Robin Williams Literally Changed the Way Sitcoms Are Shot and Other Things We Learned in HBO’s New Documentary

Photo: HBO

Robin Williams has been gone for four years now, bringing to an end not just a spectacular life but a remarkable career as an electric comic performer, sitcom star, and Oscar-winning actor. Tonight, HBO premieres Marina Zenovich’s thoughtful and poignant documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind. It culls tons of archival footage of Williams on stage, behind the scenes, and reflecting on his life in interview footage, along with anecdotes and interviews from family members, close friends, and collaborators still trying to understand the man who, delightful as he seemed, was not an easy man to understand, not to mention vulnerable, tireless, and sympathetic to a fault.

The documentary covers Williams’s early life and his career, from his stand-up days in San Francisco in the 1970s through his commercial breakthrough with Mork & Mindy, his dramatic film career, all the way through to his addiction issues, illness, and the circumstances of his death in 2014 at age 63. Here are some of the most interesting anecdotes from Come Inside My Mind.

How he met his first wife, who was also his first real collaborator. While studying for a master’s degree in dance, Valerie Velardi met Williams at the Holy City Zoo, a San Francisco comedy club, in the early ‘70s. “He filled in as a bartender so he could get up onstage and play. He had a French accent and offered me a drink and chatted me up and was absolutely delightful.” Such was Williams’s tendency, onstage and off. “He was always looking for connection, and if he needed to pull out another character or an accent, he was shameless. He would just do it.” Velardi and Williams soon became romantically and professionally involved. “I was his personal audience and I would help him hone material,” Velardi says, until he headed for the obvious next step: the Los Angeles comedy scene.

Other ‘70s comics knew he was special right away. “When we first saw Robin onstage, we were skeptical,” David Letterman recalled. “And we made it kind of a project to keep our eye on him. In my head, my first sight of him was that he could fly, because of the energy. It was like observing an experiment. All I could really do was hang on to the microphone for dear life, and here was a guy who could levitate. We knew that whatever it was Robin was doing, we weren’t gonna get close to that, and we were frightened that, Oh my, maybe we’ve come out here at just exactly the wrong time when everything was changing, and all we had was our stupid little jokes.”

It only seemed like he improvised a lot of his stand-up act. Up until at least the ‘80s, it was common for stand-up comedians to use writers, and Williams employed the services of Bennett Tramer. “Being a writer for Robin’s stand-up is like being a pinch hitter for Barry Bonds,” Tramer said. “You’re not necessarily needed, except for special circumstances.” Tramer seemed to have worked more on fine-tuning Williams’s bits than creating them. “It’s interesting to see how he would build a bit. He had a lightning-fast mind, but it wasn’t like everything he did came from that night. There was real work and preparation. There was a real thoughtful analytical process behind it. It probably took him longer to explain it to me than coming together in his mind.”

He went from busking to starring on a network sitcom. In 1977, producer Garry Marshall told his Happy Days writers room, “Scotty wants a spaceman!” His 8-year-old son, Scott, had stopped watching the show because it wasn’t as good as Star Wars. The writers tentatively created an alien character. But who could play him? “My aunt Ronnie, who’s in charge of casting, told my dad about a comedian doing stand-up on the street corner, with a hat people put money in. My dad said, ‘You want me to hire a kid who stands a street corner with a hat on a prime-time network television show, a hit show, No. 1 in the ratings — I’m gonna put a kid who stands on the sidewalk with a hat? That’s who I’m gonna put on?’ And Ronnie said, ‘It’s a pretty full hat.’” Williams won the role of Mork from Ork, and after an introduction on Happy Days, Mork & Mindy debuted in 1978.

He changed the way sitcoms are shot. Traditional, live-before-a-studio-audience sitcoms (like Mork & Mindy) are often called “three-camera sitcoms,” but most now actually use four cameras. That’s because of Williams’s unpredictable behavior as Mork. “He would run around the stage — you know, run around and do crazy things all the time,” Scott Marshall explained. “And there was like union cameramen. He would do something great and my dad would go, ‘Did you get that? Did you get that?’ The cameraman said, ‘He didn’t come by here.’ ‘You gotta capture this, he’s a genius!’ And the cameraman said, ‘If he’s such a genius, he can hit his mark.’” In order to get all of that Robin Williams good stuff, Marshall hired a fourth cameraman “just to follow Robin.”

He knew how to handle a heckler. Eric Idle recalled seeing Williams perform a stand-up date in 1980. “He came onstage and it was just like he took the place apart. He just absolutely … I’ve never seen anything like it, he just completely commanded it, he just made them all laugh and laugh and laugh,” Idle said. “And he had one persistent heckler. And he made the entire audience pray for ‘Little Timmy’ at the back, that he might die. And it was just so hilarious, the entire audience praying for the death of this heckler at the back of the room.”

He was with John Belushi the night he died. By 1982, Williams was doing Mork & Mindy by day and partying very hard at night, living that L.A. life. One night, he stopped by the Chateau Marmont hotel and saw his friend John Belushi, but left quickly because, as he told Mindy co-star Pam Dawber, “he was so stoned he could hardly stand up.” That night, Belushi died. Mork & Mindy producers told Dawber, and she had to break the news to Williams, who was immediately devastated and freaked out. “And so we just walked together toward our trailers and, just before he went into his trailer, I said, ‘If that ever happens to you, I will find you and kill you first,’” Dawber said she told Williams. “And he said, ‘Dawbs, that’s never gonna happen to me.’” Williams evidently kicked drugs not too long after.

He got “Zen” before his stand-up shows. In 1986, Newsweek dispatched photographer Arthur Grace to follow Williams on tour. He remembered Williams’s pre-performance routine. “He would go into his private room and get ready. Robin would stand there looking down, his arms hanging loose, completely quiet, completely silent. The first time I saw it, I thought he fell asleep. He was quiet and still. Zen-like,” Grace said. “And then, [it was] like someone launched him out of a rocket. He put so much energy into the show, so much of himself into the show. He came off stage, he was just dripping, exhausted, mentally and physically, emotionally, exhausted. He left it all on the stage.”

He made other performers raise their game. Beginning in the ‘80s, Williams collaborated with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg on HBO’s charity Comic Relief comedy telethon events. Goldberg was more of a performance artist and actress than a comedian, but presenting alongside Williams made her want to raise her game. “Great people make you better. You got over the fact that it was Robin, and then you went to work, you did what you needed to do, because you wanted to be up to speed,” Goldberg said. “It was just like, ‘Oh no, you’re not leaving me in the dust, I wanna be right here, right next to you running.’ I wanted to be able to play and keep up.”

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on HBO.

9 Things We Learned From Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind