVERSIBLE.” I can still see my brother Tony and his roommate Maureen cleaning up after the bash with Mr. Robin Williams as the sun was coming up over Lake Michigan to our east. Just thought I’d share in response to the untimely death of Robin Williams.