“You know you broke when they break in your place and don’t steal nothing…”
Robin Harris opens a vision of his long-gone poverty with this silly premise. Laughter bubbles in Los Angeles’ Comedy Act Theater. Big, slick afros bounce on the outskirts of the spotlight. And Harris simmers while they take in his absurd setup from his self-titled Live at the Comedy Act Theater.
“Man, I’m so broke they left a note talking ‘bout ‘Please buy something.’ I bought some. When they came back, they left another note, it said, ‘Stay away from K Mart.’”
I want Robin Harris to wake up. In 1990, the Chicago comedian died in his sleep. He was just getting started. Rumors stirred about him living a fast life, but they weren’t confirmed. His life went fast because he pressed the gas when he got his breaks. He was on a world-famous run, starring in early Spike Lee hits Do the Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues, glowing up in his scenes.
Harris was born in 1953 to working-class parents in Chicago and applied their steady ethic to his rise in the comedy world. As a nightclub emcee and after-hours regular, Harris colored his routine with improvised digs at the crowd and references to a bruised, beat-down life that wasn’t really his own. For a decade, he played local clubs that invigorated the stand-up scene in the Midwest and drew major interest from Hollywood’s Black filmmakers like Lee and Reginald Hudlin. Although his most famous set — a joke about dating a single mom with bad kids who never sleep — depicts him as a bachelor, he was a devoted father and husband. But on stage, he used raw language and didn’t hold back. Ugly women had betrayed him, he claimed. Ugly crowds weren’t worth the time, he swore.
“My old lady so ugly, y’all, the other day she was taking off her clothes and a peeping Tom peeped through the window, broke in the house and pulled down the shade.”
Harris was 36. News articles list his official cause of death as cardiac arrest from a bout of sleep apnea. Harris, like Patrice O’Neal, like Bernie Mac, left a larger legacy than his persona. I’m 36, standing in the burly chuckling shadow he left, hoping to discover him. Fear keeps me from imagining my death this month because I’ll never do what he did in his storied sprint of a life.
On a Friday afternoon, the cold vinyl cushion on the recliner at Maiden Lane Medical sticks to the bare skin on my back. I’m laying down, soft belly out, waiting on the assistant. Her gloves snap, and I pop up from a Robin Harris daydream. I need to know how his version of “alive” felt, so I’m watching his sparse video clips over and over again. For three weeks, I’ve been typing in his name on YouTube, spiking his views one percentage point at a time, thinking he’ll show me who he was beyond the stage. He had 36 full years and, I bet, no slow moments like this, waiting for an ultrasound tech to apply freezing gel to his love handles. I bet he tore up every stage and broke into sweats from the energy of the laughter firing back at him. I only feel a cool drip percolating under my right arm as it starts its roll down my side.
Robin Harris made jokes about being ugly and broke because he was beautiful and rich as the texture of his voice. His urgent grunt was the basis for Bernie Mac’s success. He was the surly uncle at the barbecue, cocking off jokes at bystanders, making you feel both gross and pretty in the same punchline. I sit at home, propped up on a velvet couch, not rich but not broke either, looking for signs of Harris in the too-brief clips.
First, Do the Right Thing tells me more about the Harris grunt than I first noticed watching House Party. But the velvet couch is so soft and cozy that I fall asleep at 1 a.m with the window open and the breeze tugging at my blanket. Robin Harris watched me doze from inside the screen.
I woke up gasping for air, like a phantom lodged the hairy blanket in my throat and stole the exhaling part. When I look for more information on how Robin Harris lived inside his body, his widow and friends talk about trouble breathing, and him falling asleep mid-conversation. I haven’t gotten this bad yet, but maybe I don’t go hard enough. Robin Harris died the same month his biggest movie role premiered. I’ve already watched that movie, House Party, four times in seven days, because I’m looking for clues.
The best evidence I can find of how he moved is in a special called Robin Harris Live at the Comedy Act Theater. It’s a deep cut of him in 1988 hosting other rising comics, and I can quickly pull it up on streaming. He struts the stage, pivoting on his heels, half-walking half-jiving, belting out jokes and swallowing every ounce of air in the room. Harris dwarfs the other acts, some of whom I’ve seen in bit parts, without breaking stride or tripping up.
“How you doing, waitress? Waitress sure look nervous round here, don’t they? I’d be nervous too if I was stealing. Don’t worry, honey, I carry a razor too. A gun’ll misfire but you ain’t never heard of a razor mis-cutting. Said I’ll cut you long, deep, wide and consecutively.”
When I emerge from my daydream, I realize he’s joking but not. Robin Harris carried a razor because he grew up on the South Side of Chicago during a period of the 1970s when growing up on the South Side of a Black city meant carrying razors. He matured fast and his tongue, his heart, his lungs and his eyes had to keep up. His piercing wit mimics the gesture of his knife joke, slicing gashes into my modest 36 years, cutting up what I’ve done and have yet to do.
The doctors on Google bestowed me with sleep apnea, which could be either the dovetail to my tragic end or a footnote in a long life. That illness is where the similarities start and end with me and Harris. But I recognize the fatal consequence when I read accounts from his widow, Exetta. In the Washington Post report, an oral history of his mourners, she said he’d been to the doctor and they wanted to check him out. But it never got any further. Harris’ family said he talked in his sleep, still cracking jokes and taking shots at the audience in his head.
Sleep apnea remains misunderstood despite how common it is. The New York Times estimates 22 million Americans have it, yet few are aware. The symptoms -- loud snoring, restless sleep, grogginess upon waking -- sound like the sleep traits of most working adults I’ve known. Beyond that, we associate sleep apnea with obesity (though it’s not proven that the latter causes the former). Robin Harris’ widow, Exetta, saw the symptoms that alert many spouses to a deeper health issue. That’s why it’s also called “witness apnea,” because the sufferer’s sleep habits are a mystery to them in slumber.
I wake up fighting ghosts that choke me, too, like on my Harris movie-marathon night. I got so scared of dying in my sleep, I went to get my aliveness checked because I knew Robin Harris lost his the same way. Though he spent his short 36 years better than I have, roaring past peers, he turned the other cheek to mortal risk. That’s likely why it was easy to cast him as “Pop” in Kid N’ Play’s House Party when he was only 12 years older than his supposed son, Christopher “Kid” Reid. Harris had grown into a middle-aged man’s stout figure, so he was able to portray a range of murky ages. Whether as the shiftless Sweet Dick Willie in Do the Right Thing, laid back in his folding chair throne, roasting with the other street-corner drunks, or as the self-serious, quipping dad in House Party, Harris showed how light-hearted mockery could make any life more enjoyable. Especially his.
The ultrasound tech presses down into my abdomen and I feel like I have to pee. This is normal, she claims, but nothing seems that way when a woman you don’t know is playing with your bladder from the outside. I keep thinking of Sweet Dick Willie saying, “It’s Miller Time,” as his drunk cohorts complain that Koreans own stores and they keep buying more beers from them as the “Black Man suffers.” Willie didn’t give a shit as long as he could get his beer on time and often. As her latex hand relieves pressure from my personal area, she assures me there are no problems. “It’s Miller Time,” I mumble, considering a beer since I have my aliveness back.
“What was that?”
“It’s from a movie.”
“You can go downstairs to reception to schedule a follow-up. The doctor will explain your results.”
Follow up what though? I’m thinking about not going further than this. A week or two of tests, Google searches, filling out surveys, and studying how aliveness ended and became death made me tired. If a man more alive than me could die in his sleep, during the peak of his life, what chance did I stand against fate?
I want Robin Harris to wake up. In the opening scene of House Party, Pop yells at Kid to finish his breakfast and go to school. In the next beat, Kid’s grabbing food and screaming back that he can’t be scolded for not eating food before he gets downstairs to eat. But when Pop doesn’t reply, he runs back upstairs to check on him. Robin Harris as “Pop” sprawls on a king bed in an undershirt and work pants, acting out sleep. His movie son unties his shoes so his dad can rest and gives him the sober, empathetic look of a teenager understanding how much a parent does to keep them clothed and fed. When he is Pop dozing on the bed, he looks more like Robin Harris, cheating days to get more than 24 hours and stealing precious sleep.
The director Reginald Hudlin made a bid to preserve Robin Harris by turning the single-mom joke into the animated feature Bébé’s Kids. Harris died two years before the movie premiered, so Faizon Love voiced what was supposed to be his character. Ultimately, the film felt like a pieced-together memorial to a fallen jokester instead of a fully-formed story. So many people owed a creative debt to him, from Bernie Mac and Martin Lawrence to Lee and Hudlin, they spent years trying to pay back what couldn’t be repaid.
Harris likely didn’t rest much during his magical run from 1988 to 1990, and sleep seemed to overtake him because he had trouble controlling it. Friends who knew him well described him as hardworking and a worrier. He wanted the jokes to land. He wanted the crowd to burst into giggles. It’s hard to read about the end of his life and know that the one thing that eluded him, sleep, also carried him home. That’s not how I want to remember his aliveness. Or mine.
This week, I’m going for my follow-up appointment.