Lets’ start with a short poem by Kingsley Amis, entitled “A Chromatic Passing-Note”:
“‘That slimy tune,’ I said, and got a laugh,
In the middle of old Franck’s D minor thing:
That dotted-rhythm clarinet motif.
Not always slimy. I thought, at fifteen
It went to show that real love was found
At the far end of the right country lane.
I thought that, like Keats and the rest of them,
Old Franck was giving me a preview of
The world, action in art, a paradigm.
Yes, I know better now, or different.
Not image: buffer only, syrup, crutch.
‘Slimy’ was a snarl of disappointment.”
Those of you who know me, or who have taken my classes at the DC Improv where I’ve been teaching improvisational comedy for the last 11 years, know how often I’ve snarled at Robin Williams. My cavils have more to do with how frequently he was heralded as the great “improvisational” stand-up comedian, how often he would steamroll others on-stage when doing group-oriented improvisational comedy, and how infrequently the stand-up he did, particularly in the later stages of career, was as “improvised” as others thought it was. On-stage, he had, to my mind, three or four “go-to” characters, and he beat those like he had access to a field full of horse carcasses and an interminable supply of two-by-fours; in his movies, make-up and prosthetics allowed him a few more, as well as one distinct persona we’ll get to below. But for now, there’s no need for further details. Those who know me know that my animadversions regarding Williams and his career were many, and often vociferously voiced.
But, like the narrator of the poem above, my snarl was indeed one of disappointment, because, like so many of my generation, Robin Williams changed my life. Like most of America, I became familiar with him via his brilliant energy on“Mork and Mindy,” I fell in love with the childlike naïf alien persona who explored our strange planet and reported what he found to his own. It was your standard-issue, formulaic fish-out-of-water sitcom, but in Williams’ gifted hands it was transformed. I imagine the writers had, by turns, an easy or difficult job of writing the show; I have no evidence to prove it, but I’m sure the scripts went something along these lines:
MINDY: “But Mork, what are you going to say to my dad once you get to the music store?”
MORK: [Robin improvises something brilliant here, better than anything a roomful of writers would have come up even if given weeks to do so…]
At age 13 I somehow managed to get hold of “Reality…What A Concept,” his first album of stand-up, and was immediately captivated and mesmerized. Not only by his manic energy of course, but also by his sheer intelligence. I remember one bit involved a “celebrity day care,” where we were introduced to his impressions of famous people as toddlers: Truman Capote, Jr., William F. Buckley, Jr. (Junior) and Sammy Davis, Jr. (Junior): “No one buys his bullshit around here,” said Robin’s childlike narrator after Williams as Sammy Jr. (Junior) goes into the schticky insincere patter Davis was known for toward the end of his life. I memorized and lifted wholesale the bits I loved and began boring my fellow 8th grade classmates with them ad nauseum. They were not, I remember, amused.
And, like any fan, I followed Williams around popular culture, finding out when he would be on certain talk shows, paying close attention as interviewer after interviewer tried to unsuccessfully penetrate the manic veneer, the mask he consistently wore that he never took off, a mask that was, as it turned out, thickening and hardening before our eyes. In what turned out to be the unenviable task of profiling Johnny Carson, the writer and critic Kenneth Tynan met instead an unwilling surly Carson who provided him with curt, cryptic answers, which Tynan found strange from a personality who otherwise seemed open and available when the cameras were on.“Talking to Johnny Carson,” he summarized, “is like talking to an elaborately wired security system.” As interviewer after interviewer discovered, interviewing Robin Williams was like trying to interview an earthquake. His energy was seismic and intractable, his tenacity at dodging personal questions and steering them instead toward verbal and physical play insurmountable. Even the educated, shrewd East Coast Brahmin Dick Cavett, who held a black belt in interviewing Jujitsu, proved no match for Williams, who, as I remember, forced Cavett to dispense completely with the question-and-answer portion of the appearance as Williams instead spent the half-hour on Cavett’s show parading around the studio set, which was made to appear as if we were in an upper-class drawing room library, improvising with the objects he found there. One line that’s still with me: Williams pointing to the top of one of the bookshelves full of books lining the set, unreachable even for an adult, and saying in his high-pitched child-like voice, “Father keeps old pornography up there.” The public Williams was constantly ready for our consumption at a moment’s notice, always willing to be on display; the vulnerable personality behind it was an animal that would rarely, if ever, be seen in captivity.
And this is where my personal frustration began growing: as his career grew, and as he began making more and more appearances on talk shows to publicize his movies, I began noticing that his veneer of sheer unadulterated manic, child-like persona (an important phrase here) never ceased. He never, at least during that period, dropped the mask of being an overgrown man-child, leaping and bounding with abandon, attention flitting from one verbal exchange or idea to the next, quickly getting a few words in about how we should see his current movie in the theaters, and then returning to his default persona, that of irrepressible adolescent who, rather than suffering from a deficit of attention, instead suffered from having no attention span at all. Was it drugs? They probably didn’t help (people often selectively forget that two of the last people to see John Belushi alive were Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams). Was it bipolar disorder? That’s part of it. Though, if you’re doing the math portion of this bi-polar quiz, we only got to see Robin when he was “up.” God help those who had to deal with him down, and who are still dealing with the awful, awful consequences of his most recent trip down, and his inability to recover.
Hollywood, of course, paid attention, too, realizing that what they had on their hands was a living, breathing cartoon. It’s no accident, then that his first major Hollywood vehicle was “Popeye,” just as it’s also no accident that his best and most memorable work was done in close proximity to material essentially written for children and featuring children (“Jumanji,” “Hook,” “Aladdin”) or in which he played protagonists who were childlike in affect or outlook (“The World According To Garp,” “The Fisher King,” and the obvious usual suspects “Jack” and “Patch Adams”). I’m not trying to be needlessly cruel, since I enjoyed the movie as much as anyone, but I can’t help but think that Williams won an Academy Award for “Good Will Hunting” essentially for stretching himself as an actor farther than he ever had before: by finally and believably playing an actual adult.
I know my frustration here is palpable. And I can’t help but think (and I’m crying as I write this) this is essentially because, well, I grew up. And Robin Williams, ever vigilant as our public version of Peter Pan, didn’t. And it’s frustrating because this flies in the face of the brilliant, intelligent, sophisticated stand-up I fell in love with when I was young, a stand-up that was, well, adult: the stand-up vulnerable and brave enough to invite us inside his mind, as he did on “Reality…What A Concept” to “find out what it’s like when a comedian eats the big one.” The one who, no doubt scared shitless after watching his friend John Belushi die so young — particularly when he was in such close proximity to the actual event — went and got himself clean, and then came clean about it on a comedy special that had him sweating and castigating himself for his drug and alcohol abuse, and the emotional and physical wreckage he left in his wake. Perhaps it was that glimpse of the abyss that made him try to turn away completely from the precipice, back toward the simple, safer childlike joy he publicly seemed to take in being alive, and was all too willing to share with the rest of us, as well as he could.
The poet Philip Larkin was once asked why he wasn’t more of a “public poet,” one who gave readings or publicly lectured as a cultural arbiter of some sort, and why he instead preferred to issue slim volumes of poetic gems every decade or two while working as a humble university librarian in god-awful Hull, England. “Because,” he said, “then I’d have to go around being me.” In the end, Robin Williams had to go around being “Robin Williams,” publicly wearing the mask of a child despite having a 63-year old man’s body, and despite having a 63-year old man’s experience, demons, ailments, challenges and perspectives. Most mortals couldn’t have handled it, or got this far. It would have been too much to ask of them, and yet Robin Williams asked this of himself for most of his adult life. And yesterday, much to the insurmountable sadness of most of us—myself included—he stopped asking.