August 11th, 2014
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.
A lot of comics claim to be MENSA material but Williams actually was smart (in that elite test-prep style we’re presently burdened with). I think he had great timing and his material was usually simpler yet also cleverer than similar performers like Bobcat Goldthwait or Eddie Izzard — two other obvious manic-depressives btw
RIP, indeed. I found his turn as a villain in “Insomnia” an effective dramatic performance, in large part because underplayed.
Live at the Met was the first stand-up album that I ever heard, and I was absolutely entranced at the time. I think you’re right about the general perception of Williams among other comedians, and I think that their perception is accurate; his material was mediocre, it was the delivery that sold it. Still, stand-up is a performance art, it’s not as if being a dynamic performer is cheating. There is one other element to his relatively low esteem among comedians though, which is that he had a reputation for stealing material. The charitable interpretation is that it was unintentional, but even if he was just bad at distinguishing creating a joke from remembering one that’s still treated as a much more serious sin among performers, for whom their material is their livelihood, than it is among the general public. I largely agree with your assessment of his film career, and I’ll just add that I recently rewatched The Fisher King and I think that his role in that film, with its combination of the manic and the maudlin, was perfect for him and vice versa.
Insomnia and One Hour Photo were really good, creepy, Williams performances. When he was good he was the best, and when he was bad he was the worst.
What surprised me most when I heard the news is that my facebook feed filled up with pictures of my friends, and Robin Williams. Quite a few of my friends had run into him at some point, and he had graciously agreed to take a pic with them. He is always smiling. Always.
Other comedians’ gripe with Williams wasn’t the quality of his material, but rather that he was notorious for stealing jokes. As one comedian noted in a 2007 Radar story about joke-theft: “I’ve been in clubs in L.A. where Robin’ll walk in the room and whoever’s on stage will just get off,” and another notes “When he was caught . . . Williams sheepishly copped to the charge by opening up his wallet. I’d call him and say, ‘Hey, what happened there?'” recalls Pearl. “And he’d say, ‘Oh, sorry.’ Then there’d be compensation. (http://web.archive.org/web/20070217031356/http://www.radaronline.com/from-the-magazine/2007/02/take_the_funny_and_run_1.php)
Nevertheless, he WAS hilarious, and capable of occasionally great performances in serious roles. What a loss.
Christopher Titus borrowed pretty directly from Williams’ stand up material on his 9-11 special. The climax, even, was straight from Williams.
My first date with my future wife was Robin Williams’ first big show to support his first album. (1979.) Since it was being released on the record label where we both worked, we had great seats.
Because of Robin, we learned that night that we were destined for each other–laughing at all of the same stuff, even when most of the audience didn’t (which happened, actually, with some frequency), and getting the same sometimes phantasmagoric allusions.
The line that cemented it was what appeared to be (but probably wasn’t) an improv throwaway: “Danté, table for two.” Both of us broke up, laughing louder and longer than anyone else–or so it seemed.
Over the years we’ve agreed that if one or the other of us hadn’t been on the same page with Robin Williams, that would’ve been the first and last date rather than the beginning of a marriage. And to this day, all restaurant reservations are made under the name Danté.
Efficiently exploiting the fact that you’re bright, i.e. the modern focus of Education, can definitely take you far but it’s no substitute for being sensible. Williams’s long-running, destructive (for him) feud with Disney is the type of thing that wouldn’t happen to Jay Leno or Billy Crystal