Magazine article Variety

Legend Impacts Rising Comics

Magazine article Variety

Legend Impacts Rising Comics

Article excerpt

Even though Robin Williams was cited by Montreal's Just for Laughs Comedy Festival co-founder Andy Nulman as "the one who got away," who, despite decades of pursuing him for a fest slot, never made it to the Montreal comedy gathering, the impact of the legendary comic's work will undoubtedly be felt in all corners of the comedy world for years to come.

Director and producer Barnet Kellman was in Chicago shooting the 1992 romantic comedy "Straight Talk," starring Dolly Parton, James Woods and Griffin Dunne, when Robin Williams stopped by to say greet to the cast and crew.

"Everybody turned and listened," recalls Kellman, "as Robin uncorked his comedy for 15 straight minutes. He was a magical presence."

So Kellman "never ever imagined" that decades later he would be named the inaugural holder of the Robin Williams Endowed Chair in Comedy at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, where Kellman, professor in SCA's division of film and television production, helped found its program in comedy.

"I think I just went white, my blood sugar dropped and then shot up, in rapid succession," says Kellman upon being told of his appointment. "We all had such an incredibly visceral reaction to the news that Robin was gone. Everybody appreciated him but, as it happens when you lose somebody, the depth of that appreciation increased. Everybody became just so aware of what he meant to us. So to be associated with his name, to have his name associated with the School of Cinematic Arts, was just an awesome surprise. It just came as a total shock to me."

Established by the George Lucas Family Foundation in June, it was Lucas himself - calling Williams "a comedy genius with a boundless talent" - who brought the idea for the Robin William Chair to dean Elizabeth M. Daley. Lucas, an alumnus and one of SCA's primary benefactors, had already financed many chairs at the school, including the Sergei Eisenstein Endowed Chair in Cinematic Design and the Joseph Campbell Endowed Chair in Cinematic Ethics, and there was also the Jack Oakie Endowed Chair in Comedy, held by SCA screenwriting professor Jack Epps Jr., but there remained a comedic hole in the production division.

"We were talking about the comedy program at a board meeting and [George] said [we] should have a chair for Robin," says Daley. "They were very close and he said to me, 'This should be one of the things that really is the crown jewel of the comedy program.' "

Together with Epps and David Isaacs, screenwriting professor and Emmy-winning executive producer on "Cheers," Kellman had worked diligently to build up the comedy curricula at SCA, but "there was a vacuum in the teaching of comedy directing" that Kellman and Daley knew needed to be filled.

"I give credit to Paul [Junger] Witt who said to me several years ago at a board meeting, 'You know, you should really own comedy Have you looked at your alumni?' " recalls Daley. "And then you start realizing your [alumni] are Judd Apatow, Jason Reitman, Josh Schwartz, Shawn Levy - the list goes on and on. And we talked to them, and we realized that they all needed a home, a place where funny people can get together and explore getting their sea legs and try different things, knowing it's OK to fail. Because while you can't make somebody have a sense of humor, you can certainly teach an awful lot of it, and you can give them an environment where those instincts are supported. …

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