Upon hearing of Robin’s Williams’s death earlier this week, a number of memories immediately flashed through my mind:
“Friend Like Me” from Disney’s Aladdin.
Williams’s take on humanity in Mork and Mindy.
His guest appearance on Whose Line Is It Anyway?
And then I remembered how I felt after watching the first episode of his new (now cancelled) show, The Crazy Ones – disappointed. Though there was still life in his star, it was an improper stage for his talents. He was much more well suited in larger-than-life roles.
It occurs to me now that I’m not terribly familiar with Robin Williams, movie actor. I’ve seen all of his (famous) movies, yet his roles that stand out to me the most are the ones where he doesn’t play himself: Mrs. Doutbfire and Popeye in the title roles, Aladdin as the Genie, and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest as Batty Koda. I mainly remember Williams as the unflappable and lovable alien Mork in Mork and Mindy (with previous guest spots on Happy Days), and as a stand-up comedian.
Though I can only speak to my experience, there’s something about stand-up comedy that speaks to the outcasts — the geeks, the nerds, the dorks, the shy kids who have trouble making friends, the angry kids who need a shoulder to lean on. When I first watched someone speak their mind, unfettered and uncensored, it was something of a revelation. It surely helped that the things they were saying were funny. Though what is it they say about comedy? It equals tragedy plus time. Those of us trapped in personal hells, even if they weren’t outwardly evil, took solace in the hilarious routines of those individuals with enough courage to come forth about their tragedies. This is where Robin Williams shone brightest.
But my introduction to stand-up didn’t happen through Williams. (Though one could argue that the best parts of Mork and Mindy were reminiscent of stand-up.) The first televised comedic routine I ever saw was Bill Cosby: Himself (1985). I couldn’t get enough of it. And thanks to HBO’s repetitive schedule, I watched it nearly every chance I could! I loved, loved, loved, listening to Cosby talk about his triumphs and frustrations about life, love, and everything in between. There was something magical in his earnestness. He told stories in ways that I had never heard before. Crude but kind. Powerful yet thoughtful. Forced yet easy.
After Bill Cosby: Himself, I became enthralled with anything and anything having to do with watching comedians on-stage (well, on TV, anyway). As luck had it, ads had been released for a special starring Mork himself! “Live at the Met” (or something to that effect) was the first time I saw Robin Williams as a non-alien. His humor was racier than that of Cosby’s, something I’m sure my parents didn’t quite appreciate, but man oh man, was he hilarious! Williams’ manic performance simply electrified my young mind, and it only made me more addicted to the cause of comedy. Enter in more specials and events like Comic Relief that featured Williams, and I was an out-and-out fan. Damn if the man simply didn’t spare any expense at making people laugh! Enter in Comedy Central (now the Comedy Channel), which, much to my delight, once used to show hours upon hours of stand-up routines. And among those hours, I was lucky enough to catch many of Williams’s early appearances – the ones where you though the man might flail himself off the stage. The ones that probably aroused as much anger as they did laughter. What a time of comedy it was.
It actually hurts now thinking about how the bright light of the entertainment world is a little dimmer now. (Seriously guys…the tears…) If you find yourself with a spare hour, check out Robin Williams at the Met. Though a few of the topics might be a little dated, the laughter remains. And the world can only be grateful for that. Thank you Robin Williams for making me smile, for making me think, and for making me feel proud among the outcasts.