By Salomon Maya
My first joke as a stand-up comedian in Los Angeles was about Jews and Germans. The year was 2006 and I was making my debut at the world famous Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard. I was 26 years old and after writing down tons of material on 3×5 cards and practicing endlessly in front of my mirror the first thing I uttered was an ad-lib joke about World War II. Instead of laughter I was met with groans. I flashed back to the early ’90s and what made me laugh then, and all I could think about was one man: Robin Wiliams.
I remember when I was hooked. I was 12, and it was the debut of Comic Relief V hosted by Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and Williams. A comedic charity benefiting the homeless, it was the who’s who of comedy genius. Founded in 1986, to date, the charity has raised more than $50 million to aid the nation’s homeless population. But even with comic heavyweights like Crystal, Goldberg and a young and raw Jim Carrey, the star was always Robin Williams. His off the wall humor and light-speed wit had audiences in stitches, and I was mesmerized.
Every Saturday growing up, I would wait for my parents to leave for dinner so that I could run up to their room, turn on the illegal cable box they had and watch Robin do his thing. At the time, I was an extremely introverted kid, but when the lights were off and nobody was home, I would pick up a hairbrush and pretend I was a stand-up comedian. There was no laughter after those jokes, only the endless chirps of crickets covering the Chula Vista landscape. But I was funny. I knew it.
Fourteen years later, I was on stage after that horrible first joke. I took a breath, paused and thought about Robin and what he would do if he bombed with his first joke as I had just done. He’d probably make a face, put his hand to his forehead and give the best Yiddish voice possible. So that’s exactly what I did, and it worked. For the rest of the set, I made fun of myself, talked about being a Mexican Jew and what it was like growing up in pseudo-Orthodox home. I didn’t kill, I’ll even say I wasn’t all that good. But I got a couple chuckles, and maybe a legitimate laugh here and there. And in some way, Robin Williams was right there with me, just as he was in 1992 helping me find who I was.
I’ll be honest, I’ve been pretty lucky when it comes to death and everyone in my immediate family is still here. But last month, when I first heard of the death of my childhood hero, it felt just like losing a parent. I felt empty inside. I wanted to cry. So I did, for a man I never personally knew. I didn’t cry when my Zeide passed or my other grandparents died, and for that reason many in my family have always said I was too cold-hearted. But not having Robin Williams on this earth made me cry. It wasn’t because there wouldn’t be a Mrs. Doubtfire II or another appearance on a late night show. It was because somewhere in the world there lives another young boy or girl searching for their place on this planet. And like Robin did for me in 1992, he probably would’ve helped this boy or girl come out of their shell.
I was sad that that little boy or girl would not get the opportunity to see this comic genius at play. I’m sad that he has left such a gaping hole, not only in the lives of his family, but the lives of each and every one of us. We live in a world where everything can be duplicated. There will be another me, and more than likely there will be another you. But just as the stars are above us and the sun shines brightly on this little rock of ours called Earth, there will never be another Robin Williams. May his memory be for a blessing.