Robin Williams, the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, 1951-2014


Robin Williams’s death yesterday at age 63, in an apparent suicide, is sad primarily because he leaves behind a wife and three children. For the rest of us, who only knew Williams through his work, it is wrenching to see him seemingly lose his battle with depression, despite the nakedly evident, obviously profound effort the actor and comedian invested into his work of getting laughs and spreading uplift. Have you ever watched any clips of his old stand-up routines? The man sweat gallons.

My first exposure to Robin Williams, as a kid, was probably Mork and Mindy reruns like everyone else, but I have more vivid memories of a short children’s audiobook he recorded (with music from Ry Cooder), about the cowboy legend Pecos Bill. (Obviously, it’s on YouTube now.) I remember the funny voices (always perfectly technically modulated), and the seemingly free-associative riffs into anachronistic references and head-slappingly corny old jokes: listening to him was like watching a man play Whac-A-Mole with his own brain.

If, as you got older, you occasionally noticed that no joke was too obvious, no reference too tired to be pulled out of the subconscious and into the flow of his manic, permanent tangents, well… Probably it’s the audience’s fault, too. If we hadn’t laughed, I’m sure Williams would have tried something else.

Williams’s transparent eagerness to please (and to inspire, to comfort, et cetera et cetera) led him as well into a number of justifiably derided schmaltzy dramas, though he could be understated and effectively utilized by stronger filmmakers. (This scene from Paul Mazursky’s 1984 Moscow on the Hudson, in which Williams starred as a Soviet defector, is probably cloying as hell, but it works, and for our purposes it’s notable that Williams modulates his own energy to let the scene’s emotion build collaboratively.) His performances, so dependent upon constant kinetic energy and the discovery of new shiny verbal objects, could scan as needy, though, obviously, when you’re a kid, life has not yet taught you to be suspicious of people who are hyperactive and starving for validation. (And as an adult, I can more clearly see that his verbal and physical facility—his instrument—was genuinely formidable.)

Over on Movie Twitter, where I live these days, there’s occasionally pushback against all of these 10th or 20th anniversary “re-considerations” of movies people loved as kids, and more broadly against the idea that cultural artifacts have any inherent value just because we liked them as children. This is true, of course, but in another way so is the obverse: that cultural artifacts are inherently valuable because we liked them as children, whatever their actual merits. I’m not going to make a case for Mrs. Doubtfire as an Actually Good Film, one that Really Holds Up, with a progressive core message about family love as a vehicle for tolerance; and thinking back now, most of the jokes I remember from it are not especially funny. But I laughed a lot at them when I was nine, an age at which everyone deserves to be happy rather than sad.

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