A tribute to a comedy legend and some choice recommendations for celebrating his legacy…
I know, why aren’t more people talking about Robin Williams?! Whatever. And before you hit me with the hackneyed internet line of “If only half the people cared about the Israeli/Palestine situation as Mork from Ork” or some other contrarian response that you think is oh-so-very clever, but in reality no different from any other desperate attempt at psuedo-poignant retweetery piggybacking on the death of a celebrity, I have no problem saying that William’s death is actually just as important as that or any other current event or cause.
Look: The passing of a beloved entertainer is always going to ignite a firestorm of social media mourners these days, but I think we can all agree that we’ve seen nothing close to the magnitude of virtual grief caused by the idea of Robin Williams being gone forever. And I’m one of those people who, like many of you, had grown more than a bit weary of Williams shtick. By that I mean both his exhaustively-manic comedic appearances in family-friendly comedies and the Serious Acting he seemed to believe winning an Oscar mandated he do almost exclusively.
I probably even took a shot at him on occasion, and HOORAY, now a noxious mixture of tragedy and hindsight gets to make me feel like a real shitheel. Without a doubt, there are some terrible Robin Williams movies out there. There’s but a single Robin Williams performance I have enjoyed in the last ten years (sad to say, but I seriously triple checked), but I’m more than a little shocked that A) I never saw a single frame of William’s short-lived sitcom, and B) the world seriously rejected a weekly comedy starring Robin Fucking Williams?! Sure, I’d grown tired of the man and stopped following his career because he seemed like this unstoppable whirlwind of bufoonery that would happily dance for the mainstream masses until the earth fell into the sea, whether I was paying attention or not.
Obviously, I’m getting to the Robin Williams I did love, but its more than my personal nostalgia. Similar to my stupidly controversial thoughts on The Simpsons recently, there’s the older work that I’ll always cherish, but the fact that that phenomena is still going, still appreciated by someone, even if it isn’t me, brings me a tremendous amount of comfort. It’s simultaneously validating on a personal level, sort of like a cosmic conformation that what you look was worth liking, and also a beautiful reassurance to be found in further generations enjoying something for the same reasons you did. For comedy especially, that suggests a silly itch in all of us that needs to be scratched. And that there are a select few special people who can do it for us all. To put it out there more eloquently/cliched: It was always nice to know he was still out there… even if he wasn’t granting wishes or dressing like an old lady.
But here’s the thing we all should’ve realized: NOBODY worked harder for you than Robin Williams. Fucking. Nobody. Try and act like Robin Williams for ten minutes. I’ll wait… See?! It’s just as hard as it is fucking exhausting. You don’t even have to like Williams’ output to appreciate his dedication, or that the very things that may’ve turned some of us off about him were still the result of a tireless work ethic and an utterly inimitable persona. Regardless of his work over the last decade, and I seriously urge you not to think about horseshit like Old Dogs and License to Wed, I’m fairly certain we all liked to watch Robin Williams simply being Robin Williams.
Think about his Comic Relief performances, and man, if you were flipping through late-night TV and saw Robin Williams on a talk show, who the fuck is is changing the channel?! Much to the delight of us all, Williams’ flippant disregard for earnest promotion must’ve ruined the day of many a PR person, and that only made it exponentially funnier. How many people could even get away with derailing a plug for an Aladdin DVD just to work in 5 minutes of off-the-cuff blowjob jokes?! Don’t take my word for it, Conan showed the world his value in that regard with an unprecedented, abruptly sobering moment last night.
This never happens
I have to imagine that even the most cynical talk show employee either got a little giddy or breathed a sigh of relief with the knowledge Robin Williams was coming on. “Writers, take the day off. Camera dudes, point the cameras at Robin and take a long lunch.” As much as we may giggle at an anecdote from Louis CK or Kevin Hart, they aren’t jumping off the couch, singing, dancing, belting out impressions, fucking screaming at a million miles-per-hour. It bums me out to think that Robin might have been one of the a final fading vestige of last-gen entertainers, but the funniest people in the world right now can’t come close to operating at Williams’ speed (and that sentiment should sure as shit double as a reminder to show Martin Short a little more love before we lose him too.) And with all that said, the dude was also a fairly outstanding actor. Remarkable in a lot of cases, although I think the public became a lot less interested in watching him do that because… well, a lot of people are good actors. Only one person was good at being Robin Williams. And it looks as if that was a heavier burden than we ever could’ve imagined.
I am neither famous, nor a comic, but the dark, dark places from which desperate attempts at gaining the approval of strangers is something I can definitely relate to. I used to find myself baffled by people who didn’t give a shit about being liked, crackin’ wise, or acting the fool in order to entertain others, but as I rapidly age, I realize that probably comes from a place of inner-personal acceptance I could probably do with understanding a little better. I don’t really want to know the specific reasons as to why Williams punched his own ticket, but there aren’t heartbreaking enough words to convey the notion of a void inside the man that so badly needed to be filled that… well, you see where I’m going? Did his interest in being Robin Williams only extend as far as the public being interested in Robin Williams? Did his eagerness to please stem from something he needed more than we wanted? Is that the trade off involved with a comedic force of Williams’ magnitude? Did he feel as if he fulfilled his purpose and just shuffle himself off into oblivion like the Mary Poppins of dick jokes because his services were no longer required? Thinking too much about this, in addition to all those stories of Williams being one of the sweetest, Zelda-lovin’ mega-celebrities on the planet, breaks my fucking heart. No, I’m not saying we killed Robin Williams, but I do wish we could’ve done a better job of letting him know his continued presence on Earth was still very much desired.
Enough dark thoughts! I don’t have any moral lessons, nor any answers. Just thoughts and feels that I felt like sharing. What I do know, with 100% certainty, is that Robin Williams was a gift to this planet. And the only solace we have right now is the evidence he left us with, the quality and volume beyond impressive by any standard. I’m sure you all have your favorites, and even though mine certainly aren’t Hook or Mrs. Doubtfire, I encourage you to revisit anything you felt the man made more magical this week. These are my picks, many of which are streaming-ready on services like Amazon Prime and Netflix. And thank God, because one of the only positive things to come out of this tragedy is seeing much of Williams’ work via physical completely out of stock within just 24 hours.
Robin Williams: A Night at the Met
Williams’ third album won him a Grammy, but more importantly, it was my very first comedy album. I’m pretty sure my parents had bought it for themselves, but once it was popped into our cassette player on a road trip, and by the time my parents realized their folly in introducing me to a glorious world were it was actually okay to curse, it was already to late. In A Night at the Met, Williams was the first person in the universe to confirm for me the pronunciation of the word “cum” which I’d only seen printed in the pages of a single Penthouse (pre-internet, younglings!) I’m sure you’d find an overwhelming amount of the material dated, but so did I, as pre-teen in 1992 trying to wrap his little head around ample Reagan and Khadafi references from 1986. Robin provided me with my introduction to stand-up comedy and made me more curious about the world around me. I can probably recite the whole fucking thing from memory. At the very least, it’s one of the clearest recordings showcasing the few positive effects of cocaine.
I love this fucking movie and there’s almost no better testament to Williams’ ability as a comedic performer than his feature-length Popeye impression. Williams played the same spastic character many times, but even though this happened early in his career, his superb portrayal of one of animation’s greatest icons is ironically one of his most subdued before heading into Oscar-caliber territory. Sad though it may be, I still love that this is undoubtedly the one Robert Altman movie most people will ever see. I’m not sure who made the bizarre decision to have him helm a Robin Williams-starring cartoon adaptation, but that led to so many other wonderfully bizarre choices, up to and including being one of the only musicals I’ve ever liked, building an entire weird ass city on a Maltese island (where it still stands today) and most importantly, allowing the whole thing to be treated as an incredibly sincere live-action cartoon origin story. There’s no real world grittiness, or winking at the camera.
World’s Greatest Dad
I’ve professed on many occasion that Bobcat Goldthwait has one of the best tracks records as a director. Yes, that’s due to a relatively short resume, but each and every one of his films are profoundly unique and so exquisitely dark they almost bend time itself. World’s Greatest Dad is Goldthwait’s best, IMO, and contains what’s quite possibly Williams’ finest performance. This is actually hard to recommend right now, since it’s for the best you go into it knowing as little as possible so as to better experience the sadistic blindside the film has in store for you. I can’t tell you what any of that entails, but it could be a helluva lot harder to watch given recent events. WARNING: This is not for the faint of heart right now, but when you’re ready, get ready for William’s best (only?) full-frontal nude scene!
I grew to love this movie on cable, where I desperately hope its still getting air time. Dead Poets Society and Good Morning, Vietnam already showed the world that Williams could easily blur the line between his hyper-kinetic comedic persona and serious emotional sincerity, but I honestly believe Cadillac Man proved just how versatile a comedic performer he could be. Tim Robbins, as a shotgun-toting, C4 strapped madman threatening to blow up a Cadillac dealership is the breakout comedic force here, yet Williams is the lady-juggling doofus who carries the whole film. I feel like this is the film that’ll get overlooked the most this week, so if you’re up for something outside the obvious, you’re in for a real treat.
Without a doubt, Disney’s greatest film of my generation, and most likely yours. Williams’ performance was so integral to Aladdin, the Genie is one of the only characters in Disney history that’s modeled after the person voicing them. But you already now of his magnificence in this movie, right? What I do want to express as a hardcore animation geek is that Aladdin, almost solely through Williams’ performance, changed fucking everything. Disney’s animation revival was in full swing, coming off of classical takes on fairy tales like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, the latter of which was so well-received it became the first animated movie to EVER get an Oscar Nomination for Best Picture. You’d think this would be cause for the notoriously safe company to take a giant nap on its laurels. Instead, Aladdin has a remarkably different, infinitely more comedic tone (I’d say more so than any other Disney movie up to that point) and I think we all know who gave them the courage to move forward in that direction and it wasn’t Gilbert Gottfried.
Popular comic personas had certainly brought characters to life before in animated features, but you didn’t see John Candy in Rescuers Down Under or Buddy Hackett’s Scuttle receive anything close to Genie’s screen time, nor the resulting acclaim. Williams’ joke-spitting, shape-shifting Genie was literally, for better or for worse, the performance that launched a thousand comedic cartoon film characters. Despite unprecedented success in the medium of animation, Disney’s bigscreen characters rarely behaved like… well, cartoon characters at that point, and the medium had largely been used to create whimsical situations that were unfilmable in live-action. Williams changed all that (FOR VERY LITTLE MONEY) and in almost every animated film you see today, from Eddie Murphy’s Donkey to Despicable Me’s Minion thingies, having a fast-talkin’ comedic character to cut the tension is practically a prerequisite. The best thing that can come out of this is getting Disney to release Aladdin on Blu-ray, or any other platform for the first time since 2002.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
A lot of people are deservedly singing the praises of Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King this week, but I wanted to get at least one “pure” live-action Robin Williams performance on my list, and fuck, do I love this movie. Williams’ scene is little more than an extended cameo, but it doesn’t waste a second with his horny, headless Moon King. It’s truly Robin Williams at his most Robin Williamsiest. If you’ve ever had an inkling to check this film out, fucksake, now’s as good a time as any. If not, here’s the whole scene:
I seriously fought with myself over whether to include this movie. Yes, it’s essentially garbage and a complete waste of Robin Williams considerable talent. (Whoever decided that Williams should play the straight man to John Travolta should never stop being fired.) But I genuinely love watching this movie with friends. No shit, outside of Avengers and The Departed, this is probably the movie I’ve rewatched the most over the last decade. Like, at least seven times. The Room is the best worst movie of recent history, but it’s by definition an independent film from a first-time director. Shit happens. Old Dogs, however, is one of the failingest things ever created, and that’s in spite of having the budget, the cast, a crew of professionals who you’d assume would know better, and everything else any movie could ever wish for in order to emerge as palatable on even the most mediocre level. This movie’s so wildly inept and incoherent, there’s a rumor that the film was shot as an R-rated movie and chopped down to a family movie with the wonderful inclusion added fart sound effects. Implausible though that may sound, you’re inclined to believe it because it’s the only way final product makes sense. It’s like two seasons worth of a subpar CBS sitcom edited down to a breakneck 90 minutes. There are like 16 premises, many of which disappear out of nowhere as if the movie were a YouTube compilation of million-dollar Vines filmed over the course of several years. It’s an enthralling trainwreck I wholeheartedly recommend, and sadly, Williams had the pleasure of being part of it.
Feel free to share any and all thoughts in the comments below. It’s okay to have seriously heavy thoughts on the matter, even if your callous instincts tell you otherwise.