When I worked at Warner Bros., we used to tell stories to guests about the lot. They were usually just fun bits of studio lore or legend, or maybe a bit about the history of certain films. When we got to talking about sitcoms, there was always one story we would always tell.
See, sitcoms use a live audience. The laugh tracks you hear aren’t created by button presses or machines; the audience is integral to letting creators of the show know whether they are funny or not as the show is taped. They change jokes or, sometimes, keep things in that they never would have planned if the audience likes it enough.
In the early days, they would only film with three cameras focused only on who had dialogue in a scene. Why focus on actors in the background or who don’t have lines? That’s not where the attention is.
Well, along came a show with an unheard-of cast. They were taping like normal, doing these scenes, when the audience would start laughing out of the blue. It turns out that, even though he didn’t have any lines during those scenes, there was an actor without cameras trained on him doing something that caught the audience’s attention in the background.
The actor’s name was Robin Williams, and the new show was called Mork and Mindy.
Robin was known for being an outrageous improv talent. When he would do something funny, some bit of hilarious body language that the audience would catch, the producers would immediately turn one of the cameras on him and ask him to repeat it. Except it was off-the-cuff, and Williams could rarely remember what exactly he had just done, so there would be no footage of what the audience was laughing at.
So, the producers started bringing in a fourth camera, a camera whose sole purpose was to be trained on Robin Williams the entire time. It earned the nickname “The Robin Cam,” a term sometimes still heard in today’s tapings. He had single-handedly changed how sitcoms and comedy work, and tapings now usually bring in cameras per actor instead of just turning to whoever has lines.
It’s not a huge or surprising story, but it is a little moment that showcases just how incredibly important Robin Williams was to our industry and culture.
It’s such a shame depression is an ugly, hard-to-reason-with force beyond the control of its victims. Robin Williams was a brilliant comedian, and one of the best improvisational actors of all time. It’s sad to hear about his death at the hands of something that went against most of what his roles stood for. Hopefully, he rests knowing he has inspired countless people across generations.