Impressionist Roger Kabler looked in the mirror one day and made one of his Robin Williams faces. And suddenly, Williams was looking right back at him — alive and well and ready to make people laugh again.
Kabler knew then what he had to do. Williams had died recently, but Kabler vowed to keep the beloved comedian’s spirit alive.
“It was a very Zen moment,” Kabler says. “All of a sudden, there was Robin. And I felt him say, ‘OK … let’s get back to work.”
Now Kabler is doing just that, performing his Robin Williams tribute throughout the country. That includes performances today through Saturday at Laugh In Comedy Café in south Fort Myers.
“This is a way for him to come back to life,” Kabler says. “When they really start to laugh, that’s when Robin comes out and plays.”
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Kabler has been doing impressions of Williams since he was in high school, and he even did it on the reality TV competition “The Next Best Thing” (where he made it into the show’s top 10). But this show goes much deeper than that, he says.
It’s not just a superficial impression. In fact, Kabler often feels like he’s channeling the spirit of Williams.
“I have no real say in what Robin’s gonna do when he steps in,” he says. “It’s like a puppeteer is working my 56-year-old, Jewish, schleppy body.
“Sometimes I say, ‘It’s not just a show. It’s a séance.’”
You need to see Kabler’s tribute show to believe it, says actor/comedian Bill Kirchenbauer, who opens for Kabler at Laugh-In this week and worked with Williams on the 70s TV show “Mork and Mindy.”
“It’s magical,” says Kirchenbauer, who also produces the show. “It really is amazing.
“It’s more than just an impression. As opposed to a caricature — which is what an impression is — this is a portrayal. You believe you’re watching Robin.”
Kabler spent two years watching video of Robin Williams, writing his act and honing his portrayal. The resulting show features some familiar Williams characters and routines — Williams’ classic golf bit, for example, and a big role for Mrs. Doubtfire — but Kabler mostly does his own material inspired by Williams. Plus some of Williams’ signature naughty humor (the “pee-pee and caca jokes,” as Kabler puts it).
Kabler likes to think Williams is watching and smiling from wherever he is now.
“I say to myself, ‘Would he laugh at this?’” he says. “And I feel him laughing in there when I hit it.
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In his comedy act — and also during his News-Press interview — Kabler barrels through various accents and characters in Williams’ manic, silly, stream-of-consciousness style. It’s fun, he says, but it’s also exhausting.
“When I’m facing the audience, I’m basically mating with a half-drunken, 200-headed beast,” he says. “It’s hang-gliding in a hurricane, man. It’s really intense.”
Like many people, Kabler was shocked and grief-stricken when Williams committed suicide in 2014. And his show is a way for him and his audience to come to grips with that death and learn to celebrate the man’s life, instead.
“It’s a hell of a lot of fun,” he says. “People get emotional. They come up to me afterward to give me a hug, and they cry — which really isn’t that great for comedy (laughing).”
Then there’s the charity side of the show. Kabler gives 10-percent of his profits to a charity that Williams would have supported. For the Fort Myers shows, that money will be given to America’s Disaster Relief.
“What I’m trying to do is continue with his work,” Kabler says. “He’s really trying to finish up a mission.”
Williams wasn’t just a great comedian and actor, he says. He was a larger-than-life human being and a pivotal spirit that Kabler ranks right up there with people like JFK and Ghandi.
“For all his humanity and his flaws, I think his spirit was so pervasive — he was probably one of the most grieved human beings ever when he died,” Kabler says. “The sense of grief, globally, is putting me in this position of intense responsibility to do it right.”
The goal, he says, is to capture some true moments where people can feel the love in the room.
“With Robin, I think, this is his mission,” Kabler says. “This is his way of coming back to life.
“I’m really trying to continue along with the work he would have done and bring the love in a hate-filled world. I think that would be something he would want.”
Connect with this reporter: Charles Runnells (Facebook), @charlesrunnells (Twitter), @crunnells1 (Instagram)
If you go
What: Robin Williams tribute show
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, March 21-24, with 9:30 p.m. shows Friday and Saturday.
Where: Laugh In Comedy Café, 8595 College Parkway, Unit 270, south Fort Myers
Tickets: $20 ($30 for VIP)
Info: 479-5233 or laughincomedycafe.com