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.