From 'Mork & Mindy' to 'The Crazy Ones': The TV legacy of the late, great Robin Williams
Last summer, at a press conference to promote what would turn out to be the final TV series of his career, CBS' "The Crazy Ones," Robin Williams was asked what it was like to spend decades walking into rooms where everyone expected him to be instantly, wickedly funny.
"I think the pressure to be funny all the time, it’s like, 'Dance funny man, you know?'" he admitted. "I think sometimes there’s that pressure."
In a too-short life that was often wildly successful and at times — up until his apparent suicide at age 63 — deeply troubled, Williams coped with that pressure to be funny at a moment's notice with remarkable grace, energy and talent.
Even if we leave out his brilliant, Oscar-winning film career and focus solely on his TV work, so many scenes and jokes come instantly to mind: his star-making turn as daffy alien Mork from Ork, the astonishing energy of his 1986 "Robin Williams: An Evening at the Met" HBO stand-up special, his warm and silly chemistry with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg in the "Comic Relief" charity specials, all the way through to how happy he seemed to be to set up "Crazy Ones" co-stars like James Wolk to get the biggest laugh in a scene building off of something that Williams had done.
Strangely, the one that keeps coming to mind right now was 1989's 15th anniversary special of "Saturday Night Live," a star-studded primetime affair. It was live, of course, and as happens in live TV sometimes, there was a hiccup: for some reason, the special was in danger of coming in a few minutes short. Now, virtually every living "SNL" alum of note (save Eddie Murphy) was in the room, plus most of the most beloved and frequent hosts like Steve Martin and Tom Hanks — as astonishing a collection of stand-up, improv and sketch comedy talent as has ever been assembled in one television studio — and who did Lorne Michaels ask to save his bacon that night?
Robin Williams, of course.
He'd hosted the show a handful of times before (and would again many years later), but had a far less deep association with the franchise than so many others in that room. But at that moment in time, if you needed a human being to not only generate something out of absolutely nothing, but get big laughs doing so, your first, second and fifth choices had to be Robin Williams, who came out, explained about the dilemma the show found itself in, riffed a bit and then somehow got the crowd chanting the name of longtime "SNL" stage manager Joe Disco. It was among the flop-sweatiest moments in the career of a man who joked about the sweat on his face almost as much as all the hair on his chest, but he did the job, saved the show and then stepped aside so that others could get a few laughs before the final credits rolled.
Any discussion of Williams' TV legacy has to start, of course, with Mork. "Happy Days" producer Garry Marshall had wanted to do a far-out episode where Fonzie dueled with a man from outer space; Williams got the job after Marshall invited him to have a seat and Williams promptly climbed into a nearby chair upside-down, his head resting against the seat. This was "Happy Days," and Henry Winkler, at the height of their powers — earlier in the season that introduced Mork, the Fonz water-skied over a shark — and Williams stole the damn show out from under Winkler and everyone else. As Williams explained years later, Mork got his own show in part because Paramount had an on-air commitment with ABC and another show fell apart at the last minute, but "Mork & Mindy" — with Williams playing the role in his own voice, rather than the nasal twang he'd used on "Happy Days," and set in present-day Colorado — was an instant hit, and the first of many projects to take advantage of Williams' ability to get bigger laughs than whole writing rooms.
"Literally they would put in the script, 'Mork does his thing here,'” Williams recalled at that "Crazy Ones" press conference, "which was just like 'Riff, riff little white boy, here we go!'”
Williams had modeled much of his performing style on the great improv comic Jonathan Winters (who was plagued with his own demons), and in the final season of "Mork & Mindy," Williams helped arrange for Winters to join the cast as Mork's young son Mearth (Orkans aging backwards, of course).
The movies quickly came calling, but through a combination of Williams' own desires and the decisions of the filmmakers who hired him, movie audiences didn't get the Williams they knew from "Mork & Mindy," from talk show appearances and stand-up comedy showcases, until 1987's "Good Morning, Vietnam." There are some outstanding Williams films and/or performances in the early part of his movie career (the wistfulness of "Moscow on the Hudson," or the geniality of "Club Paradise," where Williams ably played straight man to a bunch of "SCTV" alums), but the voices, the surreal non-sequiturs and the seemingly bottomless energy of his TV and stand-up work were largely on hiatus as he exercised his dramatic muscles or learned to work inside larger ensembles.
Perhaps the quintessential artifact of Williams as unbridled id is 1986's "An Evening at the Met." Clad in a loud Hawaiian shirt, dripping buckets of sweat almost from the moment he jogs out to center stage, he lets loose a stream-of-consciousness-style collection of jokes, impressions and routines, about everything from Apartheid to his own struggles with cocaine to the pain his wife went through during childbirth. (Told that men can perhaps imagine the physical toll of labor, Williams laughs and says, "Unless you're circumcising yourself with a chainsaw, I DON'T THINK SO!") Much of it had been meticulously rehearsed, while other gags arose out of circumstance. (After a brief microphone failure, he riffed, "The sound crapped out again. That's why we're using... Supposi-Sound! Nobody wants their tapes back! I wonder why?") Where many of the classic HBO comedy specials by George Carlin, Chris Rock and others are defined by some larger theme, the only unifying element of "An Evening at the Met" was Robin Williams, force of nature.
In the same year, Williams teamed up with Crystal and Goldberg for the first "Comic Relief" special, dedicated to raising money and awareness to combat homelessness. The first special alone featured appearances from legends like Sid Caesar, Steve Allen, George Carlin (famously performing his "a place for my stuff" routine), Jerry Lewis and more, but the real draw was getting to see the three hosts in action, separately and together, getting laughs and encouraging tears for a worthy cause.
"Good Morning, Vietnam" sent his film career to another level — and seemingly made it okay for Williams and his directors to access the same part of his brain that gave us Mork and "An Evening at the Met" — but Williams continued trying to stretch himself as an actor on both the big screen and the small one. One of his best performances was in an episode of "Homicide: Life on the Street" called "Bop Gun" — which happened to be the first television episode written by "The Wire" creator David Simon and the late David Mills — playing a tourist who brings his family (including a tiny Jake Gyllenhaal as his son) to Baltimore for a vacation, only to deal with the murder of his wife in a random bit of street crime. Williams, doing a favor for producer Barry Levinson (who'd directed him to his first Oscar nomination in "Good Morning, Vietnam") lent that show credibility with NBC at a time when it desperately needed it, and delivered a performance absolutely in keeping with the show around him. This wasn't Big-Time Movie Star Robin Williams come to show up these lumpy TV character actors; this was a man reminding us that he loved being a character actor himself when he wasn't dressing up as an English nanny or providing the voice of an animated blue genie.
One of Williams' final guest appearances now takes on extra layer of poignancy. In a season 3 episode of "Louie," Williams plays a fictionalized version of himself (at least as much as Louis C.K. is playing himself), meeting Louie as the only two mourners at the funeral of a notoriously cheap, sleazy comedy club owner — each one attending it solely out of the fear that no one else would go. They bond over memories of their mutual acquaintance, then resolve that whichever one outlives the other will go to the funeral, again to be sure at least one human being is there to mark his passing.
Williams' actual memorial will not suffer from a lack of attendance, I would imagine. As news of his death hit, social media was flooded with stories of comedians, actors and storytellers whose work he'd influenced, or people whose lives he had touched through his generosity. He wasn't a perfect man — beyond his problems with addiction, he also had a reputation in comedy circles as a joke thief (and would reportedly open up his wallet and pay cash when confronted by those whose material he incorporated into his act) — but he did the best he could as often as he could, and for as long as he could. When people wanted him to be funny, he could joke rings around them like he was propelled by rockets. When they wanted him to be serious, he could win an Oscar or inspire boys to stand on their desks and cry, "O Captain! My captain!"
That "Crazy Ones" press conference was the only time I ever saw him in person, and it was fascinating to watch him shift between giving thoughtful answers about his return to television 30 years after his last regular show, and trying to work a room as cold as any he faced in all his years of stand-up. Williams came in knowing that the critics weren't likely to laugh, and even acknowledged early on that he had little shot at succeeding. At one point, he did a long riff about the idea of Apple creating a new product called iEye, "which is beyond Google Glass; they actually deposit it behind your frontal lobe." The bit died, but even there, his improvisatory skills hadn't left him. Rather than cringe at the silence, he leaned on a comic's basic defense mechanism and made himself the joke, telling us, "See, this is good, because this is where you realize that idea didn't work." As he mimed writing in a notebook, "Work on that one," we actually did laugh a little. That was all the opening he needed. The second half of that press conference was no "An Evening at the Met 2: Met Harder," but he sold some jokes, got other laughs from dealing with the demands of a room where two or three questions could fly at him simultaneously, and generally won over a crowd that was ambivalent at best about "The Crazy Ones."
Towards the end, someone asked him about the archetype of the sad clown — an archetype he embodied in both many of his most famous roles and in his own life. He winced at the question's premise, but answered it at length nonetheless.
"The idea of the sad clown thing," he said, "I think it’s the idea of, you know, all of a sudden you be funny and then that moment of tenderness. But sometimes you have to be very careful that it doesn’t go into saccharine or too much sentimental. If you keep it real... That’s what makes it work. And if the show works on that level, I think the sad clown or the somewhat melancholy clown or the melancholy mime which sits next to the sad clown — he’s in a box with a window, looking out."
He was then asked what was making him happy these days.
"What makes me happy?" he said. "My family, work and, I think, being around, you know, and creating. Like, when I’m not doing this show, I get to do something called 'Set List' once in a while. It’s like an improv show where you get seven suggestions and you put together an improvised set like a standup up comedy set. That’s a joy. That’s like — I was going to say 'free basing.' Ix-nay."
The reference to his past troubles with drugs got the biggest laugh of the session, and a pleased Williams said, "That’s the happy clown. But the idea of being around and riding a bike is one of my happiest moments."
I wish, for Williams' sake, for the sake of those who loved him, and for the sake of the millions like me who found such happiness in his work, Williams had been able to hold onto that good feeling.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org