The Gift of Robin Williams
Posted on August 11, 2014
Robin Williams died today. The circumstances don’t matter so long as they weren’t at someone else’s hands, and thankfully as reports go in this breaking story they weren’t.
On very few occasions in our lifetimes are we inspired by greatness—those moments when we see, hear, touch as our senses allow something so different, that our perceptions of reality change. That happened to me the night I first glimpsed Robin Williams on TV.
Being GenX I grew up in Australia in front of a cathode ray screen. As my earliest recollections go, our first TV was a huge wooden box on four legs with a weird looking space-age antenna that coiled like a coat hanger from its sides. It was an HMV brand and its logo was a dog, sitting in front of a gramophone (I had no idea what that was), fixated obviously to the sound of “His Master’s Voice”.
So my youngest childhood days passed in the black and whiteness of soap operas, dramas and movies.
But it was a ready diet of US-made sitcoms that gave me sustenance: Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, Here’s Lucy, Mr. Ed, Addams Family, Dobby Gillis, Gidget, My Three Sons, Honeymooners, Dick Van Dyke, Carol Burnett, Gomer Pyle, F Troop, Get Smart, Brady Bunch, Odd Couple—and that doesn’t even touch the epic industry called cartoons (written with mature audiences in mind back then)—of Looney Tunes, Jetsons and the Flintstones there amongst.
The point is that these shows were pure shtick—rooted in vaudeville. And they shaped my sense of humor then on.
Color TV came in the mid-70s and while some of these shows transferred to its vista, a new era of sitcom was born, typified by the brilliance of MASH, Good Times, Jeffersons, Welcome Back Kotter, Bob Newhart, and Mary Tyler Moore.
But one show, appeared in 1974—a sitcom, that like MASH, sought to infuse humanity within its laughter. This was Happy Days—and it launched stellar careers for its key stars; a show so powerful it interrupted the national news one night with the breaking story: “Will Fonzie jump the shark?”
Proof of its true impact on sitcom tastes though, came with the number of spin-offs it birthed. Two of its greatest were Laverne and Shirley (1976) and Mork and Mindy (1978). And with the latter of course entered full-time, Robin Williams.
The man was speed incarnate and though yes, drugs would infest his life, the metaphor here speaks of his on stage dynamics.
To me, the finest attribute of what I call vaudeville, is the “improv”: the ability to conjure up rib cracking humor beyond the script in a routine or skit.
Through my life as a viewer I’ve witnessed some masters: Jerry Lewis, Lou Costello, Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett, Jonathan Winters, Alan Alda, Tim Conway, Graham Kennedy, Victor Borge—oh heck, you can’t forget Lucille Ball.
All it took was a sideways glance, a raised eyebrow, a badly concealed smirk—and the lifejackets would fly, laughter would no longer be canned—it’d be sublime.
So into that mix swept Robin Williams, a man who didn’t just fall off scripts, he re-wrote them mid air. His beauty lay in the reactions of his co-stars as they struggled to keep up. Here was no upstaging—with Robin Williams, he was the stage.
The true talent of a comedic wit though, is the pathos that sits inside. Comedy derives from honesty—an overly acute awareness of what makes things tick. It gives it a gorgeous character that becomes self-deprecation and the foundation for the limits of satire.
Blessed as such, Robin Williams also surprised audiences with drama that grabbed at the ankles and tugged hard. Moscow on the Hudson, The World According to Garp, and Goodwill Hunting held me. But two movies particularly caressed my essence: The Birdcage and Good Morning Vietnam. The latter deeply affecting the person and writer I wanted to be.
All this goes to saying in many words what could be addressed so simply: That Robin Williams was a gift in my life and proof that the world offers talent out of its darkest confines.
His wife, Susan Schneider, said today:
This morning I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings … As he is remembered, it is our hope that the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.
As history shows, talent—real talent—often comes with great pain to its owner. This is an aspect of our world that I find hard to fathom, but it is ever so true.
All I can pray is that talent continues to rush out at us like a herd of elephants from the thickest of trees; trumpeting with bravado as their feet pound our souls, shaking the stupor from our minds and the melancholy from our bones.
Thank you Robin Williams: What’s the bet they’re now rolling in the aisles up high?
© 2014 Adam Parker.