Tag: influence

On Influence | Appreciating Robin Williams

By Mike Kuczkowski

After Robin Williams’ death last week, many media outlets produced some fine tributes (and some have done some disgraceful things, too.) If you have not listened to Mark Maron’s podcast with Williams, you should.

Having just published a piece about Philip Seymour Hoffman, I didn’t want to write about Williams at first. But, I realized that while people were talking a lot about Williams’ career and his legacy, there was a point to be made about his influence that I thought was important and unsaid.

I think influence is something that we all think about in communications, and Williams had a tremendous and powerful influence, both within comedy and acting, and on the culture at large.

Williams meant a lot of things to people. Some people loved him as “Mork” in the 1970s, though, candidly, I never understood why. Some loved his comedic acting, in movies like “Good Morning Vietnam” or “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Others loved him in dramatic roles, like the teacher in “Dead Poet’s Society” or the psychologist in “Good Will Hunting.” As an actor, he credibly ranks among the best of his era, though he also starred in some clunkers. (One example of his star status: In The Birdcage, Williams got top billing over Gene Hackman and Nathan Lane. Not too shabby.)

But Williams was more than an actor. As a comedian, he was one of the greatest of all time. I was a huge fan of Williams’ standup comedy. My best friend in grade school looked a bit like Williams and proved adept mimicking Williams’ impressions. We had a lot of fun with it. We did Williams doing Jim Nabors. And Williams doing John Wayne. Williams doing a redneck and a gay hairdresser and an Arab and a Japanese tourist.

Williams was not a master impressionist, like Rich Little. His impressions were good, but not precise. It was as though, as NPR’s Terry Gross described it, he had a coterie of different personalities inside him, and it was never clear which would come out next.

But, his content was brilliant. In 1986, in “A Night at the Met,” he said “I’m Robin Leach, a man with a voice so loud even animals go ‘Who the f*ck are you?’” Where did that come from? I don’t even think Leach was particularly loud. But Leach, the host of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” was obnoxious, pretentious and overbearing in a manner best described as loud.

Williams pierced the cultural zeitgeist with his humor. And, whether it was true in the sense of accuracy or not, it did hang together.

As a kid who imitated comics, I could recite the dentist’s chair scene from Bill Cosby’s “Himself.” Or, Eddie Murphy’s “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.” Those were acts; you could deliver those lines. But, Williams’ performances moved so quickly from one persona to another that following them gave you the comedy equivalent of whiplash. You couldn’t recreate him out of context.

This, however, gave his admirers the freedom to invent. We couldn’t recite the lines. Heck, it was hard to understand them, and I still don’t get all the references. But, we could tie together random things that seemed disparate and create something funny, at least part of the time, because he did.

In the tributes of the past week, many observers — particularly critics who had to try to represent his brilliance in print — have said of Williams that ‘you had to be there’ to appreciate his genius. I think it’s because the performance just isn’t that funny if you’re not there to see the free association happen. The brilliance is embedded in the high wire act of seeing him jump from topic to topic and then back again, and in not knowing what’s hiding around the next curve.

We talk about Williams as an improv genius, but I really don’t think that’s right. He was an associative genius. He took us on journeys, with bits that travelled from Walt Disney to Ronald Reagan to Moammar Quadafi, to Colonel Sanders to fast-food workers. (“You want fries with that?”) These are things that did not fit together, except through him.

In fact, this is the thing I think we don’t yet appreciate about Williams. His comedy made the randomness of life, at a time when the world was becoming increasingly random, make sense.

You know, growing up in the 1970s and ’80s was a very confusing time. (I’m sure it’s possible to insert any decade into that sentence, but indulge me for a moment.) We were born into the nuclear era, under the threat of the Cold War. We experienced American hostages in Iran, assassination attempts on the Pope and the president, the rise of Michael Jackson and MTV, the eruption of Mount St. Helens and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It all seemed fairly random, if not terrifying.

And here came this guy, Robin Williams. A fast-talking comic who changed topics and personas so quickly you barely had a chance to keep up. He talked about everything. Sometimes in one long, wildly meandering sentence. And, while we never knew where he’d be taking us, the ride often was more sense-making than the evening news. Much as Jon Stewart does today, on a nightly basis.

And the brilliance of it was that, while he was clearly a genius, he didn’t try to seem smarter than us or try to make some grand statement about what it all meant. He had the courage to leave it there and say “yep.” Much like we all had to do on pretty much a daily basis.

That’s what makes me most sad about Williams’ death. Robin Williams could look at the strange, random absurdity in the world, and, tie it together imperfectly but hilariously, and make you laugh until your guts hurt and then —— as he did when he walked off stage at “A Night at the Met” hand-in-hand with his imaginary 3-year-old son —– say ‘f*ck it’ in a three-year-old toddler’s voice. It made you feel like you could laugh it off, too.

Like Walter Cronkite in my parents’ generation, Robin Williams looked at the world and helped us make sense of it. And, his passing makes it make a little less sense overall.


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Robin Williams | Awardscore

Last month, to evaluate Philip Seymour Hoffman’s acting career, we created a framework called the Awardscore [1]. Here’s a look at where Robin Williams ranks.

Actor Age Noms Wins Oscar Noms Oscar Wins Awardscore
Jack Nicholson 77 71 95 12 3 351
Daniel Day-Lewis 57 35 127 5 3 344
Tom Hanks 58 86 71 5 2 288
Denzel Washington 59 85 73 6 2 281
Philip Seymour Hoffman 46 64 88 4 1 270
Javier Bardem 45 53 91 3 1 260
Sean Penn 54 63 76 5 2 260
George Clooney 53 92 60 4 1 242
Leonardo DiCaprio 39 122 50 4 0 242
Robin Williams 63 60 70 4 1 220

Among the peer set of Best Actor nominees for the past 30 years, Williams ranks 10th. He is also arguably the greatest star to cross over from comedy to drama. While one could make the case that Tom Hanks similarly moved from sitcom acting to a serious big screen drama career, none of the actors on this list were standup comedians of note besides Williams.

Which brings us to another unique point. Grammy awards are not included in our acting analysis. (Nor, some have noted, are Tony awards. Or women.) But if the Grammy award is included, and it is rated like an Oscar, Williams moves into elite territory.

Williams was nominated for seven Grammy awards and won five overall, four for best Comedy Album. (His fifth was for best spoken word album, in a collaboration with Ry Cooder.) Applying a similar Awardscore formula to Grammy awards, Williams would rank fifth behind Bill Cosby (7W, 12N), George Carlin (5W, 16N), Richard Pryor (5W, 10N) and Steve Martin (4W, 9N) among comedians.

An impressive career, however you look at it.

It’s worth noting that there are some flaws or distortions in this exercise. As film festivals and awards have proliferated in recent years, the rankings of older actors such as DeNiro, Newman, Pacino and Albert Finney, fall further behind the younger generation. Which, it’s worth noting, makes Jack Nicholson’s status as top dog among the past 30 years of Best Actor nominees all the more impressive.

[1] NOTE: As a reminder, the Awardscore gives actors 10 points for an Oscar win, five points for an Oscar nomination and two and one points, respectively, for overall acting awards and nominations listed in the IMDB.com database. For this ranking, we expanded our set of actors in the analysis to include all nominees for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role dating back to 1984. For the Hoffman piece, we were looking for objective data about the claim that he was “The Greatest Actor of His Generation,” which only took us back to 1997.

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Pouring Cold Water On A Viral Movement

Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his five sons share in his #icebucketchallenge video

By Mike Kuczkowski

We know the story by now: On July 31, 29-year-old Pete Frates, of Boston, filmed a 52-second video that sparked a movement.

The video itself is unremarkable. Frates stares into the camera, moving his head back and forth to the beat of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby.” He says nothing. He writes a message naming nine people in it, tags it #icebucketchallenge and posts it to his Facebook page.

The story behind it, however, is incredibly moving. Frates was a former star outfielder for Boston College’s Division I baseball team. As team captain, he had led the 2007 team with five home runs and 19 stolen bases. In April of that year, he set a modern BC record with eight runs batted in in one game.

Yet, like the Hall of Fame Yankees star Lou Gehrig, Frates’ baseball career was cut short by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), an incurable progressive neurodegenerative disease. Frates was diagnosed in 2012 and is now confined to a wheelchair. He cannot speak. He eats through a feeding tube. He types using ocular recognition technology.

Frates’ Facebook post was a flash, and the tinderbox of social media channels ignited in response. Athletes, celebrities and ordinary people were tagged by their friends and acquaintances.They heard Frates’s story and were inspired. They began filming #icebucketchallenge videos, posting them to Facebook and Twitter, giving money to ALS and challenging their friends to do the same. It works essentially like a chain letter: if you accept the challenge and film a video, you give $10 to the charity and nominate three others to do a video; if you don’t film a video, you pay the charity $100.

The roster of those who have doused themselves reads like a list of the Forbes Most Powerful. Bill Gates took the challenge, as did Oprah. Jimmy Fallon and the Roots took the challenge, as did Justin Timberlake, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Martha Stewart, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim McGraw. The list — and the elaborateness of the contraptions involved — grows more impressive by the day.

As has the volume of donations to the ALS Association: $7.6 million in two weeks, compared to $1.1 million in the same period last year, including gifts from more than 100,000 new donors. On Aug. 15, Facebook reported that 1.2 million ice bucket challenge videos had been posted, and 15 million had posted, commented or “liked” a post about the challenge.

Is this a lesson in social media virality? Is Frates a one-man maven and connector?

This chart, released by Facebook, supports the notion that the #icebucketchallenge is a viral, social media phenomenon (worth noting, the Facebook charts are based only on Facebook data).


And here’s a graphic shows the spread of the ice bucket challenge across the country, with a clear epicenter in Boston, where Frates lives.


In fact, the story is more complicated. The ice bucket challenge had actually been around for more than six weeks before Frates posted his video. My 13-year-old son received the cold water challenge on his Instagram account from a classmate on June 16. (He ignored it; there was no tie to charity at the time.) The challenge started as a dare.

And, as it morphed and added a charity component, it received significant mainstream media attention. On July 14, two weeks before Frates’ post, golfer Greg Norman challenged Today Show host Matt Lauer, who filmed his challenge on air. Lauer gave a donation to Hospice of Palm Beach County. Ironically, now that the phenomenon has become so closely associated with ALS, Lauer has been criticized for not mentioning the charity.

Frates also wasn’t the first person with an ALS association to post a video. A golfer in Sarasota, Fl., dedicated his video to an ALS patient July 14. Dan Quinn, whose brother Pat also suffers from ALS – posted a video to his brother’s “Quinn for the Win” page on July 26, urging people to learn more about ALS. Quinn’s and Frates’ networks overlap, and Frates tagged #Quinnforthewin in his July 31 post.[i]

But what can this tell us about social movements? Could anyone in marketing, public relations or fundraising, have predicted that Frates would be such an influential figure in this movement?

Doubtful. Because while Frates was definitely influential in all of this, he had a lot of help. There are four major factors of influence that matter when it comes to understanding how an idea can become a social movement: context, consensus, catalyst and calls to action.

Contextmay be the most important part. How are the environmental conditions right for this movement to take off? This is difficult to assess in the context of the ice bucket challenge. It would appear that the challenge had been around for a while, and that ALS awareness is lower than it perhaps should be (only 50 percent of Americans apparently are familiar with the disease. I guess, unlike in my own household, “Pride of the Yankees” is no longer required viewing.)

It’s also a hot summer in many parts of the country. From my standpoint, I don’t think the context is aligned with the challenge, and that’s part of why I and many others may feel some dissonance around it.

Consensus: There must to be some momentum around a need that audiences or stakeholders feel must change. And, I think there’s a latent consensus that something should be done to cure ALS: more research, better drugs. But again, nothing that has much of a ‘wow’ factor in this aspect.

The third factor is a catalyst. And, whatever the origins of all this, Pete Frates appears to be that. Some event or actor galvanizes public opinion that prompts some action. It’s interesting to note that Frates seems to have been extremely focused on raising awareness for ALS this year. He wrote a moving piece for the sports website Bleacher Report — with no mention of ice — about his diagnosis and experiences on July 2 to mark the 75th anniversary of Gehrig’s famous “Luckiest Man” speech. He is also well-connected on social media, with hundreds of followers and a family actively supporting his awareness and fundraising efforts. Critically, his personal story provides a great hook to turn a nascent movement into something more powerful.

Calls to Action: Ultimately participation in a movement requires something people can do. And, this is where I think the ice bucket challenge wins big. As this post explains, the challenge involves something that is easy to do (film a video) and something we have been programmed to do since we were toddlers (play tag). And we all like to watch people do silly things, which is why so many of us have played these videos, whether from friends of celebrities, over the past three weeks.

Even given all that, there are three significant factors that have been extremely influential, but are getting far less attention than the ‘man who sparked a movement’ narrative:

Mainstream media: In terms of reach, Facebook says 15 million people were exposed to an #icebucketchallenge post on social media, an impressive figure. But let’s take a look at other channels. Lauer’s Today Show segment alone reached 4.2 million. Between Aug. 1 and Aug. 19, some 996 unique print articles are listed in the Factiva database with the term “ice bucket challenge.” The number of broadcast mentions probably dwarfs that figure. This may well be a case where the number of people exposed to mainstream media coverage of the challenge is 10 times the number of people exposed to it on social media.

Celebrity: A remarkable number of celebrities, each of whom has a greater than average number of followers, were caught up in this. As mentioned earlier, this challenge has been taken on by tons of athletes, musicians, politicians and business leaders. Today, each of those has his or her own followings on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Jimmy Fallon’s YouTube channel has four million subscribers, and his ice bucket video has been viewed two million times. Bill Gates’ video has been viewed 9 million times. Those two alone nearly match the Facebook engagement of #icebucketchallenge to date.

The Law of Numbers: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the math. As a challenge like this gains participation, the number of participants grows exponentially, just as a consequence of each challenge spreading to three more people. We modeled the rules of the ice bucket challenge in an Excel spreadsheet and charted the results below in what we call the “chain letter effect.”

Looks a lot like the graph Facebook released on the #icebucketchallenge.


So what does this all mean? What appears to be a social media viral phenomenon may just be a phenomenon. One where a catalyst and a call to action — facilitated by social media, boosted by mainstream media and the special sauce of celebrity participation — caught on and ultimately conformed to the chain letter effect. A young man suffering from a terrible disease did a good thing and gained attention for an important cause. And lots of people got wet. Cold and wet.

It’s unclear whether the boon of fund raising for ALS will sustain itself or pass. Studies show that many people give roughly the same amount of money to charity each year, suggesting there may be some cannibalization of nonprofit resources in ALS’s funding increase. What would really help, to state the obvious, is progress toward a cure.

In this respect, it is as it was in 1939, when Gehrig, one of the most famous men on the planet, retired suddenly from baseball after an astonishingly successful career, and gave one of the most moving speeches in history, one broadcast around the globe and celebrated to this day. He died two years later. Let’s hope today’s contributions lead to a cure long before we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Pete Frates’ viral ice bucket moment.

[i] John Frates — Pete’s dad — taped a video July 29, in response to a challenge from his son Andrew, of his own ice bucket challenge. You can see Pete in the video next to him. In contrast to Elon Musk’s sophisticated 5-bucket contraption, Frates’s dad has a friend dump a wheelbarrow of ice on him. Old school.