In Memoriam

Billy Crystal's Tribute to Robin Williams at the Emmys Was Perfect

Summarizing our sadness while honoring the joy of Robin Williams, Billy Crystal delivered a heartbreaking, pitch-perfect homage to his longtime friend at Monday night's Emmy Awards.

Mark Davis/NBC

In the short time since Robin Williams passed away, there seems to have been some distress over how we should mourn the legendary entertainer. What is the proper way to pay tribute? What's in good taste? What measures up?

Leave it to Billy Crystal, paying respects to his dear friend in a special segment of the Emmy Awards’ In Memoriam sequence Monday night, to craft the perfect remembrance: “He made us laugh. Hard.”

It’s fitting, too, that Sara Bareilles led into Crystal’s speech with a gutting, understated rendition of “Smile” that scored the In Memoriam slideshow, a song that cuts to the heart of the tragic loss. With its unshakable tinge of melancholy, “Smile” reminds us that happiness is sweet, but it’s also earned—there’s a whole lot of pain, sadness, and hurt to get through before we can smile.

Perhaps that’s why we've held Williams in such high esteem. The actor burst into our lives first with his hit sitcom Mork & Mindy. Williams won two Emmy Awards for his performance debuting (to a mainstream television audience, at least) his unique talent to make the most outlandish, madcap characters so undeniably human—an impressive feat when one is playing, literally, a sitcom alien.

“His brilliance was astounding,” Crystal said. “The relentless energy was kind of thrilling. I used to think that if I put a saddle on him and hung on for eight seconds, I’d be OK.”

Sure, some of us were bucked off the horse from time to time, a bit weary from his voice throwing and rambunctiousness and incessant clowning. But how could you a call a signature talent that shone for more than four decades in show business tiresome? Robin Williams might have always been “on,” to use a term that people used to deride performers who always seem to be, well, performing. But, as Crystal attested Monday night, when Williams is “on,” you never really wanted to turn him off.

Crystal recalled a time where Williams attended a baseball game with him, despite not having a clue about baseball. “I asked him, 'What’s your favorite team?’ and he said, ‘The San Franciscos,’” Crystal remembered. Despite being ignorant to the sport, Williams decided to pretend to be a Russian baseball player for the rest of the night. For sport. “Well, we only have one team,” Williams, the Russian ballplayer quipped. “The Reds.”

“He could be funny anywhere,” Crystal said.

But it wasn’t just about the laughs, as anyone who’s grieved over Williams’ death in the past days surely knows. And we weren’t even personal friends with him, though he always kind of made us feel that way.

“As genius as he was on stage, he was the greatest friend you could ever imagine,” Crystal said. “It’s very hard to talk about him in the past because he was so present in all of our lives.”

The tribute somehow managed to summarize all of our conflicting feelings: despair, despondence, hopelessness, and maybe a little sense of relief that Williams, who was in such pain, might have some relief. And above that, gratitude for having been witness to his gifts in the first place.

Crystal’s final monologue? Perfect.

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“For almost 40 years, he was the brightest star in the comedy galaxy,” he said. “But while some of the brightest of our celestial bodies are actually extinct now, their energy long since cooled. But miraculously they must float in the heavens so far away from us, their beautiful light will continue to shine on us forever. And the glow will be so bright it will warm your heart, it will make your eyes glisten, and you’ll think to yourselves, ‘Robin Williams, what a concept.’”