Gilbert Gottfried: Robin Williams’ generous heart

Story highlights

Gilbert Gottfried and Robin Williams did voices for "Aladdin" but didn't bump into each other

They did meet in comedy clubs, where Williams was at home, generous to others, he says

It was always invigorating, exhausting performing together, Gottfried says

Gottfried: Last memory of Williams was a night out in New York, where he was gracious

Editor’s Note: Gilbert Gottfried is a comedian and actor. Follow him on Twitter @realgilbert. Listen to his podcast, “Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast!” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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It always made me laugh to hear stories about the insanity that would go on between Robin Williams and Gilbert Gottfried during the making of the movie “Aladdin.” The truth was Robin and I didn’t bump into each other once during the making of that film. I recorded the Parrot role, and he recorded the Genie separately. So when I saw the film for the first time at the premiere, I was able to laugh along with the rest of the audience at Robin’s performance. I had never heard it before.

Where I did run into Robin quite often was in the place where he was most at home, in the comedy clubs. Robin would pop into places like Catch a Rising Star and the Improv in New York, would run onstage and just explode. I remember in particular one night, back in those days, when he was hot from his TV hit, “Mork and Mindy,” and I wasn’t yet well-known. I was just building a reputation in comedy circles, and I was about to go up onstage at the Improv.

Gilbert Gottfried
Courtesy of Gilbert Gottfried
Gilbert Gottfried

I was standing in the section right outside the restroom where the comics waited to be introduced onstage. All of a sudden, the club door opened and Robin popped in. The people in charge of the club said, “OK, we’re putting Robin on next.” I couldn’t really argue with that; he was certainly a bigger name than I was. But to my amazement, Robin told them, “I have a bunch of people in the audience tonight, and I would really like to make sure they see Gilbert first.”

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I went up onstage. I did quite well and as I walked offstage, Robin came up to me wiping his eyes from laughing and said to me, “Oh Gilbert, you really baked my cookies.” I of course took this as a strange sexual double entendre, and I always do, but Robin meant it as a sincere compliment.

He was a fixture of the comedy club scene back then, one of the celebs who’d pop in to try out material, or in Robin’s case, just burst out with any craziness that would pop into his head. But he was also generous to his fellow stand-up comedians: There were a number of times when Robin was onstage and I was at the club, and he would call out to me and invite me to play with him onstage.

Riffing with Robin Williams was extremely invigorating – and extremely exhausting. I knew I had to be on my toes every second. And when we would actually connect onstage, it was electric for me.

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To see Robin perform was an experience. He was more than a comedian. He was a comedy force of nature. I remember hearing that Robin was once doing a press junket in Germany. One of the reporters asked him, “Why is it that Germany is not known for comedy?” Robin answered, “Well, you killed all your funny people.” I laughed out loud when I heard that. I thought, how sick and how wonderfully truthful.

When I heard the news of Robin’s passing, it was a double shock. It was stunning that he was now gone and that, according to police, it was apparently suicide. I’ve known people who have committed suicide, and my shock always reveals how little I knew about them.

Robin had spoken in the press about his substance abuse issues over the years, and he was dealing with it in rehab. I had heard at one point he was prescribed pills and that he didn’t want to take them because he was afraid it would interfere with his comic creativity. I thought, when I heard that, of his idol, Jonathan Winters. Robin worshipped the comedian, who died last year. Winters had his own problems and also was afraid medicating would interfere with his comic creativity.

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I can’t say that I had a close relationship with Robin – it was mainly kibitzing back and forth in the clubs. The few times we’d have a conversation that would become serious, he or both of us would quickly veer off into jokes or silliness. Now, in retrospect, it may have been that Robin joked so much and was always “on” perhaps to hide something. Of course, that’s just dime-store psychology.

The last memory I have of him was a benefit that comedian Bob Saget was organizing at the comedy club Carolines on Broadway to raise consciousness about scleroderma. It was a fun night. Jimmy Fallon was there performing, as was Robin and myself. After the show, Billy Crystal stopped by. He had been doing a show and was unable to make the benefit. He and Robin greeted each other. Then Robin came over and spoke to me. We chatted for a little bit, and Robin said to me, “Would you like to join us? We’re going out for dessert.”

The three of us went to one of these showbiz bar-restaurants in Times Square. It was the middle of the night, and we sat eating our desserts and exchanging comedy showbiz stories, memories and anecdotes. There was a lot of laughing – a good time. On our way out of the place, we passed by another table where, surprisingly, comedy great Mel Brooks was sitting. I didn’t know Mel, so Billy and Robin both approached him and were talking to him, and I stood off to the side.

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Robin went out of his way to tell Mel how funny I was at the benefit. He repeated some of my jokes and Mel laughed. This was once again Robin proving what a generous person he was. Later, out in the street as he got in a cab, Billy yelled to me, half-jokingly, but quite truthfully, “I guess we’ll talk in another 30 years.”

I was left on the dark street with Robin. He told me he was going to a meeting for substance abuse. We said one or two more things and laughed and then we hugged each other. Afterward, Robin warmly said, “Bye,” and I stood there as he turned around and walked off into the darkness.

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