Whenever Robin Williams stopped by the Urban Well in Kitsilano to do a stand-up spot, the news of the actor’s visit to the comedy room would ripple through the community.
The venue would be full for weeks or months afterwards, with visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary comedian.
“In that way he really kind of shared some of his light with us—cast it back on the room and really helped the Vancouver scene out a lot,” Vancouver comedian Charlie Demers recalled in a phone interview.
Demers met Williams the night of a ninth anniversary show at the Urban Well in 2006. The actor took the stage after Demers and Paul Bae, who were performing as part of a sketch duo called Bucket.
“Because we were an inter-racial act, he said ‘oh, they’re the future of comedy’,” Demers said. “And we were taking a picture with him afterwards and we sort of said to him, ‘hey listen, don’t be angry if we use that quote out of context on all of our publicity materials from now on,’ and he was very kind and just said ‘future of comedy, future of comedy’ to let us know that we could use it.”
Others who met the actor had similar stories of his kindness and encouragement. The actor, who was found dead in his California home on Monday (August 11), made frequent visits to Vancouver to film movies, including Night at the Museum.
“On a one-on-one basis, he was incredibly funny but also just really kind and really generous,” said Demers. “Every story I’ve ever heard about an interaction with Robin Williams runs roughly the same way.”
Williams’ comedy routines in Kitsilano also gave audiences the sense that he loved the city, Demers added.
“He was doing bits about neighbourhoods,” he said. “This was not some insular, American superstar who came up and started talking about the price of focaccia in Beverley Hills. This was a guy who clearly had an affection for Vancouver and for Canada and was really paying attention to it, and I think that was something that was special for people too.”
Another remarkable thing about his appearances at the comedy room was his evident joy in being on stage. For many comedians like Demers, the actor was “beyond human scale”—a comedian who had invented his style whole-cloth.
“In some ways he was like a guy who showed up in the Renaissance painting Cubist paintings,” Demers said. “He reached into some little corner of the universe that was just his and created his voice and style.”
But when he got up on stage in that small restaurant on Yew Street, be brought the same kind of energy he brought to the Oscars.
“He would perform and the audience was just so in love with him, and the comedians were so in awe of him, but it also seemed to be a pleasure for him, and I think that was one of the really kind of inspiring things about seeing him up on stage, was that there was absolutely no world weariness or jadedness or cynicism to the performing,” said Demers.
“Clearly, he took as much joy in being on stage as any amateur doing it for the first time, which was really an inspiring thing to see.”
The audience’s awe for Williams also allowed him the time to do “what amounts to acrobatics in comedy terms”, according to Demers.
“One of the famous things that’s difficult about comedy, is that audiences are so impatient, and you’ve got to get to your punchlines, you’ve got to get to your joke, you’ve got to always keep them hooked, and with him, the audience just went into it already with so much love and so much goodwill for him, that they just gave him as much room and time as he needed,” he said.
“It was like watching a dancer perform outside of the strictures of gravity…and the audiences’ jaws were on the floor the whole time he was performing. They were just thrilled.”