I was working on a post for today about Rick Perlstein’s Invisible Bridge and the advantages and disadvantages of online annotation when the time came to meet some colleagues for a beer. While we were trading stories at the bar about Eighties politics, David Chappell (my fellow intellectual historian not the comedian) suddenly looked at his iPhone and said “Robin Williams has killed himself.” When I got home I couldn’t really write about footnotes anymore.
So this post, begun a couple of hours later, consists of some fairly undigested thoughts about Williams. This is memory posing as history. Unlike Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, Williams’s has not hit me like a ton of bricks, in part because Williams feels like a figure from my past, not my present. The pain here is less intense, but reaches deeper. The Williams who mattered to me was the manic, stand-up comedic genius, not the movie star of later years. I don’t want to take anything away form Williams’s long and impressive body of cinematic work, which sometimes drew on his stage comic personae (e.g. Good Morning, Vietnam and Mrs. Doubtfire come to mind), but just as often didn’t (e.g. Awakenings, Dead Poet’s Society, and Good Will Hunting). But much of Williams’s mature film work had a tinge of mawkishness that I found a bit off-putting.
When I think of Robin Williams, I always think first of the sometimes raw but always brilliant comic genius who emerged on the stand-up scene in the second half of the Seventies.
Like that of his near contemporaries Andy Kaufman and Steve Martin, Williams’s work seemed less overtly political than that of comics who had arrived on the scene just before them, performers like George Carlin or Richard Pryor. Though very different in other ways, Kaufman, Martin, and Williams were all deeply absurdist in their approaches to comedy.
Martin was, in many ways, the most conventional. In certain ways he was practically old-fashioned. He incorporated music into his act like a vaudeville performer. Five years older than Williams and four years older than Kaufman, Martin became a fairly well known comic in the late Sixties and early Seventies. But it was in the mid-to-late Seventies that his career took off, making frequent guest appearances on a variety of tv comedy venues (most notably Saturday Night Live, where he became a regular guest and helped establish that show’s sensibility), releasing three hit comedy albums in rapid succession (Let’s Get Small, A Wild and Crazy Guy, and Comedy is Not Pretty!), writing a very funny book (Cruel Shoes) and writing and starring in a major Hollywood movie (The Jerk) before the decade was out. Martin could do stand up, play banjo, sing, write and perform sketch. He was a huge comic talent…but of a fairly familiar sort. And though he certainly had better and worse moments, he could often find perfect venues to display his comedic skills.
Kaufman was a much more unusual talent. Though he, like Williams, enjoyed sitcom success, Kaufman’s unusual skills were to be found in his stage act…though whether or not to call it an act was part of the puzzle and wonder of Kaufman. A few years ago, Robin Williams told the comedian and podcast host Marc Maron that he only once had a conversation with Kaufman when Kaufman was out of character. Williams bumped into him in a grocery store. Kaufman came up, asked Williams how things were going, and as they engaged in small talk slowly but surely Kaufman slipped into one of his characters. With Kaufman, the line between the performer and the character seemed entirely unstable. His act was largely about violating stage conventions. He would turn something seemingly mundane and unfunny – like lip synching a single line from the theme to Mighty Mouse – into the funniest thing you’d ever seen. More often than not, Kaufman would put his audience in the difficult position of having to figure out whether he was or wasn’t serious. Often one could only really laugh if one was willing to laugh at him. Kaufman’s humor was often aggressive and uncomfortable, apparently for Kaufman and certainly for his audience. His self-consciously sexist wrestling women routine was a great example of Kaufman’s humor (if you go to the link, you’ll see Kaufman playing with his persona quite explicitly, not only in performance, but in discussing his performance). Kaufman’s comedy was anything but traditional. But it was a kind of extended commentary on traditional comedy and it relied on comedy’s traditional venues. Without the tv guest appearance, the celebrity interview, the concert tour, Kaufman’s comedy wouldn’t have been about anything. Although not contained by these forms, it relied on them for life.
Williams was different. He came from a background in theater and improv. His standup routine felt like an extended stream of consciousness, driven by a kind of manic energy. While one frequently got the sense that one experienced the best that Steve Martin or Andy Kaufman had to offer from their tv appearances (and, in Martin’s case, on the page and at the movies as well), one was never sure that one had seen all that Robin Williams had to offer. He was lovable and frequently hilarious in Mork and Mindy (where he first found a vast, national audience). But even playing an alien, a role that allowed Williams to be substantially weirder than most sitcoms parts would have, his talents seemed hemmed in by the format. Williams was like a great jazz performer, whose finest moments might or might not be captured when the tape happened to be rolling. His live appearances were the only places where one felt one was experiencing all that Williams could do. Take a look at his early work, like this 1978 HBO broadcast of one his live sets. The characters and ideas flow so quickly that Williams seems to be constantly interrupting himself. Other than putting him on stage with a live audience, it’s hard to imagine a format that could really take full advantage of this extraordinary talent. Williams could be funny playing off of other people. But he was most amazing when he was alone on stage, playing off of an audience. When I think of Robin Williams, I’ll always think of his stand-up work…especially these early appearances, when I was still truly surprised by his extraordinary comic gifts, before I in any sense took Robin Williams for granted.
Over the next few days, I imagine we’ll be hearing a lot about Williams’s work and life. Despite enjoying massive success – perhaps because of his enjoying it – he also experienced great psychic pain. This is not news. He battled substance abuse. Went through two very public divorces. But still his suicide comes as a surprise. One of the first tributes to him that was posted was Marc Maron’s reposting of his 2010 interview with Williams. It’s well worth listening to (both for the interview and for Maron’s heartfelt introduction and conclusion, obviously recorded immediately after hearing of Williams’s death). But at times it’s a difficult listen. The one time that Williams goes off on one of his extended riffs, the subject turns out to be suicide.
I do think that there’s real USIH content here. Understanding Seventies culture involves, among many other things, understanding comics like Martin, Kaufman, and Williams. But about all I’m capable of at the moment is what you see here: sweet old childhood memories that now seem more distant…and substantially sadder.