Remembering the night Robin Williams played Laffs:

Gary Bynum was an hour outside of Tucson when the manager of his Laffs Comedy Caffé called: “Robin Williams is on our stage!” he shouted into the phone.

“I was just astounded. I just couldn’t believe he actually did it. And he went up and did an hour,” Bynum recalled Tuesday, a day after the comedian was found dead in California. His death was ruled a suicide by hanging, California officials said Tuesday. “Robin came in and killed for an hour.”

Bynum said Williams’ appearance at the club was spurred by a regular open mic comic at Laffs who was working as a tennis pro at Ventana Canyon Resort where Williams was staying in 1990 or 1991.

The kid suggested that Williams should pop into the club, at 2900 E. Broadway and do a set, Bynum said.

“And sure as hell he walks in,” recalled Bynum, who at the time also owned a comedy club in New Mexico. “Can you imagine the thrill of saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, sorry to disturb the show right now but we have a special guest set tonight. Robin Wiliams!’ And they went crazy, and I heard about it for 20 years afterward.”

It was not uncommon in those days to see emerging comics in the early stages of their careers — Ellen DeGeneres, David Brenner, Jerry Seinfeld, Louie Anderson and Pablo Francisco among them — performing at Laffs, which Bynum opened in 1987. But Williams was a bonafide big star when he performed that night, a comic tens of thousands of dollars out of Bynum’s price range. That night for Williams was not about the money, Bynum said.

“He’s a comedian. He just loved the stage. It’s in their blood,” Bynum said, adding that the club did not pay Williams for his set. “Look at Robin Williams. He’s a perfect example of it. Look at the millions he’s made in movies. Look at (Jerry) Seinfeld. He’s so stinking rich he wouldn’t answer the phone for what I paid him in 1989. They just make barrel-loads of money and they still have standup in their blood.”

Bynum said Laffs can no longer afford to bring in big-name touring comics after its seating was reduced by the Fire Department in January to 150 seats from 299. Bynum said he was told the club’s size did not meet the fire code for the larger capacity.

“I can’t charge enough for the seat,” he said. “We’re hanging on because I’m really good at cutting expenses and keeping it in line. We’re surviving.”

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at or 573-4642.

I cover music for the Arizona Daily Star.