Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Send back the clown: Robin Williams - 1951-2014

Picture courtesy of HBO

The Pink Floyd album Dark Side Of The Moon contains, amongst others, a recording of Abbey Road studio doorman Gerry O'Driscoll saying "I'm not afraid of dying....You've got to go sometime", condensing into one soundbite the fact that death is, well, a fact of life.

Which doesn't make it any easier when it happens to a loved one or, simply, someone who made you smile. Robin Williams didn't just make me smile, he made me - and I'm not embarrassed to admit this - shed tears of laughter. Yes, I convulsed so much at his Live On Broadway 2002 HBO special that there were rivulets streaming down my face.

This, of course, may not be everyone's experience of him. That's comedy for you - one man's comic genius is another's annoying clown. Comedy is ridiculously subjective that way. But let's stop and consider Williams for a moment. He was the most exhausting of comics: a chat show appearance wouldn't just be a 'bit' or a plug for the latest movie, but an eruption of inventive improvisation. Like the Pythons' Argument Clinic, you could get five minutes or the full half hour. You got what you paid for.

From his earliest TV appearance as the alien Mork (in Mork & Mindy and Happy Days), through his stand-up shows (including impromptu appearances at improv clubs) to his movies, notably Good Morning Vietnam, Williams as a comic was like the sun - a perpetual explosion of hydrogen, helium and plasma, inventing on the spot, seeing things for their intensely comic value that others might fail to address.

There was, of course, significantly more to Robin Williams than the TV specials he made for HBO, but I'll come on to those other things in a moment. Because his 1986 special A Night At The Met is possibly, probably even, the most complete 53 minutes of comedy you'll ever witness.

It is certainly the most perfect near-hour of stand-up comedy I've ever seen, embracing - in this order - alcohol, drugs, the Cold War, the Middle East, men's genitalia, what men do with their genitalia, pregnancy as a consequence, giving birth and raising the child, culminating with the realisation, that while you may have grand designs for your little one to go to Harvard, "you wake up and he's saying, 'do you want fries with that?'".

There are so many great lines packed into this one show that you have to watch it to catch them all. But let me give you two: [On gun control] "You have the right to bear arms or the right to arm bears, it's your choice!" and [on being addicted to cocaine] "Cocaine's God's way of telling you you have too much money".

16 years later, and with the wounds of 9/11 still fresh, Williams made Live On Broadway to much the same effect. Covering in two hours the zeitgeist of the day, from the potential taboo of airline security ("Why take away nail clippers? It's not like terrorists are going 'This is a hijacking - no one move or the stewardess loses a cuticle!'") to the villain of the hour ("Osama Bin Laden is a six-foot-five Arab on dialysis. Why is that so fucking hard to find?"), Williams brought levity to a country still in pain, in the very city where the pain was felt hardest.

Born in America's second city, Chicago - birthplace of the electric blues and equally electric comedy - Williams' comedy was unashamedly California-adopted liberal, applying a deliriously wicked way of cutting down pomposity and the absurdity of politics. He wasn't, though seeking revolution or even trying to offer scything commentary, Lenny Bruce-style, to the order of the day. It was, simply, straight-forward piss-taking. George W. Bush, in particular, was the richest of gifts:

"It doesn't scare me that Dubya waved at Stevie Wonder; that's OK. Stevie's only been blind since birth...! No, what scares me is that Dubya almost died from a fucking pretzel! They have billions of dollars in national defence, they want billions more, to up the stakes, and the president almost goes down from snack food!

The Secret Service are like 'Game's over man!' 'Gilligan's down! Gilligan's down! His own dogs didn't care! They were licking him for the salt!"

So the routine goes, comedian dies, comedian is declared comic genius, we all move on. Robin Williams transcended even the description "genius". His comedy was comedy on speed, an unfortunate reference, I know, given his own battles with drugs (he infamously shared a few lines of coke with John Belushi during his eventual fateful stay at the Chateau Marmont). But such was the intensity and the rapidity of his wit that it was easy to think, long after he'd become sober, that he was still on something.

Williams' unfettered comic creativity wasn't just limited to the stage of improv clubs and chat shows: most of his performance as Armed Forces Radio DJ Adrian Cronauer in Barry Levinson's Good Morning Vietnam was improvised, also drawing on his immeasurable talent for mimicry.

"Nobody else works with the inventiveness, the quickness and the zaniness of Robin Williams," producer Mark Johnson said at the time. "When he sat down in the control booth to do the scenes involving Cronauer's broadcasts, we just let the cameras roll. He managed to create something new for every single take." Cronauer - who had written the original story but envisaged something far more serious - distanced himself somewhat from Williams' portrayal. Williams, on the other hand, maintained that Cronauer was "pretty much the closest thing to me that I've ever done."

Picture: Esquire magazine

As a film actor, Williams divided opinion. His critics leaned heavily on the saccharine nature of disposable family fare like Hook, Jumanji and even Mrs. Doubtfire, suggesting that his film career drew an over-reliance on such roles. But to his proponents - and I'm one of them - there were moments of cinematic glory in Good Will Hunting, ToysDead Poet's Society, The Fisher King and Awakenings. And let's not play down the comedies - Aladdin, like Good Morning Vietnam, was Williams' film, even if he was represented by a purple cartoon genie.

It's often said that the hardest job for a straight actor is to do comic roles, but I've always argued that it's harder for a comedian to be accepted doing straight parts. Knowing what a manic comedy performer he was, the expectation of Williams making funny turns out of his appearances as creep-ahoy weirdos in Insomnia and One Hour Photo - both released in 2002, incidentally - was dashed by the intensity he applied in both parts. Indeed, the fact he was a comedian made them even creepier.

Arguably, his talent for improvisation added colour to his serious roles. In a 1979 New York Times review of his stand-up show, critic Janet Maslin noted how Williams was "at his very best when he seemed to be trying things out, measuring the audience's response, working in the most exciting way". This was at the height of Mork & Mindy's popularity, when Williams was "usually on view performing his material in a more polished form, and in neat, half-hour weekly instalments," concluding that "it's especially gratifying to watch him live dangerously."

And he did. Robin Williams' death at the age of 63 from an apparent suicide has been met by the media as the ultimate collapse of a struggle against lifelong "demons". The papers will no doubt commit think pieces to examine the rancid old 'tears of a clown' thesis underpinning all comedians.

Depression, however, isn't some convenient counter to a comic's humorous side, anymore than it is for a postman, nurse or any other profession. It just makes it harder to accept that someone who made so many people laugh until tears spouted from their eyes could, themselves, be battling an illness that literally destroyed the soul.

What a sad end to a life that gave so much fun. Shazbat.

Picture: Matt Munoz/Twitter

No comments:

Post a Comment