By Dom Cioffi
Last week, as I was putting the finishing touches on my column, I faintly overheard a newscaster announce from the television in a nearby room, “Folks, we have a developing story from the West Coast.”
His tone suggested a level of alarm normally reserved for major news announcements so I immediately took notice.
I heard the same tone when the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred in 1986. At the time, I was standing in a common area at our college dorm. People had gathered around a television and as I walked by I could hear the serious, overly pensive tone of the newscaster, which suggested (along with the obvious repeating footage of an explosion) that something had gone terribly awry in the world.
I heard the same tone again in 1997 when Princess Diana was killed in a horrific car accident on the streets of Paris. I had just returned from flying a stunt kite with a good friend, and when we turned on the television, every station was broadcasting the news, each with an accompanying broadcaster who was conveying the terrible message with an identical resonance of shock and disbelief.
Of course, these and other similarly tragic events in history all pale in comparison to that fateful September morning in 2001 when hijackers slammed several aircraft into high-profile American targets.
I first heard that news at work and on the advice of the owner, everyone in the company left for home to try to come to terms with the fact that the United States was under attack.
The first thing I did upon arriving home was to turn on my television. I then stood in front of the screen for the next several hours, switching between channels, trying desperately to understand the situation.
And on every channel from every news station, and from every mouth of every news reporter and broadcaster, there was a common inflection that conveyed overwhelming loss, grief and confusion.
So when I heard that distinct tone again last week, I knew something unfavorable was happening in the world.
I stepped over to the television and on the screen I saw a photo of Robin Williams accompanied by the numerals “1951-2014.”
My reaction was undoubtedly similar to that of millions around the world: a quick gasp and a sense of disbelief.
I was then immediately reminded of that July afternoon in 1988 when I was living in California for the summer.
My friend and I had traveled across the country to sublet his sister’s apartment. The idea was to combine cheap rent with all the experiences of West Coast living; a final hurrah before our senior year of college and the impeding reality of the real world.
We got lucky when we hooked up with some local guys our age who were more than happy to indoctrinate us into the lively party scene of the Bay Area.
We attended concerts, beach parties, and host of other “activities” that made for an incredible summer.
But the most memorable event of all was when we were asked to join them for an outdoor comedy show that was happening in San Francisco.
It was a beautiful summer Saturday – perfect for an outdoor event. We made our way into the venue, laid out blankets, positioned our coolers and kicked back for the onslaught of humor.
One after another, comedians hit the stage to work their routines. Some were good, some were not. But the ambiance of the event made it enjoyable no matter who was on the stage.
However, the most interesting aspect of the show was how the emcee continuously referenced an unannounced “special” guest who would be appearing later in the show.
Rumors cycled through the crowd with everyone trying to figure out who the mysterious and obviously well known guest might be.
When the moment arrived, the emcee calmly walked onto the stage and simply blurted out, “Ladies and gentleman, Robin Williams.”
The place went nuts and for the next 20 minutes, I stood 30 feet away from Mr. Williams while he riffed non-stop. None of his material was prepared; all of it came from things he noticed in the audience or that people yelled out.
Was it funny? Immensely. But what struck me the most was his unique, untamed energy. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
I knew as it was happening, and have believed every day since, that I was in the presence of a true comedic genius; a man that harnessed something profoundly different.
If you get the chance, watch one of the Robin Williams’ tributes available online or rent one of his old comedy films or throw on one of his dramatic roles and revel in how much joy this man brought to humanity for his brief 63 years.
The world just lost a great one.
A bright, bright “A” for Robin Williams.
Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.