"He was symbolic of hope for a lot of us," Cho says
Comedian Margaret Cho grew up in San Francisco, a city with such close ties to Robin Williams, who died Aug. 11 at age 63, that its own mayor released a statement about his death. Here, Cho remembers the late actor as a generous and supportive paternal figure in the San Francisco comedy community:
He was the first celebrity I ever met. My parents owned a bookstore in San Francisco in the ’70s and ’80s. My father made Robin autograph a copy of The World According to Garp for me. When I started comedy in San Francisco in the ’80s, Robin would hang around the clubs I started doing shows at and grew up next to. He would always come in, and then later, of course, we would always see him in clubs here. He was the patriarch of our little clan of comedians in San Francisco. All of us looked at him, in a way, as a father figure. That’s why this is so upsetting.
He was just very supportive. He was very shy, and possibly a little embarrassed by his fame. Inside, he really was a comic. Naturally, all comics just wanna hang around other comics, so he would come to these little clubs and open mics, and you’d get bumped, and he would go on and you’d have to follow him, which was always really terrifying because he’s so great, and people were so excited to just be in his presence. Also, we were all excited to be around him. He’s the kind of guy, I remember, he would help out comics who needed money. When I was a teenager, my first boyfriend needed money to live, and he loved this guy’s comedy, so he would give people money to survive. It’s a beautiful thing. He was a great guy.
In his presence, you realized that show business was a real, tangible world, because he moved so fluently between them both. When you saw him around, he was a direct link to someone who was actually making it and out there. So he was the first of all those San Francisco comedians to become a star — and not just a star, a megastar. So he was symbolic of hope for a lot of us. He bought my boyfriend’s art. He was a presence in all of our lives, but then also, part of this other world that was so magical, which is making movies and TV. So he was kind of a dreamlike figure in a lot of ways.
I feel like he was a conduit — that everything he was feeding off of his brilliance was really something he was just channeling. But maybe what allowed him to be so humble and what endeared people to him was that humility, and that he would just turn on that brilliance for you. It was the ultimate form of being present, to channel it. I think that he was very spiritual in a lot of ways.
I think it’s so unique you can’t emulate it. If you look at the way comedy is, and look at its history, you don’t find anybody like him at all, except for maybe Jonathan Winters is the closest, and he also was a very dreamlike figure.
Robin also used a lot of tragedy in his work — he was readily available in every aspect of his emotional being. That’s what people fell in love with. But in his comedy, specifically, he would not be afraid to engage in pathos, too.
I remember the first time I really did a show at a comedy club. He was there, and he went on before me. It’s one of the most terrifying things. Your first few years in comedy are really scary, but it’s even scarier when an icon like that comes in and does a performance, and you have to follow him. I remember going on after him, and doing the joke that everybody does when you’re bumped by him – “I must be doing well when Robin Williams is opening for me.” That was pretty terrible, but it was really great, too, to see the audience get so excited. Just to be in his presence was really a tremendous gift. He was really special.”