LOS ANGELES - Be funny, the crowd seems to be screaming.
Yes, yes, Robin Williams seems to be replying, but let's get serious, too.
The standup comedy special is called Weapons of Self-Destruction and Williams, clean and sober after his latest stint in rehab, is in a reflective mood on this day, interspersing his familiar rapid-fire one-liners with moments of confession and soulful introspection.
It's a different Robin Williams this time. Less the Robin Williams of Club Paradise and Mork & Mindy, and more the Robin Williams of Insomnia and Dead Poets Society. Williams is holding a news conference to promote his one-man special for HBO, taped last month at Washington's Constitution Hall, and while he can't resist squeezing off the occasional laugh line, he now feels the responsibility that comes with being a public figure--and not just because he's a parent and father. In March, he underwent heart surgery to replace his aortic valve.
"Having had open-heart surgery, it's going to be very interesting," he said of his comedy tour, "especially with a cow valve."
Williams finds comfort in work. And work, for him, is playing pokey comedy clubs in out-of-the-way places, as well as big, sold-out sports arenas.
"Yeah, I need it," he said. "It's important. It's been a roller-coaster. I realize I need more therapy. The reason I've gone back to standup is I've run out of merchandising money from Bicentennial Man."
No regrets, though.
"Nothing. It's been an interesting ride. I've learned a lot over the years, especially from the people I got to play with: Richard Pryor, George Carlin. The first Comic Relief on HBO, Carlin walked out, and it was amazing. He opened up by saying: 'Anorexia. Why do I give a (expletive) if some (expletive) won't eat?' And then we went, 'Our lines are open. 1-800-Comic-Relief. Please call.'"
No regrets. Not even Patch Adams.
"That's a very popular movie with people who've been in hospitals," Williams said, deadpan. "You know, there are inevitably some where you go, 'Not everything worked,' but it was at least interesting to try."
Williams squeezed off a filthy Lou Dobbs joke--too filthy to repeat here--then followed it with an even filthier Rachel Maddow joke, then capped them both with a filthiest-yet Anderson Cooper joke.
"There's so much going on right now," Williams said, serious again. "There's so much material to try. That's why I've got to get back out on the circuit, even more so."
Alternating between light comedy and heavy dramatic roles has been a life-saver, in a manner of speaking.
"The comedy gives you the confidence to take chances," Williams said. "I love how Larry David described Curb Your Enthusiasm as 'Curb Larry meets real Larry.' It's the idea that, when you do standup, it infuses your acting with this idea that, 'I can try this.' That's why I can do something like World's Greatest Dad or Insomnia or One Hour Photo. The comedy lets you go, 'Don't be afraid.' It's the same thing with acting. The serious acting teaches you to go, 'Stay with this. Concentrate on that. Don't be afraid to do a character, sometimes.'
"It's been a while since I've done a character-character onstage. I have to try that in the standup, to see if I can bring some of that back. Once in a while, you'll find a character, and it becomes almost like possession. You kind of go with it, and then you can find something really interesting. Yeah, they feed each other perfectly. It's symbiotic."
A room full of jaded reporters is a tough room to work, but Robin Williams is a proven master at winning over the crowd.
Winning at life has proven a tougher nut to crack, though. He struggled with cocaine addiction during the early '80s. "Cocaine is God's way of saying you make too much money," he famously quipped at the time, in a routine immortalized in An Evening with Robin Williams.
He was a close friend of John Belushi's. The two partied together, early, often, and hard.
Three years ago, Williams checked himself into a rehab clinic, later admitting he was an alcoholic. His older brother, Robert Todd Williams, died from complications after heart surgery in 2007.
The younger Williams can joke about it now, but he admits his own heart surgery, at Ohio's Cleveland Clinic, was a terrifying experience.
"I talk about my surgery in the act," Williams said. "I woke up going, 'Where am I?' And they said, 'Cleveland.' And I kept going, 'Why?'
"The surgery itself--there was an anesthetic there that... I love my anesthesiologist. I don't remember his name. It was just this idea of going in and they tell you that you're going to get a cow valve, and I went, 'Wow, that's great. The grazing is easier.' And then you come out of it and you think, 'I'm going to be fine.' And then, the first few months, you're like, 'Not really.' Sex with a cow valve is kind of like a duel to the death between your penis and your heart. It's your heart going, 'That's it!' and your penis going, 'No!' Basically, it's like a Civil War re-enactment in a wheelchair.
"But that's just part of being older."
Thanks everybody, you've been a great crowd.