Before he was in Dead Poets Society, Good Morning, Vietnam or even Mork & Mindy, a small crowd saw Robin Williams in a Toronto comedy club, late one night in 1978.
Williams was an unknown back then, and went on stage sometime after midnight. He told club owner Mark Breslin he’d probably do material for ten or 15 minutes.
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Instead, he stayed up there for two and a half hours, delivering the kind of random, rapid-fire comedy that became his trademark.
"He had the audience convulsing with laughter,” Breslin, now head of the Yuk Yuk’s chain of comedy clubs, told CBC News. “He was doing characters and accents and crazy associations and word games. He turned the entire club into his stage. He walked on the tables and did comedy. He was completely amazing.”
After the show, Breslin asked the young comic where he was going next.
“He said ‘I have to go back to L.A. They’re talking about taking that Mork character I did tonight and turning it into a TV series — like that will happen,’” Breslin recalled.
Mork & Mindy debuted later that year, launching the stellar career that ended this week with Williams’ apparent suicide.
Williams had spoken openly about his battle with depression. But comedians are sometimes reluctant to be open about mental health problems, Breslin said, because it “threatens the credibility of their comedy.”
“When we’re watching somebody and we think they are funny, we lose ourselves in that. But if we know they have just come out after psychiatric hospital for treatment and they are depressed, the fear is people will not believe the comedy is real,” he said.
“No one talks about mental illness in comedy,” Breslin added. “In this country alone, in Canada, I think more comedians have died as a result of suicide than any other cause.”