It’s rare a comedy actor gets under your skin like Robin Williams.
We have been blessed with belly laughs from countless comedians over the years. Charlie Chaplin. Bill Murray. John Cleese. Eddie Murphy. Diane Keaton. Whoopie Goldberg. Peter Sellers. Leslie Nielsen. Amy Poelher. Rowan Atkinson. Lucille Ball. The list could go on. But none have captured the human condition like Robin Williams.
Here are some of the late, great acting veteran’s best bits:
If that’s not enough to convince you, just ask the 25,000 people who voted Robin Williams ‘The Funniest Person Of All Time’ in a Ranker poll which has been viewed nearly half a million times.
Alongside other greats, what did Robin do so well to warrant such an accolade? Well, comedy is an escape from reality, inspired by reality itself. None managed to tread the line like the ever-mercurial Mr. Williams.
The California kid who was voted least likely to succeed by his Redwood High schoolmates won five Grammys, two Emmys and an Academy Award in a 20-year career.
But it all started on stage.
Williams once equated stand up to ‘survival’. Perhaps this feeling is what gave his performances a certain desperately effervescent energy and charged quality.
Indeed, when he did stand up he truly stood out.
In his self-confessed drive for connection and validation, Robin created a completely unique presence as a comedian on stage across venues in LA and San Francisco, where he’s credited with leading the renaissance of comedy.
In a time of the racial epithets of Richard Pryor and deadpan delivery of Bob Newhart, the vocal stylings of Williams shone, seeming fresh and otherworldly.
He once said: ‘I don’t tell jokes, I just use characters as a vehicle for me.’
In hindsight, audiences can see he didn’t stop at the punchline. He simply allowed all the different and beautiful facets of his multi-dimensional personality shine through on stage to tell stories – if with a sprinkling of stereotype which probably wouldn’t fly now.
Notably, this manifested in his ability to layer character upon character in improvisation:
In 2014, a study conducted by Professor Gordon Claridge and his team at the University of Oxford’s Experimental Psychology department found the creative elements needed for humour are similar to those ‘characterising the cognitive style of people with psychosis’.
Speaking to UNILAD, Professor Claridge explained adaptive personality traits like creativity underlie these sorts of psychological disorders.
A predominant personality profile in comedians seems to be ‘cyclothymia’, a temperament dimension related, in the clinical domain, to bipolar disorder with its swings between depression and high mood.
I am not an expert on Robin Williams but I know enough about his behaviour and style of comedy to be sure he fell into the cyclothymic description; as of course have many comedians in the past, such as Spike Milligan and Tony Hancock – and more recently, by his own confession, Stephen Fry.
Williams’ impressions were of their time, no doubt.
At times they drew on uncomfortable stereotypes, but only after endless observations in the name of comedy, and largely to belittle the American sense of collective self.
Indeed, Professor Will Kaufman, who specialises in American Literature, Culture and Comedy at University of Central Lancaster, chimed in to muse perhaps all comedians who examine the serious side of the human condition in a comedic way suffer a crisis of conflict he dubbed ‘irony fatigue’ in his 1997 book The Comedian as Confidence Man.
He cites Max Eastman who, in his 1936 book Enjoyment of Laughter wrote:
The first law of humour is that things can be funny only when we are in fun. There may be a serious thought or motive lurking underneath our humour. We may be only ‘half in fun’ and still funny.
But when we are not in fun at all, when we are ‘in dead earnest’, humour is the thing that is dead.
Many comedians like Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut who trod the line between making people laugh and making people listen to their ideas ‘got tired of wearing the mask of comedy’.
Kaufman told UNILAD performers like these became exhausted by ‘keeping up with that “Only kidding, folks!” convention on which comedy has always depended’.
Despite this potential infliction, Williams’ improvisation skills went from strength to strength and quickly landed him a spot on Happy Days, which spun off into the eponymous Mork and Mindy.
Those of us who know him only through a camera lens painted Williams as an eccentric, but he thought deeply about his manic Golden Globe-winning depiction of the alien character from the planet Ork.
So much so, Williams deployed his grasp of numerous languages as well as his ability to create nonsensical words from thin air, and combined the two to swear repeatedly in the family-friendly daytime show, unbeknown to the producers and writers who’d left large sections of the script blank to allow for the star’s improvisation.
ABC had to hire translators so he could be censored in four different languages, which has to be a record.
Only five years after The Mork Report, the sitcom’s final episode of 1982, Williams’ vocal talents were put to good use in the fictional realms of radio, with his starring role in Good Morning, Vietnam.
Adrian Cronauer’s morale mission provided his fictional compatriots and the viewing public watching on the silver screen some much needed lightness in dark days – and it won a Grammy.
You can watch his work his magic behind the frontline below:
Dead Poets Society (1989) saw Williams take on another non-conformist character – and while it’s not laugh out loud funny for obvious reasons, Williams does serve some smiles in the cult classic’s classroom at the expense of the elite.
The eighties might have marked his greatest performances in film, but the nineties was the decade which offered the superstardom Williams had never asked for.
First we had Aladdin, and the all-powerful, kindly, chess-playing Genie of the Lamp, who won over the hearts and minds of Disney fans the world over when he saved our titular heroes life repeatedly.
That same year would be his most recognisable performance to all millennials, as Daniel Hillard and Mrs. Doubtfire in the eponymous children’s film following one father’s desperate – and often odd – actions to keep his family together.
He won a Golden Globe for his performance and went onto amaze and ignite the imaginations of many more children with the release of Jumanji.
The following year, The Birdcage, in which Williams played the starring role of Armand, a Miami Beach drag club owner, won a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.
In the same year Williams once again proved his ‘respectable’ acting chops in Good Will Hunting, he also delighted the masses with Flubber, which, incidentally got a slimy 24 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Hey, mankind is nothing if not flawed.
Imperfection is actually part of Williams’ appeal to us mere mortals.
There is an innately human need to fetishising late, great comedians, and perhaps their apparent inner turmoil gives their comedy a uniquely human, relatable tone posthumously.
Indeed, friends and family have said of Williams he had a ravenous hunger for success – but paired with crushing self confidence issues, as well as addiction, it proved a cocktail too potent for his mind to manage.
News of his suicide in August 2014 left his admirers, his detractors and the film industry in mourning for the tragic loss of life and the many more performances Williams’ talent could have mustered, if not plagued by ill mental health and a recent Parkinson’s diagnosis.
An autopsy also revealed Williams had been suffering with diffuse Lewy body dementia.
It was Williams himself, however, who said, ‘You’re only given a little spark of madness, and if you lose that you’re nothing’:
Perhaps it was his personal suffering – as well as the comedian’s knack for observation – which gave him Williams the ability to capture the human condition in his role in 1999’s Bicentennial Man.
But he doesn’t always play the good guy – or robot – and never shied away from the darker corners of the human brain, in his portrayals of the criminal voyeur, Seymour Parrish in One Hour Photo (2002).
He also tackled the thoughts of murdering Walter Finch in Insomnia and a child-snatching music man, Maxwell ‘Wizard’ Wallace, in the otherwise saccharine August Rush.
From 2006 onwards, he enjoyed repeated appearances as Teddy Roosevelt in Night at the Museum and as the voice of not one but two birds in Happy Feet, Ramon and Lovelace.
His later film choices showed a real love of entertainment and that perpetual need to make those around him – his doting fanbase – happy.
Robin Williams gave the world the great gift of his back catalogue of belly-aching laughs, empathy tears and an understanding of our words, actions and consequences through his great story-telling power.
But he also taught us it’s okay to be your true self, whatever form that may take today because – let’s be honest – the best jokes always stem from truth.
You can speak to someone confidentially about your mental health and wellbeing by calling one of the following numbers: Samaritans – 116 123 , Childline – 0800 1111 (UK) / 1800 66 66 66 (ROI), Teenline – 1800 833 634 (ROI).
If you have a story to tell contact UNILAD via [email protected]