Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Last thoughts about Robin Williams

Saddened as I am by the suicide of Robin Williams, I have to admit I lost interest in his work early in his career. He first caught my attention as Mork, not in his own series, but in the fantasy episode of "Happy Days.” I forget when I first saw it. I was studying abroad in February 1978, when, according to Wiki, it first aired, but I was home by the end of August, and I must have caught in a rerun. I remember thinking, who is this guy? I had no idea, but he was hilarious.

I was an instant fan when “Mork and Mindy” premiered. I don’t recall ever laughing as hard as I did during the show’s first hour. The bits that come easily to mind thirty years later were Mork’s attempt to free the eggs, and his imitation of Spencer Tracy in “Inherit the Wind.” These were the days when I harbored the pipedream, like on of O’Neill’s drunks, of being a comic, and Williams quickly became a hero, a model that could never be successfully copied.

The novelty of a show like Mork and Mindy wears off quickly, however, and the series faded rapidly after its first season. Even Jonathan Winters couldn't save it. After the show was canceled, Williams never reached those early heights again. The albums were a disappointment, They contained some brilliant bits (Elmer Fudd sings Bruce Springsteen), but those were few and far between, and separated by uninspired hyperactivity (Shake Hands with Mr. Happy). The jokes that lay beneath the mania were often no better than the kind of one-liners Bob Hope put out, and as with any performer who relies on improvisation, Williams seemed to spin his wheels for long periods while inspiration to strike. The comedy didn't build. Instead, he went from peak to peak, slogging through some pretty deep troughs. He wasn't as consistently funny as those comedians, like Steve Martin, George Carlin, or Woody Allen, who wrote and structured their routines.

It was Williams who made me realize that even the greatest comedians are truly funny only about half the time. The Marx Brothers, long my favorites, peaked with “A Night at the Opera” and limped along repeating themselves for another fifteen years. Woody Allen and Steve Martin abandoned standup for the movies, and Martin finally gave up the movies for music. Even Jonathan Winters, Williams’ own hero, was often more clever than funny. He never made a great movie, or even gave a great performance in one. Williams had a better record on that score, at least, since he was willing to branch out into serious acting. He kept working, and by most standards, enjoyed the kind of success that makes his suicide all the more puzzling.

But depression is not a rational process. Robin Williams didn’t sit up on the last night of his life weighing the pros and cons of his existence. At that point the pain was too much, and he knew only one way to make it stop.

1 comment:

Cal said...

I agree that he became antic instead of funny after a while, but I think one of the things that made him different from other entertainers and other people was the combination of audacity and vulnerability that he let everyone see. I've been watching clips of him since he died and have been struck by the presence of both qualities in almost every instance.