I always got the sense that other comics held Robin Williams not in the highest esteem. Not that they disliked him personally–just that they believed that his material wasn’t particularly strong and that Williams got by on delivery, which often meant impressions that weren’t all that skillful, but were dazzling to the layman because of their speed. Maybe that impression was wrong.
That said, I’m a layman and I was captivated by Williams’ standup work. For my money, his Live at the Met performance was (at least by my sensibility the last time I watched it) the best standup act I’ve ever seen.
I’m also a sucker for Julliard. And I remember Dead Poets Society and Good Morning Vietnam with the rosy view of adolescence. I suspect neither of those movies would hold up especially well to my adult self, but they spoke to me at the time. And both of those flicks were essentially just vehicles to get Williams’ talent harnessed and onto the screen. He was a force of nature.
I never much cared for Maudlin/Serious Williams–the Williams of Patch Adams and Good Will Hunting, but it seemed (at least to me) that that side of him was authentic. Even his standup sometimes had moments tinged with the maudlin. So while Jakob the Liar wasn’t my thing, I got where it came from.
The truth is, if you only go by his film work, you’d judge Williams’ talents much below their true level, I think. And if you want a treat, it’s worth going back to Live at the Met and his standup days, when he was a big, bright shining star.
Update: You can find Live at the Met on Youtube and if you want a glimpse at how fast Williams was, have a look at this clip, beginning around the 0:30 mark. (It’s ’80s comedy, so the language is NSFW.) The sound briefly goes out and Williams starts ad libbing, and even in this unscripted part of the set, he’s blazingly quick-witted:
Update 2: Galley Friend and standup comic M.G. has a little remembrance.