August 12, 2014

Robin Williams

Robin Williams is famous for his silly, nonstop, stream-of consciousness comedy, his wonderful voices, his loudness, but the dark edge has always been there. I had heard that Williams had been sober for decades when he relapsed a few years back, but I didn't really appreciate how low his life had gotten until I heard this interview with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast in 2010. (I haven't re-listened to it yet, but I will shortly.)
Comics are not happy or normal people. Anyone who is compelled to get onstage and tell stories is working some shit out. I think it was Jim Gaffigan who said "what people don't appreciate is, if we weren't paid, we'd still have to get up onstage every night and talk. We have to do it."
I am deeply saddened that Williams is gone. When I was a kid, Robin Williams was the definition of funny. The Garry Marshall TV empire ruled the airwaves. Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and Mork & Mindy defined and dominated TV comedy, and Williams' Mork from Ork character was on all of them. His brand of childlike, yet edgy zaniness was everywhere.
Stand-up comedians have been trying to act in feature films since they were invented, but Williams was the TV and standup superstar who made that move when I was a kid. My five favorite Williams performances:

  • Williams starred in The World According To Garp during the Mork & Mindy years, and it could not be more different. It's a quirky drama, or an especially dark comedy, or a little of both. It's a challenging story (based on the John Irving novel) but Williams is terrific, especially when seen in the context of the pure silliness of his day job on television.
  • Good Morning Vietnam is remembered for Williams' on-air monologues - I bought the soundtrack album for the monologues AND the 1960s pop music - but also I remember how Adrian Cronauer grows restless with the sanitized "news" he's required to broadcast as he comes to know the country and it's people, mirroring America's disillusionment with the war.
  • Williams won over a whole new generation of fans who never heard of Mork with a perfectly distilled dose of his comic genius as the Genie in Aladdin, the first Disney animated movie where a movie star voiced a character. Williams paved the way for many comic actors animated alter egos, most directly Mike Myers' Shrek.
  • The following year Williams starred in and co-produced Mrs Doubtfire- a perfectly executed high-concept family comedy by Chris Columbus.
  • Robin Williams is amazing in The Birdcage, mainly because he's playing the straight man to the equally brilliant Nathan Lane as his comedic spouse. It's a testament to his acting chops that he lets Nathan Lane (and everyone else in the cast) get most of the laughs while his Armand underplays the comedy.