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Robin Williams was always looking for the punchline in a comically tragic world

It was springtime in 2008, and Robin Williams was informing me he had new genital jokes to sharpen in Vegas — “Those are always good to test out” — and then, manic and sharp, he told me many jokes about his addictions at the time: video games, politics, and making people laugh.

First, I asked him if he put any thought into his stage wardrobe.

“Very little compared to Cher. Those are museum pieces. I think she puts more thoughts into the wardrobes than the tattoos. ‘This Place For Rent’ is usually the last tattoo,” he said.

He debated wearing pants on stage, but he worried that would devolve into “just a puppet show.”

He had sympathy for Vegas gambling addicts, because of his struggles with drugs and booze:

“As an addict and an alcoholic, you go, ‘Oh, we understand,’” he said.

Then, he got on a gambling roll. He was always looking for the punchline in a comically tragic world.

“Why are there no German casinos? Why is there no Das Bunker?

“Or the Vatican needs a casino. That’d be incredible: ‘Papal Mania!

“The Inquisition every afternoon: ‘Watch the Jews leave again! To part the Red Sea! With dolphins in it! Jewish dolphins!’”

But Williams could swing wildly from upbeat to downbeat. One happy thought would remind him of a tragedy, and vice versa.

“I was once on a German talk show,” he said suddenly, “and this woman said, ‘Why do you think there’s not much comedy in Germany?’ And I said, ‘Did you ever think you tried to kill all the funny people?’ And she took a moment and went, ‘No.’ And at that point, she went, ‘I understand now. I do believe I get it.’”

Then, he see-sawed back to funny. He gave me his Bush line du jour:

“How stupid do you have to be if you’re from a family where the smart brother’s named Jeb?”

He was hopeful California would legalize gay marriage. If not, he said, “They’ll flee to Canada and they’ll win ice skating for the next 2,000 years.”

We compared our tastes in video games. Williams was an avid gamer, as was I. Our shared pet peeve was gamers who trash-talk in online games, using derogatory language for women and gay men.

He had been playing a lot of “Call of Duty 4.”

“Having been over to Iraq,” for USO shows, “it’s always good to see what (video game makers) think war looks like.”

I told him my favorite part of “Call of Duty” online was A) finding dumb players who “camped out” as lazy snipers, then B) walking up behind them and stabbing them in the back. He laughed hard. I made Robin Williams laugh, a highlight of a my life.

“I know!” he said. “When you play it multiplayer, it is insane, given that it is a 12-year-old doing the sniping and capping your ass and slowly but surely ascending the ranks. Or you’re up against a 10-year-old who’s a five-star general going, ‘Shut up, b——!’”

He thought “Second Life” was silly: “ ‘Second Life’ – where you can (have sex with) a panda, and it’s OK.”

He liked puzzle games. And working with other gamers in online shooters.

“There’s a game online called ‘Kuma War,’ where they actually take scenery from real scenery in Afghanistan and Iraq. So you’ll be wandering a street in Fallujah. The only thing missing is the little kid with a hand grenade.”

One of Williams’ own kids is named Zelda. I asked if she was named after “The Legend of Zelda.” No, Zelda Fitzgerald, he said.

We talked a while longer. He was excitable. Afterward, I thought, “He’s like David Bowie. You can’t shut him up.” I meant that in a good way. I love Bowie. I love Williams. I loved listening.

News of Robin’s death punched me in the heart. I stumbled. Remember that first HBO special? Remember Mork? “Gooood morning, Vietnam!” And the other films. And everything. They’re all museum pieces now. Listen to that terrible silence. Robin Williams speaks no more.

Doug Elfman’s column appears on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Email him at delfman@reviewjournal.com. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/entertainment/reel.

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