Robin Williams explains his quick-witted improv


I’ve always loved this series, but I’ve always found James Lipton to be an absolutely insufferable presence.

Something about his demeanor and comportment is just so very oppressive and judgemental. I can only imagine they chose him specifically to contrast with the show’s guests - a sort of compliment by contrast, in a way.


Quite a tour-de-force!

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I hope you are familiar, but here it is if not.

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I think, in all seriousness, that the explanation is not that complicated. Like any improvisational comedian, Robin kept a vast catalog of quips and jokes in reserve, which could be trotted out on demand when the appropriate prop was in front of him. If you watch a few of his shows in succession, you will see that he repeats lines and jokes from show to show; they appear to be off the cuff, but that was just his style of delivery. He had a strong talent for coming up with funny one-liners and a great memory - or some kind of mnemonic ability - to call them forward.

On top of that, as anyone skilled in a craft knows, a mind open to and experienced with a certain discipline - such as associating mundane items with references to contemporary movies, funny accents, stereotypes, or comparative associations - finds them far more easily and frequently than an undisciplined one. If you watched his performance on Whose Line Is It Anyway? he was funny, but no more funny than the other people he was working with that evening, all talented improv comedians.

And on top of that you have his style - quick movement, rapid fire speaking, self-depreciation, fierce courage, relating to the audience - and his personality that always seemed to be so sad or desperate. He was lucky enough to be given the stage he needed to capitalize on his talents - or, I should say, WE were lucky enough. In a sense, he was unlucky, because what drove him to be comedic appeared to be what drove him to depression.


it’s more than just style-- i would think it rises to “practiced skill”.

He does this so effortlessly that I think of it as a faucet of funny stuff that he could turn on at will. It just pours out of him. The segues seem natural, as if he is just giving voice to the thoughts that are constantly streaming through his head.

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Funny, yes, but it exemplifies what always bothered me about Robin Williams whenever I saw him being interviewed: he was always ‘ON’, always doing a bit rather than letting us into who he really was, how he really felt. And it seemed like he couldn’t really help it, like it was a force out of his control.
I wonder now if that was part of his agony?


Well, yeah, you were watching him being interviewed on camera (or radio, or whatever), which means he was working. I’m not sure why this bothers you, to be honest.

I’ve read some accounts of him as a person off-camera, and he wasn’t always “ON”, and often he was quiet and reserved.

Marc Maron’s interview of Robin Williams is wonderful. You should listen to it.

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I was going to write this but you basically nailed it.

Becoming a comedy nerd and understanding stuff like that does basically ruin the magic, but you then appreciate the craft and skill and you still laugh. Like understanding how magic works, the best magic (like the best improvisational comedians) you can’t see working and not only do you not understand it, you often don’t want to.

When it comes to ad-libbing you rarely see nearly as much off the cuff stuff as you expect, much of it has been thought about or considered or done before or they use certain techniques to draw out laughter. Some will be genuine ad libs of course, the thing is when they go well The real skill with comics who thrive off of improvisation is not conintual off the cuff remarks but the ability to draw and link new ideas, stuff from the audience or situation and existing material together so you can get to what is funny and make it seem natural.

Ross Noble is one of the masters of that - he starts improvising on stage and keeps improvisation going throughout his shows to the extent that generally you will have no idea where the improvised material ended/started and the scripted started/ended,

It’s hardly surprising Robin Williams was repeatedly accused of plagiarism, he went so fast I doubt his internal filters would have been fast enough to notice the idea he was dragging up in his memory wasn’t his own.

I saw the phenomenally talented Nish Kumarat the Edinburgh Fringe last week and while he’s a clearly a stand up who has his material absolutely down and honed he did a fantastic ad-libbed line, Then he stopped and said, actually that was a genuine ad-lib on the 4th show of the run but now 15 shows in I’ve kept it in and pretended to ad-lib it every single night since (getting further laughter).

Also making stuff seem off the cuff when it isn’t is also a good skill (as Stewart Lee describes Eddie Izzard, making it seem like ou are improvising by saying um a lot) people like Williams use. The Mighty Boosh go to lengths to seem ad-libbed and conversational but they agonise over basically every word in ever line.

While I appreciate Robin William’s skill in terms of traditional ‘improv’ (as opposed to the more broader concept of improvisation in general) I actually think his routines and improv style and material is actually very uninteresting and standard at best, his real talent was to some extent his motormouth and just how fast he got stuff out but it was really in the use of his voice to control the audience and draw out the laughs from not very good material.

I find most American style ‘improv’ (I say that because it is far less common outside of the US) pretty tedious and it conforms to too many rules and styles and is rarely unexpected or unique the only time it’s really worth watching a comedian who is brilliant at improvisational and off the cuff comedy are when you get people who can do it but use a completely different and often unexpected frame of reference.

I saw god/man Daniel Kitson do a show with Andy Zaltzman and Alun Chochrane earlier this week called Fuckstorm 3001 that was mostly improvisational just shouting back and forth at each other across the room of The Stand One (although it was commented on by Kitson that Andy Zaltzman just has so many puns and odd jokes on so many subjects he wasn’t improvising so much as just searching his memory for one liners, puns and jokes) .One of my favourite parts was him when given a chance to speak during an improvisation line Chochrane had taken he went ‘Alun, I know the rules of improvisation say I should say yes and keep it going but my comedic senses are telling me I should say no and shut you the fuck down’.

I feel like that about most ‘improv’ comedy.


The funniest thing he ever did was his bit on the game of golf. Nothing is even close. Nothing.

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Yeah, I know what you mean. I find myself wondering if he could turn it off. A great superpower for defusing anxiety at will, but out of control, it could easily trivialize one’s deepest concerns. His darker film roles seemed to be an attempt to get away from this, If so, I wish he’d been more successful.

I just spent the last week in Dresden, contemplating Man’s capacity to fuck himself over. And then I see this. Oh god, Mr. Williams. You make me cry.

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[quote=“Greg_Sheppard, post:10, topic:39653”]
god/man Daniel Kitson[/quote]

I used to work with a guy who grew up with him, was good friends with him. Sorry, don’t have a more interesting anecdote… :smile:

Saw Kitson at the Fringe a few years ago. Very talented guy.

Robin Williams used to, infrequently, play at improv comedy club I was partners in, and managed, in Santa Monica, CA. He was good friends with one of our regulars and would appear when free and in town. The show he would join was a thursday night marathon of harolds put on by the second city alumni in LA. Everyone wanted to play with him, not because he was famous but because it was really, really fun. He was, unlike so many comedian stars who’d show up to play, a trained improvisational actor and comic. He was not nearly as practiced at long form comedy as they were, but his energy and acceptance of whatever the reality was, his ability to heighten it instantly to a ridiculous and high energy level, was just amazing.

The world has lost one of its greatest natural resources.


What I notice most about this video clip is not so much the actual jokes, but his skill at using his body to articulate that joke. For example, the Jewish rabbi bit - the prop is not doing much work there. And his body is pretty understated; he just swivels his hips in a bit and there he is, now gay. And the Ghandi bit, too, not really that funny of material but just the way he draped the scarf just so - it really looked like Ghandi in the movie. He had a physical gift that is really hard to teach. Even though his overall demeanor is so over the top, he’s reigned in physically, has a lot of control over his body. When I think of a similar comic, Richard Pryor, his physicality was so over the top - the popping eyes, the big hand gestures - and then you see this clip and Robin Williams makes subtle little shifts that change the character he is embodying.

Just wanted to second that rec. It took place in Williams’ home, and that somehow helps to make it seem more intimate, like his guard was down a bit. He rarely seems “on” during that interview. And I may have been projecting or something, as I listened to it just after he died, but it seems like some glimpses of his darker side or sides are there too.

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I agree; I’ve seen a fair amount of improv and although I haven’t studied it, it becomes clear how there are certain elements and patterns that appear (Harold for example).

For that reason, I’ve actually been more interested in watching good crowd work comics. Sure, there’s a pattern there, too, but working the crowd leads to places that many comics wouldn’t normally go, and I feel that it’s a real testament to someone who is truly funny if they can work the crowd. Todd Barry is excellent at this (and has a special devoted to crowd work!).

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