“Show me a hero,I’ll write you a tragedy.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

On a hot August night back in the mid-70s, a group of struggling standup comics, myself included, was standing in the parking lot of the old Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard, waiting for our five or 10 minutes on stage.

The Comedy Store and Bud Friedman’s Improv club on Melrose Avenue were the places to go each night for struggling young standup comics.

They were drop-in places for agents and producers who would come by after dinner to catch the fresh acts as they looked for new talent. In those early days, David Letterman, Andy Kaufman, Richard Pryor, Jay Leno, and yes, the late and sadly missed Robin Williams, all of them not yet stars, almost barely recognizable, would come by to try out new material.

A new unknown comic would get on the long list with the stage manager, and then go and hang out with the other waiting comics in the parking lot.

We would all stand around smoking various things and chat, share stories and look at our watches, hoping we’d get five minutes on stage before a star showed up and hogged the stage, and that happened often.

Occasionally, someone would bring a pizza or a six-pack, and everyone would sit on some stranger’s expensive car and share the joys and pains of trying to make a name.

On this night, stamped forever in my memory, five of us, including two close friends, Steve Landesberg and Ron Carey, both who later became stars of television’s “Barney Miller,” were laughing when we heard a loud thud in the street next door. Another comic crossed the lot to tell us a young guy in a James Dean red jacket had just jumped off the top of the next door hotel.

“Oh my God,” Landesberg said, “He was standing here a few minutes ago.”

He was, but nobody really knew his name. He was just another comic who was waiting to do his five minutes, gave up, and then walked away, went to the top of the hotel, and fell 23 floors to the bottom of page 23 in the Los Angeles Times.

I’m thinking about my friends, all gone now, and that jumper as we all mourn comedian Robin Williams, who once stood in that parking lot waiting for his five minutes.

Not long after the jumper, Freddie Prinze, the gifted stand-up comic and star of “Chico and the Man,” shot himself in his room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Few remember Freddie anymore, but he, like Robin and the great John Belushi, who were both friends, all suffered the torments of drugs and the monsters.

A standup comic, more than any other performer, knows what it’s like to come off stage after “killing” the audience. Laughter is a drug in itself, and when in comes in unstoppable waves, when people pound the tables and stomp their feet, it produces a stratospheric high. To be pumped up with that wonderful adrenalin, and then step off stage and be hit with silence is a punch in the gut.

Laughter is wonderful, but when the laughter stops, the drop is breathtaking.

Comics have a high suicide rate. But you don’t read about them unless they’re like Robin. The graveyards are full of young talents who didn’t have the luck or the great magic of Robin and who, even after shots on Johnny Carson or Letterman, find a way into the darkness rather than going home to Nebraska.

They are the invisible kids who simply kept moving farther and farther back in the line, standing aside in the parking lots and lobbies until losing got too painful. Some do go home,others walk into the darkness.

That darkness has a texture. I’ve felt it. It has a taste. I’ve tasted it.

I never really wanted to do stand up comedy, I just wanted to learn how to write it. I think I have, and with all my comic friends gone, I’m grateful to be here.

Goodnight Robin, wherever you are. To all the new comics standing outside in the parking lot, you were and still are, a hero.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

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