A Young Robin Williams Kills, Then Bombs, Then Kills Again
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Depending on who you ask, Robin Williams has a reputation. To some he’s an unsurpassed comedic genius. To others, he’s that guy who was in Patch Adams and Mrs. Doubtfire. And then there’s the modern comedy nerd. If you ask them, they might say Robin is a guy who has made a career out of the same rehearsed “improv” sets, the same Latino guy/gay guy/tribal African voices, and he may or may not be a notorious joke thief. It was with this baggage that I sat down to watch Robin Williams’ first recorded stand-up special, On Location: Robin Williams – Off the Wall, where I saw many of these criticisms rebuked and some confirmed.
The special originally aired on October 27, 1978 on the new-ish channel HBO as part of their series of uncensored stand-up comedy specials (we looked at Steve Martin’s On Location special not too long ago). Williams’ special begins with a spoof of the game show To Tell the Truth in which Williams portrays the three contestants, the three panelists, and the host. I pride myself on my ability to provide context for references like this in these articles, but I must confess: this little piece has me flummoxed. In this short sketch, the contestants are each named Robin Williams and each of them has a different personae (Southern guy, Indian accent guy, etc.) but either the reference is so specific to the game show that I’m not getting it or I’m over thinking what might just be a creative way to introduce one’s comedy special. Regardless, the sketch is followed by the series’ super seventies theme song that I love so very much.
As the stand-up portion begins, Robin stands in his dressing room with his shaggy Mork from Ork hairdo and his suspenders. He’s holding a handful of props, and he looks nervous: he stands as he waits to be introduced and he gazes down at the floor with a blank expression, except for the slight smile he’s probably putting on for the camera. But as soon as he enters Los Angeles’ Roxy Theater from the back of the room so he has to walk through the crowd, it’s showtime. That mile a minute, stream of consciousness style you may have seen him do in his more recent HBO specials was still in full force way back in 1978. However, the difference here is that the improvised aspect of it feels genuine. The performance of a Robin Williams that you see in, for example, his 2002 Live on Broadway special, feels less “stream of consciousness” and more “seasoned comedian presenting nuggets from a dense mental catalogue of jokes.” In the 1978 special we see Robin abort bits in the middle of sentences, or start to tell a joke only to realize that he needs that as a closer later on, or getting a napkin to mop his brow only to realize it’ll be funnier if he implies someone wrote their phone number on it for him as he shoves it into his pocket, his brow remaining unmopped.
Throughout the special there are a number of low-tech costume changes in which Williams jumps behind the stage, still talking to the crowd, and then emerges in a cap, or with glasses, to portray different characters which today seem an awful lot like they would be assigned the dreaded label of prop comedy. The first of these, and the most jarring for me, comes when Robin emerges with dark sunglasses and a hat, playing the harmonica and singing in a gravely voice, not dissimilar from his Popeye impression from the Altman movie he would later star in. Suddenly, an off-screen pianist is playing a jazzy chord progression beneath him as Robin sings the Beverly Hills Blues (“woke up the other day/ Ran out of Perrier…”). But the most interesting thing about this special, for me, is the vulnerability of Williams throughout.
Right off the bat as Williams enters the crowd loves him. Many of them no doubt recognize him as that guy from TV, with this special being recorded at a time at when Mork and Mindy was at its peak. Once he (literally) jumps right into it at his frenetic pace, with his drug humor and penis joke opener, he’s got them. They’ll follow him anywhere he goes, and that just happens to be into the crowd, by climbing the balcony. “Sanctuary!” he cries as Quasimodo, then “Nice booth, huh, Mr. Lincoln?” It’s punchline after punchline, and if I haven’t made my point already, the man is killing.
Then the momentum slows a bit. The aforementioned blues character does well, thanks in part to the fact that Robin can actually play the harmonica pretty well. Then there’s a televangelist character by the name of Ernest Lee Sincere who heals a few audience members, and an interpretive ballet demonstrating the death of a sperm. Then Mr. Rogers, the fourth character in 10 minutes appears and Robin stops mid-sentence. He drops the character and says, “Oh no. I’ve lost you. I’ve gone too far, too early, too quick. I’m in the land where nothing’s funny now.” Moving with as much energy as he has been it would be easy for a performer to get too focused on what he’s going to do next, but it’s evident that he’s reading the pulse of the crowd perfectly. With that line, he’s won the crowd back, having acknowledged their feelings, and he’s back in their good graces.
But it doesn’t stick. He starts to do an improvised Shakespearian scene, changes his mind and brings an audience member on stage in a bit that falls on its face when that guy tries to be funny too, and then goes back to Shakespeare. Robin, who studied acting at Juilliard, improvises a scene in the style of Shakespeare taking place in Los Angeles where he acknowledges his success on a corporate sit-com (“TV or not TV? Whether ’tis nobler to do crazy shit at 8 o’clock…”) and prays to the god of Nielsen. How much he’s actually making up on stage and how much he’s done in nightclubs before I can’t say, but this piece actually impressed me, and it seemed like an excellent showcase for the quick wit he’s famous for. The audience, on the other hand is not so into this piece, and so Robin again acknowledges it. He assumes the role of the air traffic controller in his brain that is now taking evasive maneuvers to right the situation. He references his past work on Laugh-In, he searches childhood memories in which he is dropped on his head, he scans his brain for material that’s worked in the past, and he releases his subconscious mind who flips the audience the double-bird and shouts “Fuck you! What do you want from me anyway?!” The crowd explodes, and Robin’s got them back for good.
From here on out, there are a few more characters (including an old man who tells the audience that it’s better to be crazy because the government can’t handle madness. It’s a slow-moving, quiet piece in which Robin really uses his acting chops and it kills. When he goes off-stage to take off his coat and glasses the audience gives him a standing ovation.), and a little more crowd interaction (someone in the crowd yells “Do Mork!” and Robin reacts violently, making a cross with his fingers and saying “NO! None of that now! I have to do that five days a week!”), but ultimately it kind of feels like Robin isn’t sure how to fill the time. With 15 minutes left in the special he does what feels like a closing by giving a toast to the audience, and the piano vamps as we see Tony Danza and Henry Winkler in the audience, applauding wildly. When Robin comes back out he calls John Ritter up out of the crowd to improvise with him. This was clearly unplanned as Ritter is without a microphone for the remainder of the program, making him difficult to hear, as the two play some classic, Second City-style short-form improv games before time is up and Robin takes a bow for a satisfied crowd.
As the show ends, the camera once again follows Robin back to his dressing room. He’s quiet, and once again calm as he discusses with someone off camera about how much fun he had improvising with Ritter. He takes a moment, reflecting before saying, “That was fun. That was real people.” And the show is over. Whatever opinion you hold about Robin Williams, as clichéd as it might sound, this special is evidence that the man has talent. It’s astounding how in touch he is with the audience, an audience that might just be there because that funny alien guy from Happy Days is performing. This isn’t the Robin Williams: Megastar of today; Williams had to work to get the crowd on his side, and when he gets them there, he genuinely earned it. I can’t think of any other performer with a special like this that shows the process as nakedly, and if for no other reason, because of that I’m going the “Robin Williams is a comic genius” route.