12 Aug 2014

The day Robin Williams saved my bacon

It could have turned into a broadcasting catastrophe if I hadn’t been saved. I was on stage at the TED conference in Carmel, California introducing my panellists for a discussion on new media versus old media.

Next to me were Sergei Brin, the Russian born co-founder of Google, Carl Bernstein, the award winning journalist who helped to break the Watergate story, and Queen Noor of Jordan, the widow of the late King Hussein and a well-known philanthropist.

In the audience, each of whom has paid $6,000 to attend the conference, I could make out Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame, Larry Page, the other Google founder, Forest Whitaker, the actor, and a phalanx of other Hollywood and Silicon Valley stars, all whom were wearing black T-shirts and Crocs, the then hallmark of West Coast billionaires: inverted sartorial snobbery.

The more they dressed down at TED, the richer they were. As I prepared to start our talk and surveyed the audience, the overarching feeling I got, somewhere in the pit of my stomach, could best be described as “Don’t f*** this up, Frei. They will never forgive you.” And then I f***** it up. Or rather, technology did.

Just as I was introducing Sergei Brin, a man whose programming genius exists in inverse proportion to his sense of humour, my producer whispered into my ear: “The cameras have failed, for some reason. We have to have a 20- minute delay at least. Apologise and keep the crowd happy.”

I swallowed hard. I could feel the beads of perspiration lining up in mockery on my forehead. I could hear myself trying to make a joke out of technology failing at a tech conference in front of an assembly of tech geniuses and I could see an unsmiling Mark Zuckerberg calculate how many millions of dollars in time and opportunity wasted the delay would cost him.

I could hear myself trying a few jokes. I watched as the audience responded to my attempts at ruffled British self- mockery with silent, sullen mockery. We were in a hermetically sealed irony-free environment and, astonishingly, no-one got up to leave.

And then I heard the voice. An almost incomprehensible Glaswegian accent broke like thunder from somewhere in the upper dark recesses of the theatre. Spiced with expletives, the Scottish heckler was ranting about the delay, the sheer incompetence of it all, the unbelievable waste of time and money.

Mark Zuckerberg looked up in obvious agreement. The rest of the audience were caught between approval and apprehension since this sort of fruity granular language was extremely rare at a TED conference. I was fully expecting a brawl and wondered why security hadn’t already pounced on the unruly Scotsman. And then I noticed that the mood around the heckler broke into hilarity.

Carl Bernstein, whose eyesight was clearly better than mine, said: “It’s Robin.” He then shouted out to this strange Robin from Glasgow. “Come on down, Robin. Join us.” Had he gone mad? It was all falling apart. I had lost control of the technology, the audience, and now the panel.

Seconds later Robin Williams bounded on to the stage in his black T-shirt and launched into an achingly funny diatribe against all things British – from the BBC, my then employer who were hosting the event, to the royal family and their dental hygiene, to me.

I can’t remember any individual lines. But I can remember feeling faint with comic relief and thinking that this man was a comical genius whose ability to make the audience laugh was like performance alchemy delivered with an almost hysterical energy.

Robin Wiliams was my deus ex machina. He saved my bacon. Someone later told me that Williams was a manic depressive who had battled with alcohol and drug abuse throughout his life. I had no idea. Performing made him forget his demons for a while.

And on that day on that stage his 20-minute stand-up act, snatched from nowhere other than a combination of nervous energy and imagination, made me forget my woes and the audience theirs. I thanked him afterwards. He winked and disappeared.

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9 reader comments

  1. Genni Pavone says:

    What an exceptional Human Being Robin Williams was, he gave so much whilst copying with mental illness. He was indeed a comedy genius. He will continue to be a part of people’s lives through his films and comedy.. but he leaves a big empty space in this world. RIP Robin…

  2. Nigel Wilson says:

    A good story: no doubt due to be dined out with.
    The great comedians are those who had to laugh at the world because if they didn’t they would destroy themselves. I am sorry the laughter has ended for one good, very funny man.

  3. Marlene Maguire says:

    Where were we all when he needed us?


  4. Claire Nahmad says:

    Kindness would have prompted him to do it. Everyone says that Robin Williams was very, very kind and an exceptional person in every way. But I am disappointed that you called him ‘frail-hearted’. Depressives are not frail, they are people combatting merciless inner demons that would probably finish off the likes of most of us the first time they assailed us. Robin Williams lived for many decaded with his before they gunned him down.

    1. Alan Matthews says:

      Well said, Claire; you’ve perfectly encapsulated and undercut the misapprehension that most people who haven’t lived with depression labour under. It takes unbelievable reserves of strength to live with, when the most appealing option is to end it all. It’s beyond tragic that a beautiful soul like Robin Williams finally felt that he could go on no more, but I’m sure that the shock of his suicide will help erase the stigma of depression, and even suicide.

  5. Jon Lisle-Summers says:

    I understand Claire N’s point about the daily, even hourly, battle with depression, that irrational SOB. It’s particularly fun with added acute anxiety.
    However, I think MF was referring to RW’s cardiac surgery when he mentioned his frail heart.
    I thought RW was a startlingly great actor with a particular menace. I’m greedy, I wanted more of all that.

  6. Mike Olive says:

    The world has lost a remarkable person, who could make one laugh and cry, but also think about the worlds problems in a different way.
    One of my favourite films, which has not been mentioned in the many tributes, is ‘Patch Adams’.
    This showed how medicine should be administered, with Love and Compassion, but most of all, ‘Humour’, the best medicine of all.
    I tried to be like that when I was male nurse.
    It is a great pity that Robin did not ask the help of the real ‘Patch Adams’, who he portrayed in the film. I am sure that Patch would have been able to advise/ treat and hopefully restore this genius to full health at the Gesuntheit institute.
    I and thousands more will miss you Robin!

  7. John Lallyette says:

    I was once wrongly recognised as the brilliant man, which I found quite flattering. I suppose some of my features do resemble him. However following this incident I paid much greater attention to him as a person. The conclusions I reached was that he was a hugely sensitive man, whose observations of the human condition were far greater than most. Indeed there must have been much about human behaviour which sorely distressed him. The drinking and drugs were I feel his escape route. Robin you made me laugh, and at times I felt a tear in my eye. It seems to me you were a very warm, and kind human being. You have escaped your demons. Rest in Peace. ! !

  8. Brian Yates says:

    Probably the best ode to Robin Williams.

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