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Lifestyle

'Robin Williams always had a second for you'

Stand-up comedian Andy Valvur has shared the stages in San Francisco's comedy clubs with Robin Williams since the early 1980s. He tells DW about getting to know the talented star - and talking cycling with him.

DW: Andy, tell me about your first encounter with Robin Williams.

Andy Valvur: The first encounter was way back in the 80s. I started doing stand-up in San Francisco in 1982, so that was when he was just finishing up with "Mork & Mindy." He was one of ours - he was this mega-star in the San Francisco community. Everyone was thrilled that someone from this little circle had actually made it to the big time.

What was your first impression of him?

He was energetic. He was frenetic. He was funny. He was always on. We would be hanging out in front of the Holy City Zoo, which is one of the most famous clubs in San Francisco. He would pop into the Holy City Zoo and do sets and that's where Rebecca Erwin Spencer was the manager, who eventually became his personal assistant.

Andy Valvur in Afghanistan, Copyright: Andy Valvur

Andy Valvur is pictured in Afghanistan, where he entertained the Estonian troops

I was on the fringes and didn't know Robin at all then, but he was there. Over the years there's been this group of people from that era - people like Will Durst and Debi Durst and Michael Pritchard and Mary Jo Pritchard and people that have been friends with Robin forever. There would be occasions when we would just run into each other and have drinks after a show. He was always very supportive of everybody's projects.

In the last five or six years I would run into Robin a lot at the Throckmorton Theater in Mill Valley. It's this old playhouse that's been beautifully restored and there's a comedy night there every Tuesday night. And that really became Robin's home away from home.

As a comedian yourself, can you explain the paradox of how someone can suffer from severe depression and make a living being funny?

Every time I saw him he was always sweet, always friendly, always nice. I didn't even know it was that bad - even knowing the people I did. And it was never really talked about.

Do you think depression impacts performers in particular?

People say you have to be miserable to be a comedian. But I don't know if I buy that. I mean, look at Bob Newhart. It's been written about over the past few days, but I don't know if that's true. Bob Newhart was extremely funny, Bob Hope was extremely funny, and George Burns lived to be 100.

I suppose there's some dark side to comedians, but there are dark sides in every profession.

Is alcoholism a problem in the comedy scene?

Sure, of course. And not just comedy. We read every day about celebrities checking themselves into rehab centers. The place of work for a comic is a bar - or a comedy club where alcohol is served. And it's free because you're one of the performers. But I'm sure bar tenders and cocktail waitresses suffer from the same temptations.

As a comic, you show up in town. For you it's a Tuesday night and you're working, but for [the fans and staff] it's a big event because they've been waiting and they want to party with you. So every night is a party and you have to have a lot of self-discipline. The 80s were a pretty crazy time. I had a roommate who I put through rehab nine times.

Robin Williams jokes with reporters as he arrives for the Los Angeles premiere of the film One Hour Photo in Beverly Hills, California, in this file picture taken August 22, 2002, Copyright: REUTERS/Robert Galbraith/Files

Robin Williams was always on, says Valvur



Getting back to Robin, the one thing that's really evident is the incredible outpouring we've seen over the past couple of days. The one thing you can say is: He was beloved. And not just in the US, but all around the world. There was a guy from Gambia who friended me on Facebook and he knows who Robin is, too!

I had dinner with Robin last year and had the chance to work briefly with him on stage. He is a sweet, wonderful man. The acts of kindness he did that we never heard about were legendary - from showing up unannounced at children's hospitals and all that stuff.

Many Hollywood stars move to Los Angeles, so what kept Robin Williams in San Francisco?

The comedy scene in San Francisco - as Robin himself said - was one of the most nurturing comedy scenes on the planet. And there's a long history of San Francisco comedy that dates back to the 50s and 60s, when Lenny Bruce was performing at The Purple Onion and The Hungry Eye and people like the Smothers Brothers and Woody Allen got their start.

San Francisco has always been this wonderful, crazy little place - with really smart audiences. That's really key.

How will you remember Robin Williams?

I'll say one thing for Robin - he never said no to posing for a photo or giving an autograph. He just never said no. No matter who you were, he always had a second for you - even me.

Robin and I were acquaintances, but every time I saw him in the last few years he would say, "Hey Andy, how's Germany?" And we would talk about bike riding. He was a real big bike rider. I'd tell him I get to ride my bike along the Rhine River these days. And he'd say, "God, I'd love to do that some day."

I'm on the board of directors at Comedy Day in Golden Gate Park [taking place this year on September 14]. This will be our 34th year. When he was in town, Robin would always come by and close the show. So this year is going to be different. He will certainly be missed.

Andy Valvur performs all over the world as a stand-up comedian and splits his time between San Francisco and Germany, where he occasionally reports for DW.

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