Robin Williams: Comic Survivor

Originally published on December 5, 2009 | True Slant | written by Susan Toepfer

Maybe we all think the music/movies/TV shows we watched when young were  the best that ever were, but I would still argue there has been nothing to match the comedy of the ’70s. That was the decade that produced Saturday Night Live–and a dozen mad geniuses bouncing through clubs (often, with a little help from their friends). Steve Martin, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Robert Klein, Albert Brooks. Those were comics with smarts and daring, taking their cues from Lenny Bruce and racing forward, as critic Richard Zoglin demonstrates in his entertaining history, Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America.

We were having some fun then, as rabbit-eared Steve Martin would say, but never more fun than when Robin Williams took the stage.

The first time I saw Williams, around 1978, he was fresh off his Mork & Mindy fame, a barrel-chested imp in suspenders, firing out his free-association riffs faster than the audience could follow them. It was almost comedy as ammunition, a way to keep the world at bay.

Flash-forward 30 years, and Williams is back onstage–as manic as ever, but with some hard truths at the core of his humor. I caught his show, Robin Williams: Weapons of Self-Destruction, last week in New York, the final date of a cross-country tour that will culminate with an HBO special, Sunday, December 6 at 9 p.m.

Williams, always one of the unlikeliest movie stars, hasn’t been too happy with the roles he has been offered lately. So he decided to go back to his roots. But this time, life got in the way: First a boozy relapse that tossed him back into rehab. Then, as he was starting his standup tour, open heart surgery. In between, an announced separation from his wife of 20 years.

Now he stands before us with bovine valve–slightly regretful that he didn’t pick the pig version, since it might have helped combat swine flu– and almost subdued as he jokes (sort of ) about his alcoholism: “Poor me…poor me…pour me a drink.” But if he was once inspired by the information-overload of the ’70s, just think how energized he is today, the gifted mimic suddenly transforming himself into a GPS–”Turn left, turn right…You missed it, Magellan!”

A child of the Bay Area who was always more likely to spin social truths, he still tosses political barbs: “Congressman and Senators should be like NASCAR drivers,” he suggests, “and wear  jackets with names of who’s sponsoring them.” “The Bush library will be interactive–which is code for, Not So Many Books.”….”Obama is an amazing combination of Martin Luther King and Spock.” In one of his funniest bits, he imagines a Rip Van Winkle who slept through the last decade, catching up on what occurred: “And who’s president now?” “A black guy.” “Nahhhhh…”

Like most performers, Williams is a perpetual kid–author Zoglin traces his wild imaginings back to his solitary play as an only child, in an attic strewn with toy soldiers. And I remember one sunny day in Central Park when I watched Williams entertain his young son by pushing a miniature boat down the basin, voicing all members of its crew.

On HBO, for his first special in seven years, this non-stop action figure may now be draped in black, but the red-soled shoes hark back to the whimsy that made him a star. Let’s hope, like the rest of us, he’ll continue to survive those darker impulses. “My doctor’s my dealer now,” Williams points out, “and he’s a lot harder to get ahold of.

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