Sunday, August 17, 2014

Catching Up with Robin Williams

Regular visitors to this site may be wondering why I'm calling this piece "Catching Up with Robin Williams" instead of "In Memoriam: Robin Williams 1951-2014". Well, whenever I do something with an "In Memoriam" in front of it, it's because I'm either a fan of that person's work (such as Lauren Bacall's; she's next on my list), or he or she piqued my interest to a significant degree. I was never a fan of Robin Williams, and with the exception of an early appearance of his, an appearance that in retrospect sent him on his way toward fame, and I would imagine, fortune, he never really piqued my interest to a significant degree. Why didn't he? I've been forced to ask myself that question since hearing of his death a few days ago.

I guess some of it has to do with the moment Williams first hit it big, in the late 1970s when I was in high school. I remember reading something in a newspaper or magazine comparing him to Steve Martin, who had himself first hit it big maybe a year earlier. The two comics were considered wild or zany or off-the-wall or over-the-top, that kind of thing. Now, at the time I was a huge Martin fan--I still have all three of his comedy albums from that period--and took umbrage at this comparison. How dare they say Robin Williams is as funny as Steve Martin! Well, they didn't actually say he was as funny, only as wild, but that's how I took it anyway. A short while later, there was a comparison made between Williams and Jonathan Winters. That made a little more sense. Wildness aside, there was more of a similarity between the comics stylings of Willaims and Winters than Williams and Martin. Nevertheless, I took umbrage anyway. I had been a fan of Jonathan Winters since the sixth or seventh grade when his half-hour syndicated comedy show The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters--anybody remember it?--was shown in Cleveland on either Saturday or Sunday in the late afternoon. How dare they say Robin Williams is as funny as Jonathan Winters! Finally, I read another newspaper or magazine comparing Williams to Jerry Lewis, who I had become a fan of in the first grade, possibly kindergarten. I was plopped in front of the TV one early evening--it had to be early evening because I don't believe I was allowed up past 9:00 PM at that young an age--and there Jerry was, making funny faces, funny sounds, and funny movements. I was hooked. By the time Williams hit it big, I had pretty much moved on from Lewis. Nevertheless, I trace my lifelong love of humor to the funny faces, sounds, and movements he made on that long-ago show (which I found out later got poor ratings and was canceled after a single season; I may have been the only one watching.) So I took umbrage. How dare they say Robin Williams is as funny as Jerry Lewis! Umbrage x 3, and yer out! Back to the bench, Williams. Blame it all on the newspaper and magazine writers and their damn comparisons!

Robin Williams chief virtue as a stand-up comedian was his amazing speed. No one, absolutely no one, could switch from one comic routine to another faster than Williams. In under a minute he might go from William F. Buckley to Bela Lugosi to a redneck sheriff to a French intellectual without missing a beat, or a dialect. Williams hiccuped voices and personas and sound effects all the while twitching his face an body into different positions like a weather vane in a hurricane. Tourette syndrome played for laughs. Williams not only tickled your funny bone but attention span, too.

It's where he got the feathers that bothers me. Did you know that at LA comedy clubs some comics would refuse to come out on stage if they knew Williams was in the audience? Seems he had a reputation for stealing jokes. I saw this first hand in the 1980s when he and Billy Crystal were on Oprah  plugging their HBO special Comic Relief, a benefit show to help the homeless. I have to admit that by merely sitting next to Crystal, Williams seemed like the funniest man in the world that particular afternoon, but that's not why I'm bringing this up. Crystal told a joke, one that I can no longer remember the setup or punchline, so I probably didn't find it all that funny, but Williams apparently thought it had promise because a mere ten minutes later, he told the exact same joke! Crystal was outraged: "Robin, I just said that!" He may also been a bit embarrassed that it got a bigger laugh the second time around. Shows you how much audiences pay attention. To be fair to Williams, who didn't seem to realize Crystal had just told the same joke, this is a common problem among writers. While reading something they come across a nice turn of phrase, maybe even a clever plot twist, take note of it, file it away in their memory, with no intention of using it themselves. Over time--months, sometimes years--it becomes so embedded in the brain, their subconscious, that the author forgets where it came from, forgets that it originated outside their own mind, deciding instead that the turn of phrase or plot twist was a gift from their own private muse, for their own public use, and before you know it, before they knew it--PLAGIARISM! Perhaps that's what happened to Williams in regard to Crystal's joke, though in this instance it took all of ten minutes for it to become embedded in his subconscious.

 Now, stealing a joke isn't something that would necessarily turn me off to a comedian. I liked Milton Berle growing up, even after I found out he was accused of filching material early in his career. When critics (and fellow comedians) began calling him on it, Berle courageously owned up to his misconduct, and then incorporated his tarnished reputation into his act! "I never stole a joke in my life. I just find them before they're lost." The difference between Williams and Berle, however, is the latter was never lauded for his improvisational skills. Much easier to improvise if someone else came up with the joke.

  Well, if Williams pilfered jokes, at least he pilfered some very good ones, didn't he? Maybe, maybe not. I wonder if people would have found him all that funny if he had slowed down a bit. Certainly not the funniest man they ever saw in their lives.  I don't think they'd find him to be all that unique or original. A joke told by Williams could be told by anyone, including Billy Crystal on Oprah. You can't say that about Rodney Dangerfield. Though he occasionally paid writers to come up with material for him (which I don't have a problem with), any joke coming out of Dangerfield's mouth could only come out of Dangerfield's mouth, as they were tailored to suit his persona. Williams had no persona other than sheer velocity. He had no point of view or way of looking at the world. All the great comedians had themes they returned to again and again. Bill Cosby's theme was childhood, Steve Martin inverted logic, Rodney Dangerfield humiliation, Jerry Seinfeld minutia, Richard Pryor race relations,  Bob Hope current events, Phyllis Diller domesticity, Redd Foxx raunch, Bob Newhart modernity, Jackie Mason assimilation, Sandra Bernhard pop culture, Jack Benny stinginess, Woody Allen neurosis, Kathy Griffin the cult of celebrity, George Carlin language, Margaret Cho ethnicity, Bill Maher politics, Lily Tomlin womanhood, Don Rickles nonconstructive criticism, Susan Silverman stereotypes, Jonathan Winters eccentricity, and Chris Rock post-Richard Pryor era race relations. Robin Williams had no theme, just sheer acceleration.

  Now, the absence of a theme doesn't necessarily turn me off to a comedian. Way back in the '70s there was a comic I liked by the name of John Byner. I don't recall him having a particular theme, but I found him funny anyway. It's a shame that he's kind of sunk into obscurity (I looked it up; he's still alive.) Nor does a comedian have to be unique or original in order for me to enjoy their work. I used to enjoy Jack Carter, for crissakes! His act was no different than the 1000 other Borsht Belt comics who once pervaded the TV screen, but I found him funny anyway. It's also a shame that Carter has kind of sunk into obscurity (he's still alive, too.) So why am I taking a harder line of Robin Williams than either Byner or Carter, even if the latter two have the same shortcomings? Byner and Carter, unlike Williams, were never hailed as comic geniuses, and I'm not hailing them as that now. Because if your going to hail someone as a comic genius, the bar should be set pretty damn high. In my opinion, it was set unacceptably low for Williams.

His speed also made Williams a less generous performer, although, like the joke thievery, it may have been unconscious and unintentional on his part. Earlier I mentioned the various comedians he was compared to, none more so than Jonathan Winters. Now, if there's anyone who was a comedy genius, it was Winters. Not only didn't he steal from other comedians, he didn't steal from himself. It's said that when performing in front of an audience, he never told the same joke twice. His improvisational skills were legendary. A frequent guest on Jack Paar's popular late '50s-early '60s late-night talk show, Winter would be handed an object like a pen or a rope, and, with no preparation and not knowing what the object would be ahead of time, turn it into a comedy routine. An original comedy routine. Just about every character Robin Williams portrayed had been done by someone else, be it Rich Little, Harvey Korman, or Dan Ackroyd. I'm not talking about actual stealing this time, just comic stereotypes and impersonations nobody could legally "own". Jonathan Winter created comedy characters nobody had ever seen before. Small town rubes may have always been tropes of comedy but none like Elwood P. Suggins, who once said "I think eggs 24 hours a day." Then there's his most famous character, the sometimes cranky, sometimes horny old lady Maude Frickett, who once said of her attacker, "He had sunglasses on, he wasn't blind, it was midnight, dark outside, he was ashamed of himself." Those aren't really jokes in the setup-punchline sense. You had to hear Winters talk, breathe life into these oddly believable characters, characters who had no clue just how funny they really were.

Because Winters was thought to have influenced Williams, the two often appeared together on TV. In fact, Winters was added to the cast of the fourth and, as it turned out, final season of the sitcom that made Williams famous, Mork and Mindy, as the title characters alien offspring, Mearth. A man close to 60 playing a toddler (part-Orkian, he aged backwards) could have been disasterious, but Winters made the character believable and even invested him with a bit if dignity. At least, it wasn't any less believable or less dignified than anything else on that supremely silly sitcom. Since both comedians were expected to stay in character, you couldn't directly compare their improvisational skills. The opportunity afforded itself a few years later when both were guests on Johnny Carson.

Or it should have afforded the opportunity. Winters was quick, but not as quick as Williams, for a very simple reason. Winters had to take time to think, whereas Williams only had to remember. The younger comedian simply wouldn't let the older comedian get a joke in edgewise. Winters gags were gagged, you might say. All Williams had to do was spit out some routine he had said before, or heard at a comedy club before, or that Billy Crystal had said on Oprah before. And he spit out and spit out and spit out and then spit out some more. Some weren't even jokes, just a different voice every split second. Williams at one point even clutched Winters jacket as he dropped a barrage of buffoonery upon him. The only weapon the older comic had to defend himself with was his wit, and, alas, that took too long to reload. I wanted to pick up the TV and scream, "LET JONATHAN TALK, GODDAMMIT! Carson broke for a commercial, after which another guest was introduced and became the focus of attention. Winters was a good sport about the whole thing, smiling and patting Williams on the shoulder, but I was incensed. And Ed McMahon didn't help matters any by laughing uproariously throughout the whole thing. With time, however, I got over it.

OK, so now you know why I'm not a Robin Williams fan. None of what I just told you, however, should be taken to mean I disliked Williams. In fact, I thought he was, you know, OK. There were times I did laugh at him. Times I did enjoy watching him. So, in the spirit of reconciliation, I'm going to share six of those times with you now:

Happy Days (1978) When I said earlier that Williams had once piqued my interest (though, as it turned out, not to a significant degree), the episode where he introduced the character of Mork was what I was talking about. Even given that this was the pre-cable era when everybody pretty much watched the same thing, the show still caused quite a stir when it first aired. I remember it was all the kids could talk about at school the next day. The teachers didn't mind. It's all they could talk about, too. Though the alien visitation was supposed to have all taken place in Richie Cunningham's dream, ratings dictated the Orkian get his own series. Mork and Mindy was also immensely popular its first season, boosting Robin Williams to stardom. I myself, however, lost interest fairly quickly. It's not that Williams was playing Mork any differently. Well, I guess on his own show he was less menacing, a bit more lovable. Remember, on the Happy Days episode, he had tried to abduct Richie. He never tried to abduct Mindy. Just moved in with her, that's all. So maybe I found the darker Mork funnier. The real problem, though, had to do with the woman who played Mindy, Pam Dawber. She was a competent enough actress, but the more comically theatrical Williams got, the more she became just a part of the set. Williams had no one to bounce off of, which was fine for a lot of people but not me. Whereas on the Happy Days episode, he played opposite one of the great, unheralded straight men of 1970s television, Ron Howard. What worked for Henry Winkler, worked for Robin Williams, too.

Popeye (1980) Well, this was certainly different. One of the world's most beloved cartoon characters  given the cinéma vérité treatment. Interesting experiment on director Robert Altman's part, but a movie where an infant accurately predicts horse races, and a sailor single-handedly defeats a giant octopus and then dances on water to celebrate really doesn't require overlapping dialogue, natural lighting, smoky lenses, and shaky camera work. Altman may have been trying to subvert the children's musical, but just ended up subverting his own trademark style. All of which may be why the film flopped at the box office, which is a shame because Robin Williams IS Popeye! I don't think he's ever completely disappeared into a role as he did this one. Granted he's under a ton of makeup, but he's got the comic swagger and mumbling down perfect, as if he just walked out of a 1935 Max Fleischer cartoon.

The Survivors (1983) An uneven satire of the economic paranoia then gripping the country (not like today, huh?), it's the tale of two city dwellers, played by Williams and Walter Matthau, who lose their livelihoods, get mixed up with a boisterous holdup man, and end up in a rural survivalist camp. Directed by Michael Ritchie (The Candidate, Smile, The Bad News Bears) the film, while no classic, is a good-natured enough romp, despite its dark subject matter. Maybe because of the dark subject matter, as it reminds recession-hardened moviegoers, by way of some rather broad humor, that it's better to laugh than to cry. The times might just be right to give this film another look. Even if the times are wrong, watch it anyway for the two stars, whom I think make a pretty good team, Matthau's droll grumpiness a nice contrast to Williams manic bumbling. The funniest performance, though, really belongs to a man better known as a country singer than a comic actor, Jerry Reed, as a crook who claims to have offed Jimmy Hoffa.

Aladdin (1992) Though a Walt Disney production, this really plays like something Chuck Jones would have directed at Warner Brothers in the 1950s had he been allowed to helm a full-length Arabian Knights Loony Tunes cartoon. Watching it, I half-expected to see Porky Pig pop his head out of a drum at the end. Actually, it's directed by the duo of Ron Clements and John Musker, whom I'm sure spent more of their childhood watching The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show than The Wonderful World of Disney. Now, you don't have Mel Blanc doing the vocal characterizations but the next best thing, Robin Williams. Actually, his rapid voice changes here is not all that different from his stand-up routine. I guess I just find Williams shtick a lot funnier when it's coming out of the mouth of a big, blue cartoon genie. And unlike when he did that kind of thing on Mork and Mindy, it actually makes thematic sense here. The genie's predicament is so absurd (godlike powers but still has to kowtow to others) that he would of course use humor as a coping device. Gilbert Gottfried as Iago the parrot is also a hoot. Oops, wrong bird sound.

The Birdcage (1996) Williams is funny, but not nearly as funny as Nathan Lane in director Mike Nichol's and screenwriter Elaine May's remake of the 1978 French comedy of gay and hetero manners, La Cage aux Folles. Indeed, Lane is so hilarious at times that Williams comes across as more of a straight man, so to speak. Off-screen, Williams is said to have been a strong supporter of LGBT rights, and that's certainly to his credit.

The Fisher King (1991) Sorry to go out of chronological order, but I wanted to save this one for last. Jeff Bridges is a Howard Stern-like shock jock on the brink of national stardom when he unintentionally provokes a psycho caller into shooting up a restaurant. Plagued by guilt, he turns his back on his career, becomes a drunk, and gets a job at a video store run by Mercedes Ruehl. So you see, it wasn't Netflix that put all those places out of business but alcoholic employees. Probably had all the videos in the wrong cases. But I digress. During a drunken bender capped by an attempted suicide, Bridges meets a not-quite-sane-but-not-quite-insane homeless man who witnessed his wife get killed in the restaurant massacre. Bridges, Ruehl, and Amanda Plummer as a shy girl who is fixed up with the homeless guy (this is before the advent of on-line dating) turn in some fine performances. Director Terry Gilliam, known for his trademark visuals, proves that a movie need not be science-fiction or fantasy in order to have some truly dazzling imagery. But we're not here to discuss Bridges, Ruehl, Plummer, and Gilliam, are we? Let me assure you that Robin Williams as the homeless guy is quite good, too. The movie's not really a comedy, and William's character has some serious problems, but he constantly cracks jokes anyways. In fact, humor in a non-humorous setting was kind of William's forte when making movies. Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, Good Morning Vietnam, Patch Adams. Dramas that make you laugh. I don't know that anyone but a drama student at the prestigious Julliard School--John Housman was one of Williams professors--who then found work not on Broadway but at comedy clubs in Los Angeles could have played such roles convincingly. Williams made many movies in the last 30 years, and by this late date he may be better known as a film actor than a stand-up comedian, which I prefer, actually.

There you have it. Six Robin Williams performances I enjoyed. That's not to say these are the only performances I enjoyed, just the six that comes most immediately to mind. I'm sure there were others, maybe films even more well-known than The Survivors.

I may have just caught Robin Williams at the wrong time. Had circumstances been different, I might have indeed been a fan of his work. It's possible I just didn't give him a chance.

All I ask, Robin, is that you just don't interrupt.



  1. Next time wait a month or two before bashing a guy that just took his own life and that most everyone ELSE enjoyed....makes you look like less of a jerk.

    1. Well, anonymous, I never even mentioned his suicide because I didn't think it was relevant. This post was about his career, his professional life, which I consider fair game. And I said nice things about him, too, so I hardly consider it bashing. I'm well aware everybody else enjoyed him, but that doesn't mean I can't have a contrary opinion. Either that or LIE and pretend he was my favorite comedian. Really, if this is the worst hatchet job you ever read on the Internet, about Williams or anybody else, you must have first come online a week ago.

  2. Anonymous, everyone has their opinion and I must say Kirk was talking about his career as every other person on the internet was. One talks about people when they are in the news. I didn't read any of the twitters and reviews, I didn't need to.
    BUT, I will read Kirk's post on people of interest any day ! And we do not agree on everything. But I will still read a post by him any day.

    And if you thought this was a hatchet job I hope you never meet my X.

    Kirk, I have to say that I agree with much of what you said. I found Robin to kinetic for me. I liked him for very short bursts.
    I enjoyed everyone you talked about especially Jonathan Winters and Steve Martin. I still laugh at "The Two Wild and Crazy Guys"
    I also grew up with The Borsch Belt comedians. (I liked them) And I always like John Byner. I think he was a "movie funnyman' and people just didn't know what to do with him.
    I think Aladdin was my favorite movie of his. In several of his movies he came
    across very believably mean. I despised Mrs. Doubtfire. Maybe I am reading to much into these parts.

    Great post as always.

    cheers, parsnip

  3. Thank you for your kind words, parsnip.

    Laughed out loud over the mention of your ex.

  4. That was, IMO, one of the better reads about Williams I have come across.
    I always found I appreciated the darker side of his acting than his comedy and I totally agree with you on his speed being his gift,
    Every time I read something you write I learn something and I like that. There are so many things you could have covered but you wrote about your impression of him as opposed to just following his life/career from beginning to that moment we all found out about his death and then about his death...

    I liked your take on it all. I suppose because I agree with you as well. He was funny, but not my favorite.
    I really liked your breakdown of other comedians and what they tend to focus on.
    I like funny, but I haven't paid close attention to any particular comedians craft. I just like to laugh.
    What I like most about comedians is their ability to infuse humor into uncomfortable truths. The laughter with that feeling that makes a person sort of squirm inside, or cringe knowing the joke is close to home. There were many times a comedian helped me process some truth in my life.
    I'm not sure Robin Williams ever did that for me. That's why I liked his more dramatic roles, his non-funny characters.

    Anyway, thanks for a good read.

  5. Thank you, Akeru.

    I have to admit I have a more traditional birth-to-death post coming up about a different personality.

  6. Interesting coverage of Robin. I was delighted to read how much you liked John Byner. I used to love his Mr. Fossadidi character and was disappointed when he didn't include him in interviews.

  7. I was just watching some John Byner on YouTube, Kass. He really was funny, and his comedy was even more high-concept, somewhat more abstract, than even I remember. Why he never got that big is a bit of a mystery. I know he got lumped in with Rich Little and Fred Travelina as just another impressionist. But Little and Travelina just got the voices down pat and added one-liners. Byner took a more satirical approach. I think he just got stuck on the wrong side of the comedy divide. He was pre-Saturday Night Live, and his humor as "old comedy" simply because he had got his start on shows like Ed Sullivan (whom he did a killer imitation of.) But I think his humor was edgier, more off-the-wall than people remember. He maybe was born just a few years too early.

    1. I said in my post that I wasn't hailing Byner as a comic genius, but after watching his stuff on YouTube, he was closer than a lot of other comedians that get that label.