Review for Chicago, IL

Performed on September 26, 2008 | Chicago Theater

Anger displaces humor in stand-up routine

Originally published on September 28, 2008 | Chicago Sun-Times | written by Darel Jevens

This time, Robin Williams' wild riffs go wrong.

OK, maybe "RV" and "License to Wed" didn't turn out so great, but is that any reason for Robin Williams to be so angry? In his sold-out stand-up show Friday at the Chicago Theatre (followed by another on Saturday), the comedian addressed his usual plenitude of topics--politics, sports, sex--and found reason for dismay in pretty much everything.

Robin Williams appeared angry during much of Friday's performance. But the bar for topical humor is higher than ever these days, and fans didn't get the kind of sharp, brainy satire we might hear from a Lewis Black or a Bill Maher--or from Williams himself in his masterful 2002 tour. This time, he succumbed too often to cliché, hanging his routines on played-out premises: Barbara Walters sounds like Elmer Fudd, John McCain is old, George W. Bush isn't all that articulate. The president, he said, has turned U.S. politics into the Special Olympics: "Oh, he finished a sentence! Way to go!"

At least that's a joke. Much of his material was more like annotated observations, mere references to ridiculous things punctuated by witticisms like: "F---ing A! Dear God!" "G--d ---! It's insane!" "That's some crazy-ass s---!" "G-d--- it! Don't you f---ers understand?" And all the while, he kept up the cheery, eager-to-please manner we expect from the star of "Patch Adams."

The most successful bits were the ones that seemed the most rehearsed, stylized set pieces with dialogue that was crafted carefully and presented with polish. Williams was a Chinese guy doing Tai Chi and blithely explaining how he's ripping off America, and a white-collar Satan marketing crystal meth, and the Pirates' Dock Ellis pitching his 1970 perfect game while tripping on LSD. Here you saw the talent that made Williams an Oscar winner and a hot concert draw.

Where he ran into trouble was in the riffing. As he flitted from the economy to the Olympics to the pope, Williams' patter often contained no point except exasperation. Or his conclusions were just dumb: Why bring up global warming just to imagine a car that runs on flatulence? "I've just had a burrito," he said, "and I'm gonna drive all the way to New York!" Groan.

Along the way, he threw in some pretty banal local references to the Cubs, the Sox, the mayor and (honest to God) Mrs. O'Leary's cow. And as he did in 2002, he saved the bawdiest for last, splashing around open water bottles to demonstrate his sexual notions. A routine about a committee designing human genitalia was a scream. But the encore about how celebs (Christopher Walken, Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis) would sound doing porn was the stuff of desperate hacks.

As a comedy legend might say, is he f---ing insane? Insane, no. But mad? Plenty.

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