Splitsider

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

The Manic Unpredictability of Robin Williams

By the time I got to middle school, I was pretty much a comedy geek. All the signs were there: I would sneak out into the living room and watch the comics on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, I would listen to Steve Martin’s Wild and Crazy Guy album over and over again, and while other kids my age were interested in either sports or pop music, I was obsessed by the standups who appeared on the dozens of standup comedy shows that littered basic cable at that time. However, no one quite tickled my funny bone at that time as much as Robin Williams.

This was at a time when the cable channel Nick at Nite aired old Mork and Mindy episodes every night of the week. There is no question why Williams’ irreverent, naïve, and wacky Mork would appeal to an awkward 12 year old and at that time, Robin Williams was practically a god to me. It wasn’t just that he was funny, but he was fearless. He was not afraid to be foolish, but in that foolishness was a kind of wisdom and sensitivity that was more powerful than brute force. I saw in his frenetic energy and wacky hijinks a fearlessness that I hoped to emulate one day.

I suspect that a lot of people my age, especially those who have chosen standup comedy as a career or at the very least dabbled in it, felt the same way about Robin Williams at a certain time in their lives. The looming prospect of adulthood was scary as hell, but knowing that a grown-up as silly as Robin Williams was out there and seemingly doing okay made everything seem a bit more manageable. Imagine being twelve years old and seeing this (although feel free to skip past the baffling opening sequence):

This is from the standup special Night at the Roxy, and in this special it's easy to see why Williams rocketed to stardom. (Splitsider contributor Ramsey Ess wrote a terrific article about the special here). The show is seemingly fully improvised and we see Williams literally climbing the rafters with a dogged determination to entertain.

During Colin Quinn’s keynote speech at this year’s Montreal Just for Laughs Festival Quinn said comics need to “move around.” Granted, he wasn’t necessarily talking about the extent to which Williams moves around on stage, but there's something to be said about performance chops and Williams’ is on full display here. He takes his act to places so strange, that at one point he completely loses the packed house, but within seconds he brings them back. It is a truly amazing standup show and the enthusiasm that Williams engenders is palpable.

However, the traits that have turned die-hard comedy fans off of Williams are on display as well. At one point, while literally perched on the side of the balcony, he makes a Lincoln box seats joke. The thrilling aspect of improvised comedy is that anything can happen, however often the first joke that pops in someone’s head is usually not the most original.

The improvisational nature of Robin Williams as a comedian is at the crux of why he is not held in higher regard within the comedy community. Certainly, he's a legend to those in the mainstream, but to those of us who obsess over standup, his reputation is shakier. We’re like magicians trying to figure out what Williams has up his sleeve: are they well-performed tricks or is he really magic?

At the heart of these suspicions are the allegations of joke theft that have dogged Williams for years. Williams was able to address these rumors during his appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF. While Williams admitted that there were times a joke he heard from another comic would come out during one of his largely improvised sets, he never intentionally set out to steal material and when confronted about it, he would quickly write his accuser a check. His intermittent acts of joke theft always seemed pretty inadvertent and lacked the mercenary feel of a Carlos Mencia.

Most of these rumors spring from Robin Williams’s heyday as a regular at the comedy clubs of late 1970s Los Angeles and Williams says he makes it a point to avoid the sets of most comics, other than his close friends, in an effort to prevent any further charges of joke theft.

However, as dynamic a performer as Williams is, he does have a tendency to rely on predictable jokes and tired accents as a standup (I am pretty sure Robin Williams has not heard a black person speak since 1977). And honestly, that's okay. One of the secrets to Robin Williams’s success is that he is incredibly animated and is such a force of nature that the damnable thing about this is we laugh at these jokes in spite of ourselves.

The other interesting thing about Robin Williams is that he still seems interested in comedy, even after almost forty years as a standup. Williams is at a point where he really does not need to engage with audiences in a way that obscure comedians need to, yet Williams still pops up in web series like Matt Oswalt and Eddie Pepitone’s Puddin’ Strips:

And Robin Williams was on episode 67 of WTF. The show was still a cult oddity at that point and Maron commanded none of the cache that he currently enjoys, yet Williams did the show because deep in his soul, he is just as much a comedy nerd as any of us. Robin Williams simply enjoys comedy. Look, I know, that seems like a stupid thing to say about a someone who makes a living as a standup comic, but the sad fact is, most people get into standup comedy as a stepping stone to something else and once they get there, rarely look back.

Perhaps most telling was Williams' appearance on Troy Conrad and Paul Provenza’s Setlist, in which comedians from all over the world are given subjects while on stage, and improvise stand-up sets on the spot.

It's through improvised sets that Robin Williams really shines. While he is able to sell his prepared standup material masterfully, it is in moments like these that we find the dangerous performer from the Live at the Roxy. He paints himself into a corner and it looks like he won't be able to get out, but then at the last possible moment, he pulls out a great punch line to the bit. He does this with a reckless abandon and never pauses for introspection or self-doubt. Or at least, that is how he makes it look. Maybe he is magic.

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  • Si

    Justin, these articles are perhaps the ones I love to hate reading. And I must imagine at times these are articles you hate to love writing. In this article, I respect your ability to convince me to give Williams a bit more credit than I previously gave.

    • Justin Gray

      Thanks! And yes, these articles can, at times, be…challenging.

  • Dan F.

    Based on the wide range of comics you’re profiling, I’m beginning to think
    “begrudging respect” isn’t the most apt name for this series. But I do love the site and that you recognize that comedy and comedians existed before George Carlin and "Animal House."

  • souvien

    Good gawd the man was hilarious when he started…to see him on Carson was such a blast…but now it is just so hard to forgive Williams the craptitude of stuff like "Patch Adams"…moreover, it's gotten to the point that seeing his name as a guest on Letterman etc is wince inducing…the same old tired accents and antics…strangely, much like his idol Jonathan Winters, the act just stopped being funny…

  • amyblue

    Agree totally with the article, he is still a comic of merit and enthusiasm but he is at his weakest with pre-prepared material and rehashed public domain content rather than a loose chain of thought or full on improv. His Weapons of Mass Distraction dvd was most noteable for the ridiculous amount of sweat he was producing throughout the show, utterly grim! However, A Night at the Met should be a 101 masterclass for how to make an hour's set fly by for the audience as it is pure genius. I still have an immense amount of non-grudging respect for the guy and the moments he dispays it are still worth the time and price of admission.