Lewis Black and David Steinberg to Discuss Legacy of Late Comic Genius Robin Williams

The lights of the Metropolitan Opera House gleamed as the golden curtains parted, and comedian Robin Williams leaped across the stage.

Williams was recording his third official album live at the Met, which went on to win the 1988 Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album. For Williams’ manager David Steinberg, “Robin Williams: An Evening at the Met” was one of the comedian’s greatest moments.

“I was proud of that because putting him on stage at the Met was really interesting to do — no comedian had ever done that before,” Steinberg said. 

Steinberg said they spent time working on the show together, but Williams truly wrote on the stage, in the moment.

“Robin truly was a genius,” Steinberg said. “When he was on stage, that’s where he felt the safest because it was his world.”

At 10:45 a.m. Thursday, August 1 in the Amphitheater, Steinberg will be joined by Williams’ close friend, comedian Lewis Black, as they discuss Williams’ legacy, in “Managing Genius: 43 years with Robin Williams.” The two will be interviewed by radio personality and comedian Ron Bennington.

Steinberg met Williams when he began as a talent manager. In his career, he has managed stars like Sammy Davis Jr. and Billy Crystal, and became close friends with Williams over the 40 years that they worked together.

Throughout his career, and even after his death in 2014, Williams has been known as a comic genius. After dropping out of Claremont Men’s College to pursue acting, he studied theater for three years at a community college in Kentfield, California.

In 1973, Williams obtained a full scholarship to the Juilliard School. During his junior year, he left after a professor told him there was nothing more the school could teach him.

Steinberg said Williams was intelligent, constantly reading books and conversing with people about a variety of different subjects.

“Robin was a very concerned human being,” Steinberg said. “He loved to read — he was an information junkie.” 

In the mid-1970s, after he left Juilliard, Williams performed stand-up shows in San Francisco. After moving to Los Angeles, he continued to perform stand-up and made his television debut on the revival of the NBC sketch comedy show “Laugh-In.”

One year later, in 1978, Williams was cast as alien Mork in an episode of the ABC series “Happy Days.” His appearance was so popular that ABC decided to create the spin-off, “Mork & Mindy.”   

“It taped on Monday nights,” Steinberg said. “And it was the place to be — everyone wanted to get into ‘Mork’ because the script was just an idea, and he would just go off of it and everyone just had to follow — he wasn’t controlled by the words.”

In 1980, Williams had his first big performance in the movie “Popeye,” playing the title role. And as Williams entered the film industry, Steinberg said the comic “never lost that spark of wanting to do bits out of his head and off the page.”

In 2000, Williams made an appearance on the ABC improvisational comedy show “Whose Line Is It Anyways?” The show was like a heavenly playground, Steinberg said.

“He loved that show,” Steinberg said. “He loved those guys and he used to say, ‘I just want to play with them,’ and it was an incredible experience.”

His comedy was different, according to Black, who met Williams during an HBO Comic Relief show with Billy Crystal.

“There were very few comics that were that fast and able to change directions, dialects and characters like he could,” Black said. “No one could free associate on the level that he could — it was like watching fireworks, if fireworks were funny.”

Black and Williams became close friends throughout their comedy careers. For Black, working with Williams was a confidence boost, but it was even more meaningful to become his friend.

“Even as long as I’ve been doing comedy, at that point, it was a huge confidence builder,” Black said. “When I was doing Comic Relief, I was just coming onto the scene, but Robin paid attention.”

Both Steinberg and Black mentioned the power of Williams’ USO tours. Williams made six USO tours throughout his career, and Black said when they got off the helicopter or the transport at the venue, Williams would greet the troops with unbounded energy. He said the interaction between the troops and Williams was very special.

“It was special because of the love that he had for them,” Black said. “And the love they had for him — the troops were grateful that he showed up.”

To the world, Williams seemed to be always quick on his feet and exuding hilariousness.

“Everybody always thought he was on,” Black said. “And the Robin I knew was not always on — there was another side to Robin Williams, and it was a very thoughtful, kind man.”

Williams and Black worked together on the 2006 movie “Man of The Year.”

“When I was doing a scene with him, we would talk about what he would do,” Black said. “Sometimes we would just shoot the scene with just improv.”

In his career, Williams played everything from a nanny and a doctor, to a genie and a radio personality. His comedy styles have inspired many, including Jim Carrey, to create with more spontaneity and try new things on stage. Steinberg said he’s spent many moments in his life admiring and contemplating Williams’ comedy.

“There were hundreds of special moments when I thought ‘Where in the heck does this ability come from?’ ” he said. 

After decades of a successful comedy career, Williams died by suicide in 2014. The world paid tribute to the comic genius on social media and in numerous TV show episodes dedicated to Williams.

In 2018, HBO released the documentary “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” — produced by Steinberg, offering another look into the comic’s life. William’s legacy continues to be felt in comedy and show business, something that Steinberg said he wants Chautauquans to honor.

“I just want people to know Robin and know what he did,” Steinberg said. “Whether they agree with him politically or not, I want them to witness the genius and the courage that he showed his entire career.”

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The author Tina Giuliano

Tina Giuliano is a rising junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Phoenix, where she studies broadcast journalism and Spanish. She serves as the multimedia managing editor at her school’s paper, The State Press. She is excited to begin covering opera for the Daily. When she’s not diving into her journalism career, she’s probably rewatching “The Office,” at a soccer game or figuring out which flavor of ice cream to eat.