Columbia comedians remember Robin Williams' life

Wednesday, August 13, 2014 | 12:57 p.m. CDT; updated 4:14 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 13, 2014

COLUMBIA — On the "Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" in January 1991, Robin Williams broke into an improvised skit using the language of Shakespeare. This performance was fresh in Spencer Vyrostek’s mind as he took the stage Tuesday night at the As Yet Unnamed Comedy Show at Eastside Tavern.

"In honor of Robin Williams, I’m going to do something experimental tonight," Vyrostek said before improvising a skit in the dialect of Shakespeare on the situation in Ferguson.

Williams was found dead Monday at his home in California. He was 63.

Although only a couple of the nine comedians who performed at Eastside Tavern on Tuesday night mentioned Williams during their acts, it was clear his life had touched them all.

"He’s arguably as big as it gets — he’s as big of a name as Carlin and Pryor," Jay Groharing, co-host of the comedy show for the past four years, said. "So he’s had to influence everyone in some way."

Groharing said he was first exposed to Williams’ stand-up at about age 6. When his parents weren’t around, he would watch HBO, which aired Williams’ comedy specials.

Most of the other comedians’ first exposure to Williams came from films such as "Aladdin" and "Jumanji."

"The first memories I have of laughing at a movie was 'Mrs. Doubtfire,'" said Kelsey McClure, who graduated from Hickman High School in 2006 and now performs and produces comedy shows in St. Louis. "It was the go-to movie at my grandma’s house."

McClure said she didn’t enjoy Williams’ stand-up but respected his attitude about life.

"His showmanship never really stopped," she said. "He tried to make every interaction a unique and individualistic experience."

Nick Gorges, who performed in Tuesday night’s show, said he strives to incorporate Williams' showmanship into his life.

"No matter how famous he got with his movies, he was always a comedian first," Gorges said. "And I respect that more than anything else in the world."

Gorges said Williams' death should be seen as a lesson.

"His death should be a wake-up call to the state of mental illness in this country," Gorges said. "If (depression) can get to someone like him, then it can get to anyone."

Josh Beck, co-host of the comedy show, said Williams' lifelong battle with depression is not uncommon in comedy.

"There’s always a dark side to comedy," Beck said. "You spend a lot of time entertaining people so that you don’t get a lot of time to work on yourself."

Bill Donald, who performed Tuesday, also sees depression as common among comedians. "I think a lot of people who do stand-up as a release suffer from depression," he said.

Another comedian, Patrick Mahon, called Williams' death an eye-opener and a reminder that alcoholism and depression are lifelong struggles.

Based on Williams’ jokes about depression, Mahon said, "I could tell from what he said and how he said it that he had dealt with it firsthand. That material comes from a painful part of you."

Mahon had a comedian's edge to Williams' death.

"It was more depressing to me that Robin Williams died than my grandmother," he said. "Now that being said, I wrote a joke about his death this morning."

Vyrostek's set included a moment of silence in memory of Williams, which he abruptly ended with a farting noise.

"He's a comedian," Vyrostek said. "He would have understood."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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