NEW YORK (AP) — Wind up Robin Williams and the stories pour out — how he developed his accent for “Mrs. Doubtfire,” found out “Mork & Mindy” was canceled by reading about it in a newspaper and the remark that abruptly ended his appearance on a German talk show.
Old friend Whoopi Goldberg steered the conversation last week at SiriusXM, part of a town hall program that’s swiftly becoming a programming signature at the satellite radio service.
Sirius’ town halls bring artists together, usually when they have new projects to promote, with a small group of fans for hour-long discussions sent out to the satellite radio system’s 25 million subscribers. Portions are fed out to a larger audience through Sirius’ YouTube channel.
The series began by chance two years ago when Bruce Springsteen was touting his “Darkness on the Edge of Town” reissue. Sirius subscribers were brought in to meet their hero and asked about what Springsteen would want his children to know about the 1978 disc and how his writing was affected by the death of Elvis Presley, the latter question leading the singer to pick up his guitar to demonstrate.
There have since been more than 70 such encounters with artists and personalities.
“We could have one every day if we wanted,” said Scott Greenstein, SiriusXM president and chief content officer. “But we want the bar to remain fairly high.”
Sirius is influenced by Andy Warhol’s old Interview magazine in an effort to occasionally match interview subjects with other personalities. Burt Bacharach was interviewed by occasional songwriting partner Elvis Costello, Tony Bennett by Alec Baldwin, Mel Brooks by Judd Apatow and Ringo Starr by Russell Brand.
Williams had an easy familiarity with Goldberg, who sometimes needed to do little more than name the title of a movie to get Williams going.
“It’s so immediate and honest,” said David Steinberg, Williams’ manager. “When you get people together who like each other, they’re not guarded in what they talk about. It just flows.”
Steinberg, who also brought client Billy Crystal in for a town hall, watched from a control room adjacent to the glass-enclosed “fishbowl” where Williams and Goldberg sat before about a dozen Sirius subscribers. (For the record, it was a Holocaust-inspired comment 30 years ago that didn’t go over well at the German talk show.)
Williams appeared to enjoy the interaction, even as he told of one episode where his maniacally energetic comedy worked against him. He was in a Minneapolis airport one time when a fan came up to him with a two-word command: “Be zany.”
“It’s like walking up to Baryshnikov and saying, ‘Dance, little Russian boy,’” he said. “It’s like, Lincoln freed the slaves.”
Williams said when the Sirius session was done that it wasn’t as raucous as he had anticipated.
“It’s a different feeling than I thought it was going to be,” he said. “But it worked.”
For Sirius, the sessions reward subscribers along with providing original content. About 10 to 20 Sirius subscribers are chosen to participate in a town hall, a selection process that is an advertising opportunity in itself.
“It’s a very smart, discerning, now very large and credit card-bearing audience,” Greenstein said. “It’s an ideal audience for any artist.”
Sirius’ status as a promotional magnet and the fishbowl’s central location lead to some celebrity traffic jams. Members of the rock band Korn peered through the window at Williams and Goldberg, while musicians Nick Lowe and Graham Nash chatted off to the side. When Bruno Mars walked by Henry Winkler’s session, the Fonz jumped up to grab him for a mutual admiration meeting.
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