Upon hearing of Robin Williams passing, I, like millions of other fans, felt we have lost one of the best comedians of the last century. I’m not able (nor do I want to attempt) to write up an overview of his comedy career noting its highlights and main themes. However, I would like to say a few things about the energy and the mystery that ran through his improvisational kind of comedy. Unlike many comedians who would let their mania go out of control, Williams tempered it with a charm and calm. His comedic energy was infectious and solicited great laughter in his audiences. And his act had a kind of kinetic appeal to it that was new and surprising for many people living in America. But, in its wake, it left us with a kind of darkness or mystery. And for this reason, it touched on a kind of truth that is or may be possible through a kind of comedy that makes the audience “explode” with laughter.
In The Last Laugh: The World of Stand-Up Comedy, Phil Berger introduces Robin Williams near the end of the book. To show how unique he was, Berger points out how different he was from other comedians who were managed by Rollins Joffe & Brezner (a talent management firm). They managed comedians like Billy Crystal, Woody Allen, David Letterman, and Martin Short. And most of the comedians they managed had a similar shtick. Robin Williams was different, and this had much to do with his energetic style and his uses of improvisation in his act. He would efface the line between himself and the audience and go with whatever he came across:
In the case of Robin Williams, the problem was that his energy-charged act was so different from those of other comics that Los Angeles talent managers couldn’t get a fix on him. Williams lived on the improvised moment, doing takeoffs on Shakespearean plays, cracking up audiences in spur-of-the-moment iambic pentameter. Plucking a flower from a ringside vase: “….and look, a gentle rose, dying here anon…like myself.” He would plunge into the crowd, reacting to what he saw or heard. Lifting a carafe of wine from a patron’s table: “Hello, Laurence Olivier for Ripple wine.” He might even retire to a table in the audience and heckle himself: “I’ve heard all that stuff before. Your material is derivative.”
Williams’ ability to switch roles on the dime made him unique. In Williams, Brezner saw a “manic” energy that had the affect of something like a “wind tunnel”:
With Williams, the challenge was to take his nearly manic, stream of consciousness style (Brezner: “He had comedic energy that rebounded through the room. It felt like you stepped into a “wind tunnel.”) and not let it get out of hand. This meant giving the act structure – a beginning, middle, and an end – that had enough slack in it for Williams to dazzle audiences with his improvisational wit and energy. “If he just did his thing,” said Brezner, “the effect was that people laughed a lot, but they wouldn’t know who he is.”
Brezner’s last line is very interesting. It suggests that Williams, at the outset of his career, didn’t have a persona like Woody Allen. Rather, Williams was trading in a kind of energetics and play that has resonance with Woody Allen’s Zelig – a character who was likened to a chameleon.
In Zelig and Williams there is a mysteriousness that is born out of a transformational and manic energy. It is highly mimetic and performative. The laughter he evoked, as well, had a mysterious character to it. And it may have this mysteriousness because it touches on something hidden, dark, sad, and even tragic.
Writing on laughter, Jean-Luc Nancy, argues that laughter is a “gaze brought to bear on tragedy itself, in its tragic truth…the laughter is the knowledge of this truth. But it doesn’t know this truth as the content of knowledge”(“Laughter, Presence,” 366). For Nancy, it is in the moment of laughter and comedy that “it is known, it is in laughing that laughter is the truth.” And this truth comes forth in energetic “bursts” or “explosions,” which, when they withdraw, leave a mysterious silence.
The one bursts with the other and from the same burst, truth withdraws into laughter, into the “dim glistening of the mystery.” That is why the laughter remains mysterious – more, it is the exposition of a mystery. The burst of laughter reveals that the structure of its truth is to be hidden. (366)
Whenever I saw Williams doing comedy, I always had a sense of this kind of darkness in the wake of his routine which came across as a series of comic explosions. It was as if he pulled back from his laughter – and the explosions – so as to expose us to a dark truth. Sometimes there would be a kind of violence to his “nearly manic” routine. We see it here, in this mime routine within a film.
We also see energetic uneasiness in his earlier routines. The laughter it evokes, like the laughter that Andy Kaufmann would evoke in many of his routines discloses how Americans survive from one rapid change (or “explosion”) to another. The movement from character to character – as Zelig does – evinces a departure from identity and a series of rapid fire changes.
Williams stand-up routine, near the end of his life, brings out a kind of comedy that uses energetics to deal with a series of shocks that are distinctly America. His comedy reminds us of what many of us share. And it shows us how survival of these shocks, as he presents them, is an American-kind-of-thing to do.
Yet, at the core of this sudden outbursts and shocks, which he comically stages for us, there is a mystery about where all of this is going. He takes us on a journey of sorts through many states, but it is really the future that is the mystery. It is not simply (or only) as Brezner believed, related to Williams’ identity. Not only do we not know who Williams is (in the wake of each of his routines), we also don’t know where we are all going. He reveals something common to us that emerges in the wake of a series of shocks that permeate out time.
Thinking back over all the comedy I saw him perform I now feel as if I understand him better than I ever did. What Williams gave me, as a child, was a way of feeling I was a part of something larger than myself and that the best way to touch that was through exaggerating experience and playing out the things that shocked me. By improvising these things, I felt as if I could touch something real and alive. But the bigger question always lingered – as it did for Zelig – who was he and who are we? And where are all of these changes taking us?
You will be missed, Robin. Thanks for making comedy real and for tapping me in to existential questions that I share with many Americans; questions that emerge out of rapid changes and the flight of history. Thanks for exposing me to the mystery of being alive, now, at this time.