An Edinburgh Fringe Tale - Part 2Robin Ince's Blog
This year, I am more than usually anxious about Edinburgh Fringe. I will be up there in a day, waiting to start three different shows – Chaos of Delight, Satanic Rites of Robin Ince and Book Shambles Live. I am also MC-ing a benefit in honour of Barry Crimmins on the 16th. After Edinburgh, I am travelling around the country, talking about my new book, I’m a Joke and So Are You. Though I didn’t know it then, the book really stemmed from a gig I performed on the night Robin Williams died. Most of the story was eventually edited out of the book, but here it is.
Story so far, I’m in Edinburgh. It is the eighth gig of the day, Cheaper than Therapy, a fundraiser for MIND…
The audience is framed in dream-like condensation. Ranting on, I clean my spectacles on the corner of my cardigan, this the nearest I ever get to that Elvis moment where he would dry his sweat sodden brow with a silk handkerchief before handing the salty treat to a screaming fan. No one screams for my condensation tainted cardigan.
I finish with a story about William Blake sitting in a tree with Billy Bragg and some angels playing versions of Jerusalem and Tank park Salute; while Aldous Huxley talks to a porpoise; and Stanley Kubrick’s films are directly injected into your eyes mixed with some heroin. Fortunately, they are an audience who will go along with this sort of thing.
Never one to punch the clock too early, I had suggested to the promoter that he added a second half where we discussed myths and realities of comedians as mentally ill. Having felt that I had teetered towards mental skewiffery during my last tour, it was a subject I had become increasingly interested in.
The other stand up on that night was Eddie Pepitone – an explosive cauldron of precise fury and neuroses. In the film of his life, ’The Bitter Buddha’, he had spoken of the therapy of stand up, but he wasn’t risking giving up actual therapy either. I knew it would make an interesting panel and it would slow down the first hour of post gig drinking.
I walked into the bar where the air was a little less toxic. Out of the auditorium, everyone had switched their phones on, fearful that social media might have moved on without them during their 60 minute incarceration. Even at midnight, it is vital for everyone to check their messages, tweet their derision or joy at what they’ve just seen, or see if they have received a review that they need to print out immediately so they could spend the rest of the night drunkenly stapling them to their flyers and pajamas. In the case of bad review, they will take their portable stapler across town in search of the derisive critic to staple her or him to death in an alleyway. It is not unknown for an act to pin a journalist to the wall and savagely berate them for not loving them enough.
I’m antiquated, so I have a very limited phone that only functions as a phone. It’s the type you’d give an elderly relative so you are reassured you’ve taken every precaution should they fall down a stairwell. This means I am forced to physically socialise with humans rather than mingle with avatars.
Ordering a beer, I am aware a domino effect of gasps behind me. The giggling, smirking and sense of jollity is suffocated by a miserable silence. A line of people are stooped over their phones, looking uncomprehendingly at the screen.
One comedian walks straight out of the bar looking distressed. Usually a gregarious fellow, he said nothing as he went, not even to the TV producer that was there. This was a rarity as he had reached peak fawning over media people during this festival. No one was even give a business card as he left. Sadly, my cynicism, enhanced by 15 visits to the fringe, meant that I still reckoned this flamboyant performance of distress maintained an air of “and if you are looking for anyone to do ‘distressed exit’ in your new shows, I am adept”.
It takes a lot to knock easy flippancy out of a comedian.
I soon find out why, the news has just come in that Robin Williams has killed himself.
I have never seen so many comedians dumbfounded. We are about to go on stage and talk about comedy and mental health, and one of the world’s most famous comedians has taken his own life.
Eddie Pepitone had been friendly with Robin Williams on the West Coast comedy circuit. Williams had never lost contact with the comedy circuit. Stand up comedy hadn’t just been a stepping stone for a TV and movie career, it was a necessary part of his existence. He did it because he had to. For all his acting achievements and awards, Robin Williams was first and foremost a stand up comedian. He needed the immediacy of onstage creativity and audience reaction. He was in the comedian category of “they do it because they must”.
I had become obsessed with him when I was 14. Now we are used to being able to source the entirety of an artist’s work in seconds, then it was a fascinating and infuriating quest to even find out what existed, let alone get my hands on it. I’d bought albums by Steve Martin and Richard Pryor, but it was the exotic green label import of Reality…What A Concept that I played over and over again.
I can still recite many of his routines. I think I may even still be ripping some of them off too. A video of his ‘Live at the Met’ performance was released in the UK, and via the rapid doing of household chores and gardening jobs, I earned the £9.99 required.
In the HMV Oxford Street basement one day, they were playing a Robin Williams routine that I hadn’t heard before. I rushed to the checkout.
“What are you playing?!”
“Oh, it’s the soundtrack to a new film with Robin Williams called ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’.”
I had to see it NOW. This would be the greatest film ever made.
Unfortunately, in the 1980s there was a huge gap between US and UK cinema releases. The soundtrack was readily available to us snaggle-toothed Englanders, but the film wasn’t due out for six months. This was an unbearable situation.
I was a teenager and I would not take “no” for an answer despite the fact that no was the inescapable reality. I may not take it, but I would receive it.
When we are grown up and grey, it can be difficult to recall how fanatical our teenage brains were, how desperate our need for our favourite things was, how delirious are delight when we got to them.
I took to memorising the Good Morning Vietnam soundtrack and imagining the rest of the film over and over again. My skull cinema flickered.
In the summer of 1988 I went to America. I would see the Grand Canyon, the Twin Towers, Golden Gate Bridge and Monument Valley, but to hell with al that geology, I wanted to see ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’. Infuriatingly, at each city we got to, the letters of ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ were being taken down from cinema awnings, and being replaced with ‘Arthur 2: On the Rocks’. After two months of doomed endeavour, I finally caught up with it on its final showing in Portland, Oregon. It made up for the frightening hotel we were staying in with its extensive collection of toe nails under the beds and some of the strangest painted elderly ladies I’d ever seen. It was make up applied by Ralph Steadman.
All of this memories came back to me as I stood waiting to do a live podcast whose jolly romp through the possible mental issue myths of stand up comedy was inexorably changed by the news.
‘I don’t have moments of weakness, I’m Rik Mayall’
Rik Mayall died just two months before Robin Williams.
An hour before Cheaper than Therapy, I had been at my sixth gig of the night – the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society. This was an occasional club night that encouraged experimentation, absurdity and pointlessness. It was currently housed in a roomy yurt in a midtown park. The yurt was once a portable home for Scythians and other nomadic horseman, but recently the yurt has become a place for nomadic literary critics and poets to discuss the Booker prize while burping up bubbles of prosecco.
After each act, the hosts would encourage the audience to loudly declare, ‘A Failure! A Noble Failure’. As usual on a night like this, it was only as I walked to the stage that I stumbled upon what I would do. Sometimes the ideas come later than that, when I was walking off the stage, which really isn’t much use at all.. Taking the name of the show more literally than usual, I started a heartfelt eulogy to Rik Mayall. I spoke sincerely for a few minutes about his importance to me, and then, after a breath, I screamed hideously, ‘You stupid, stupid bastard. All these fucking years I’ve been coming up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival pathetically seeking the approbation of strangers, and it’s all your fault, Rik Mayall!’ Then I staggered around the yurt, yelling at the audience about my own pathetic-ness and how Rik Mayall had ruined my life by setting me on a path that I could never leave.
It was a joke…probably a joke…but somewhere inside it, what made the screaming more authentic and, looking in the faces of some of the audience who had my saliva flecked on their nose – was the question: ‘Have I really done the right thing for the last twenty five years?’
It was a Failure. A Noble Failure. Was I a noble failure?
An hour later, I was taking in the death of another major influence who’d set me on my flawed, precarious, but exhilarating path. These two men incited me to become a stand up comedian. They had cursed me with this Ancient Mariner life.
I would try stand up for the first time when I was 18, before I’d even bought the Good Morning, Vietnam soundtrack. I was terrible. The audience were kind enough to not destroy me, maybe it would have been kinder if they had. Would it have made any difference? I was diseased already.
I wanted to have the ferocity of Robin Williams and Rik Mayall. They had utter commitment every time I saw them. There were no slack moments, as long as you were looking, they were fireworks. Even the pauses were Catherine wheels.
Our favourite comedians confront us with ourself. Rik’s most famous creation was a prig who was desperate to be cool, a poseur who believed he was a great poet, and possessed a preposterous, pointless and pathetic fury. With the distance of time, as I look back at photos of me with my politically aware badges on my lapel, I realise how much I was laughing at the idiot me. With the straight stand up, the observational one who doesn’t create a character but exaggerates themselves, like Robin Williams, what is it that draws us to them. Whereas with Rik Mayall we were at what we are, our own absurdities, with Robin Williams we are drawn to him because he is what we want to be. His mind works at incredible speed, he has relentless energy, and his charismatic delivery projects charm at all of us. He is someone that you would like as your ally.
No Way Out
Rik Mayall and Robin Williams appeared to me to be the archetypal comedians who had no choice.
When asked, ‘what would you have done if you hadn’t become a stand up?’ you might come up with an alternative life as a teacher or taxidermist, but you know that’s a lie. ‘Many Worlds Theory’ may hypothesise an infinite number of alternative possibilities across an infinite number of worlds, but the one, unerring, reality is that in every one of those worlds, you’re still a stand up comedian, you have broken the rules of physics because you must. Lucky there’s not enough evidence to make it a law of physics yet. The material may change to take into account the differing pull of gravity or peculiarities of evolved traits specific to that universe, but in each world, I’d still be showing off to greater or lesser effect. The alternative is unimaginable.
When do you stop and can you stop? Williams told of reading bedtime stories to his young daughter, using all his Academy Award winning actorly skills and stand up comedy voices. His daughter looked at him in a resigned manner that has a special power with the under 6s and said, ‘dad, just read the story’. For the comedian with the reputation of constant performance, public respite may be rare. Williams recalled a time he was spied by a woman in an airport. She gleefully approached him and said two words, ‘Be zany!’ It was impossible for this fan to not believe that Williams was lurking near the departure lounge just waiting for someone to give him permission to be zany.
‘The secret is sincerity…and once you can fake that, you’ve got it made’
It wasn’t just Robin Williams’ dexterous imagination and energetic persona, it was because it seemed like so much more than a persona, he risked showing his humanity. It can be hard to be human on stage, persona can envelope the comedian. Some doodle themselves into human caricature very deliberately, some by accident, and some build a protective carapace over years. Some acts seem like acts, some of them display real flesh and emotions. Many of Williams’ best film performances were showing fragile humanity, whether in ‘Dead Poet’s Society’, ‘Awakenings’ or ‘The Fisher King’. His performance of the damaged individual destroyed by the tragedy in his life is harder to watch now he is gone.
When younger, I found some of Williams’ on-stage sentimentality cloying, but with fatherhood and age, I’ve disposed of that cynicism. I blame the oxytocin at my son’s birth, it does funny things to the brain. You can start to find commercials for margarine moving just because they use a sad cello to soundtrack their straight from the fridge spreadability and buttery taste.
Robin Williams took it further than most. After he died stories surfaced of his inability to ignore the sadness of strangers. Amongst the many memories of people in diners and on sidewalks who were charmed when they bumped into Robin Williams, was the story of a grieving family in a doughnut shop. They had stopped off for coffee after a funeral; Williams noticed their somber air and burial clothes and approached them. Their son recalls that he made polite conversation, ‘which quickly turned into making my parents smile, and soon after he had us all laughing…I remember seeing my parents laugh and smile for the first time in weeks…it wasn’t that he was a celebrity, he was just being a nice guy who saw a bunch of sad folks and realized he could probably make a difference. And he did.’
This isn’t an isolated story. I was told many stories by people who had experienced his kindness to strangers. A comic who was suffering from mental illness, and barely knew Williams, would receive calls from him. He’d just ring to check everything was okay and remind him that he could discuss things with him should he want. Not stand back if he saw others in distress, perhaps because he knew the feelings so well himself. In the mythmaking of what makes a stand up could we add that some want to make others happy because they can’t find happiness themselves? Best not to put it into the mind of comedians that it is a selfless act; their selflessness will go to their head. Different comedians represent different human capabilities and fallibilities, There is no universal template. Some of us are right bastards.
Billy Crystal said, ‘stand up is how comedians process things that are painful’, so how does everyone else do it?
Robin Ince is a multi-award winning comedian, writer and broadcaster. As well as spending decades as one the UK’s most respected stand-ups, Robin is perhaps best known for co-hosting The Infinite Monkey Cage radio show with Brian Cox. For his work on projects like Cosmic Shambles he was made an Honorary Doctor of Science by Royal Holloway, University of London.