Robin Williams: The Greatest Late-Night Guest Ever

Robin Williams: The Greatest Late-Night Guest Ever

Aug 12, 2014

I don't ever remember a time when Robin Williams wasn't a part of my life. The first movie I ever watched on a constant loop to the point that I broke two VHS copies of it was Williams' 1980 live-action Popeye. It was my jam, and my parents were happy to feed my Popeye obsession because at least the character inspired a three-year-old picky eater to consume spinach. Yet while so many of his roles touched down during crucial moments in my life, the Robin Williams I most enjoyed was the guy who entertained like gangbusters on late-night television. 

I'd get into trouble waiting up to watch Williams on The Tonight Show or David Letterman, but he was literally the only person I ever did that for. His appearances on those shows, which came at our most comfortable times -- when we're in bed, relaxed and in need of a little something to send us off to sleep -- were incredibly engaging and hilarious and unpredictable. 

When Robin Williams went on late-night TV, he was in his element as an entertainer. I'd always wonder whether the producers were happy or scared to have him on because the guy was all over the place. If Williams remained in his seat for more than 20 seconds at a time, he was setting a personal record. He'd be up, down, dancing, singing and seamlessly transitioning from one bit to the next before you ever had time to catch your breath. 

He was, in a word, brilliant. He had you smiling within seconds of walking onstage, and he had you laughing out loud within a minute, tops. That was all him. He was fearless. He was the best.

Here's his first ever appearance on Johnny Carson back in 1981. He was nervous, you could tell, but in typical Williams fashion he was "on" from the moment Carson asks his first question, which, funnily enough, was about being nervous.


In my opinion, Williams' best late-night appearances came on Late Night with David Letterman. There was just something about Letterman that brought out the good, maniacal stuff. Here's an appearance from 1986, soon after Newsweek called Williams "the funniest man in America." "No pressure," Williams quips. He then proceeds to do a ton of crazy voices. (Note: Williams' appearance begins at 14 minutes in.)


Williams had a great run in movies from the late '80s to the early '90s, including three Oscar nominations for Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King. Here he is back on Letterman the week Dead Poets Society premiered in theaters. During their chat, Letterman sends a camera out into a nearby movie theater at the end of a Dead Poets Society screening while he and Williams narrate the scene.


The comedian returned to The Tonight Show in 1991, one year before Johnny Carson would toss the baton to Jay Leno. Williams was on to promote Awakenings, but naturally the segment turned into him doing a ton of impressions of other actors doing Shakespeare. Keep an eye out for a cameo from the boom mic.


In 2008 the writers's strike kept the Late Show with David Letterman off the air for eight weeks, and when he finally returned Letterman surprised audiences by growing a really long beard. Of course Robin Williams took the opportunity to spew countless jokes about Letterman's beard.


At the beginning of 2013, a long-running comical feud between Jimmy Kimmel and Matt Damon came to a head when Damon took Kimmel hostage, tied him up and hosted his show while Kimmel sat immobile at the back of the stage. Damon needed some assistance with his opening monologue, and so of course he brought on Robin Williams to help.

The only late-night host who could truly match Williams' off-the-cuff insanity was Craig Ferguson. So what does it look like when they're together? Here's my favorite bit that they did, most of which involves the duo answering viewer e-mails.


Finally, here is Williams' last appearance on David Letterman, which came in September of 2013 to promote his new show The Crazy Ones. While introducing him, Letterman perfectly sums up Williams -- the man, as well as the performer -- in two words: "delightfully entertaining." That's what he was, that's who he was, and that's how we'll always remember him.





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