A retrospective for the man who could make a tent full of stoic servicemen laugh like a middle school lunchroom.
Robin Williams went on six separate USO tours from 2002 to 2013. Williams inspired countless other comedians and performers to pack their bags and head overseas to share their light with the world. There are hundreds of stories that surround the humanity of each and every visit Williams had.
For example, take the time on the 2007 USO Chairman's Holiday Tour, where Williams saw a group of soldiers waving at him from behind a fence across a grassy berm. A wave and a loud joke across the field would've surely made those soldiers day... But according to USO VP of Entertainment Rachel Tischler, "... he jumped across the berm and went running over to them. Obviously, our security team completely freaked out. Again – height of the war here. But he didn't care. He just wanted to go over and shake their hands and thank them. And that is what he was like."
That's the thing with Williams. He didn't just go overseas and perform a couple of comedy sets and dip out. That, in and of itself, would still be a beautiful act of service. But that wasn't enough for Williams. He jumped the berm in everything he did.
"What was great about him on tour was that he always took the time to sit down and talk to people about what they were going through, what life on the base was like, about personal experiences," Tischler said. "And then he'd get on stage and he'd be telling a joke about Mexican Night in the [dining facility]."
Williams wasn't just a loose cannon of human decency on USO Tours, either. He was also a respectful observer of military tacit codes. Just watch this video of Williams's set being cut short by Taps at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait.
At the first sound of the beagle, you can almost feel his gut lurching to make a joke. Every single time that Williams had gone on stage, he was a comedic amoeba, calling out things happening in the present moment. He had conditioned himself to make a joke there. But he resisted. He pulled against his greater impulses, and respectfully lowered his head.
You can tell it meant something to him, as he said "I'm never going to forget that." And what happened next is quintessential Robin Williams— he made a joke about the present moment that unified the entire camp.
Holiday Tour, International Airport in Baghdad (2003)
(Mike Theiler. EPA.)
Unity is the central theme of Robin Williams USO tours, and that's the legacy left behind. Every man and woman stationed who got to see him took a piece of Williams back with them. Williams loved it too, "There's nothing I enjoy more than traveling with the USO and giving back to our troops in whatever way I can," he said, "They work hard, sacrifice a lot and deserve to be treated like the heroes they are. The very least I can do is bring a smile to their faces."
Many comedians have followed in his footsteps of unity since: Lewis Black, Louis CK, Ralphie May, and Stephen Colbert, just to name a few. As our country feels increasingly disjointed, it's important to focus on the "Robin Williams" moments; we can reach across the aisle and truly connect with each other.
Whenever we feel distant from each other, we don't have to shout from behind a fence. We can jump the berm.
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