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.
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.
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.
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.