Robin Williams

Alex and I saw Robin Williams perform in Vancouver several years ago.

A lot of touring comics start with a few thinly localized jokes to win the crowd over, and then launch into their main routine. I expected he’d do the same — and sure enough, he did a Vancouver joke.

And then another. And then an extended riff. And another one.

There must have been twenty minutes of genuine Vancouver material: not boilerplate insert-name-of-city here stuff, but joke after joke that felt organically, authentically of this place. And his material was savvy and current, not just land-of-pot-and-Birkenstocks stuff.

I once read an article about his USO work: how he would usually eschew VIP treatment and official tours in favour of just sitting down and talking to soldiers for hours. When he finally did perform, he’d draw extensively on those conversations.

That’s a precious gift to give to an audience: using your talent as a prism for their own lives and experiences. It requires some real courage — far safer to rely on tested material that reliably delivers the laughs. But in the hands of someone as talented as Mr. Williams, it was powerful.

I’m sorry I won’t have the chance to see it again, and sorrier still for the pain that led him to end his life. There will be plenty of chances to reflect on his work in the weeks to come, but for now, I’m remembering a performer who did far, far more than just meet expectations.

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