Robin Williams, who died Monday at 63, knew the secret to being a good television-show guest: adapting to the program without losing yourself. Not everyone can do that, says Real Time host Bill Maher, but Williams could do it as well as, if not better than, anybody on his show.
Here, Maher remembers Williams' shape-shifting comedy:
"Robin and I had a nice friendly relationship. I can't claim I knew him well, but honestly, I don't know how many people did. He seemed like the kind of guy who didn't open up to a lot of people. That is not unusual in this business. I know a number of people I would count the same way, and some of these people I know a lot better than Robin, comics I've known for 35 years and spent tons of hours with, and I still don't really know them, because they only let you see so much, and they speak through their art.
The thing about Robin that I loved the most — and again, with limited experience — is that when he did my show, he was so great at it, because he was able to achieve something that eludes a lot of comedians who have tried to do Real Time. It's not an easy show to do, because you have to be very smart about politics. We don't use a lot of show business people on the panel. I can name the show business people who can do it on a couple of hands — Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Alec Baldwin, Kerry Washington — people who are very politically aware and involved, and that is their passion. But mostly, show people don't do it — we have them on, but in one-on-one settings in the mid-show. But Robin did the panel, and he was able to both modulate his normal manic persona down to what was appropriate for the show he was doing, and also, completely still be Robin Williams. That is not an easy trajectory to find, and he did, and I always loved him for it. First of all, it means you're humble — that you understand that you have to shape-shift a little to the show you're doing. Some people don't do that. Some people just refuse to do that. They wanna be exactly who they are, on whatever show they're doing. I don't agree with that. I think when you're the guest, you have to bend a little. He did that. He was still Robin Williams, but he was exactly right for the show he was doing.
His style, when it came on the scene, looked completely new to people, and in many ways it was. He was fast and furious, and I think there's something else that's behind there that you can't really quantify or define, but you could just tell there was a humanity in Robin Williams. He seems like a genuinely nice guy, like a good person who cares and tries to give back to the community. Some people, you get the impression that they're putting on an act all the time. I didn't get that impression with Robin Williams. I didn't know him well, but I always thought, there's a very decent person there."