Monday, August 11, 2014

O Captain, My Captain: Robin Williams (1951-2014)

I watched this show religiously for Mork's antics.
Bonus: I had a thing for Pam Dawber, too.
If you were in grade school in the late seventies/early eighties and your name was Mark, and if you happened to be the class clown, then you were "Mork" until middle school.

Robin Williams was my first comedian. "Mine" in the sense that I took ownership of him. Sure, I listened to my mother's comedy albums (Kids: Google "album"): Lily Tomlin, Flip Wilson, and especially Bill Cosby. Great stuff, all, and very funny. But Robin Williams was the comedian that I discovered myself, first on Happy Days and then in Mork & Mindy. My god, he was funny. I don't know if the act holds up, but at the time, there was nothing like him to be found anywhere else.

Because of Williams' performance as Mork (and mostly any other comedy role he ever took) I learned about improvisation, the art of the ad-lib, and best of all, he re-introduced the world to Jonathan Winters.

I was fascinated by him. That stream of consciousness babble of ideas, each one spilling out on top of one another... Of course, later, I found out that was the cocaine talking, but even when he quit doing blow, he was whip smart, and his observations were sharp and funny.

Over the years, his vast movie career has been a series of ups and downs. Lord knows, I haven't liked everything he ever did (Kids: Google "Hook"), but it's only because when he was on, he was brilliant. It made the lame projects stand out in sharp relief.

Some of the movie is very good. Loved the boxing scene.
I kind of want to talk about Popeye right now. I know not everyone liked it, and it lacks, well, a lot in terms of what people were expecting to see. But as far as recreating Thimble Theater (E.C. Segar's strip in which Popeye appeared) goes, it was pretty good. For recreating the Famous Studios cartoons where Bluto is always grabbing Olive and saying, "Hey Doll, Howzabout a Kiss?" the movie was a flop. However, when I'm in the right mood, I love the movie. The art direction is brilliant, the characterizations are fantastic, and to my chagrin, I even like the songs. Mind you, if you ever ask me my favorite comic book movies, it will never be on the list. When I watch it, it's because I'm feeling nostalgic for the early 1980s.

So much of how I approached being funny was tied up in trying to figure out what made Robin Williams tick. Dropping instantly in and out of character and being able to sell a bit onstage are about as far as I got. No one put stuff together like him. His timing, along with his ability to economically cut out everything that didn't look like the joke, was his singular gift.

I was there for all of it. His HBO specials, his early critical acclaim, his later critical acclaim, his transition to elder statesman, all of it. I hated it when I didn't like a movie he was in, or the film was bad, or whatever. I wanted to like everything he did. And looking over his incredible resume, I liked way more than I didn't like, and you can't ever say that a .500 batting average is a bad thing.

Mime Jerry, from the Cult Classic Shakes the Clown.
These smaller, art house movies he did with Bobcat
Goldthwait and others are among my favorite things he
ever did. You must watch World's Greatest Dad.
In the back of our minds, I think we all knew there was something wrong; he was laughing to keep from crying. We could certainly see it in his sobering film roles, or the occasional interview where he's not climbing over the furniture. That razor sharp observational humor cut both ways, and sometimes, you'd see it nick a wrist. I've seen a lot of references to the old joke with the punchline, "But Doctor, I AM Pagliacci," and I think that's apt, and sadly, very prescient for a lot of performers, writers, and actors. Some people need the energy to thrive, and some need the energy to just keep their heads up.

I don't know about all of that, really; it's pure conjecture, and I don't know that we'll ever really know the whole story. I don't know if I want to. In the last few years, I had noticed when he had a heart attack, got divorced, and then very recently, went back to rehab. Those things were happening a little too close together, and I was actually saddened and concerned. Then this. It feels like someone just slammed the door on my childhood. I never met the man, but he's a part of my humorous DNA.

I hate that he felt he was out of options. I don't know if anyone knew how much pain he was in. All the laughter--the belly-aching, side-splitting, howling and crying laughter, and all of the cathartic tears and genuine anger, rage, and sadness, he brought out in everyone over the years, and it still wasn't enough.

Dammit.

Go listen to Marc Maron's very poignant eulogy and rebroadcast of his interview with Robin Williams on his WTF podcast. He really nailed down a lot of things for me, and if you're struggling to cope with this, his words may help you, too. 
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