In life, Robin Williams was an unstoppable hug machine

In person, some comedians can be cold. Robin Williams, in person, was as warm as they come, remembers Rob Long

The late Robin Williams.  A P / Matt Sayles
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‘The problem with you funny people,” a studio executive once said to me, “is that you’re all either way too nice or way too nasty. There’s not one of you that’s normal.”

What he meant, I suppose, is that people who try to be funny for a living tend, when they’re not on the job, to have a hard time getting off the stage.

There are comedians who never really stop clowning and joking and going for the laugh. And then there are those who shut down hard the moment the spotlight is off, who are cold and remote to everyone around them.

Robin Williams, the actor and comedian and explosively manic onstage presence, was definitely more of the former. In person – onstage or off – he was an unstoppable hug machine. Attentive and thoughtful, twinkly of eye and crinkly of mouth, he exuded something a lot of movie stars – especially comedians – never manage to exude in real life: actual human warmth.

His death this week has robbed the moviegoing public of a gifted and original talent, and the people who knew him of a loving and expressive companion.

That’s what his friends say, anyway. I only met him once, a few years ago, and he seemed like both a genuinely funny man – no surprise there – and also a nice person, too. “Way too nice”, to use the words of my studio executive friend, because when you’re as energetically “on” and hilarious as Robin Williams was, maybe it’s wiser to pull back a bit when the stage lights dim.

Maybe all of those comedians who withhold their affection and treat their families coldly are just doing what sensitive, peculiar people have to do if they want to stay in the comedy business.

After all, there’s something not quite right about a job whose sole mission is to cause other people to breathe in a quick, involuntary staccato.

I’ve met a lot of comics in my career and I have to agree with my friend the studio executive: not one of them is “normal”.

Robin Williams, though – despite the crazy improvisations and the non-stop clowning – seemed normal enough to me. But maybe I was just awestruck when I met him. Meeting Robin Williams, for a comedy writer of my generation, was a powerful moment.

Like a lot of comedy writers my age, we remember the astonishing moment we saw Robin Williams for the first time. I was 12. He was on the television set, playing the alien life-form Mork from the planet Ork in Mork & Mindy.

Mork did a lot of funny and unexpected things – he drank with his finger, he got elemental things about human behaviour hilariously mixed up – but there’s one scene I still remember vividly.

One scene, and I was hooked not just on Robin Williams, but on the whole idea of television comedy. One scene, and it was a direct line from that moment, in 1978 when I was 12 years-old, to this, many years later, when I’m a working television writer and producer.

The scene went like this: the planet Ork was, apparently, sort of egg-based. Mork’s spaceship was an egg-looking thing, and he popped out of it like a chick out of an egg. So when Mork encounters, for the first time, an actual egg carton filled with earthbound eggs, he reacts with horror. They need to be liberated, he says to himself.

“Fly!” he cries at the assembled eggs in the carton. “Be free!”

So he throws them in the air. And of course they fall and crack on the counter. The look on his face when they do is priceless.

It was as if someone had opened a window in a musty room and let the fresh air in. I remember laughing at the audacity of it, at the way his comedy was half-hip and half-nerd. And I remember thinking, if I could work in that world, I’d be a happy man.

His genius, it turns out, was also contained by great personal pain. But then, when it comes to comedians, not one of them is “normal”.

So what I will choose to remember about Robin Williams is that I saw him on television and he threw eggs in the air and called out “Fly! Be free!”

And I will be wishing that he, too, could have figured out a way, despite his pain and depression and demons and whatever else it was, to fly and be free without coming crashing to the ground.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl