Robin Williams: His unscripted riffs were not merely funny, but observant

Robin Williams, whose style influenced a generation of comedians who were in the process of remaking comedy itself, battled drugs and alcohol abuse throughout most of his career.

Robin Williams grew up in a wealthy suburban Detroit family, a childhood he described as “almost hypernormal.” But in remembering the comedian and actor who passed on Monday from what police say was a suicide, that may well be the last time normalcy surrounded a man as noted for his genius as for his troubled path through life.

His signature ability to turn the world inside out in rapid-fire, gasping-for-air patter burst upon the public consciousness in his debut series role as the alien in “Mork & Mindy,” which ran from 1978 to 1982.

His riffs were not merely funny. They were deeply observant, subversive in their ability to blast assumptions about normalcy or conventional reality, and frequently unsettling in their speed and breadth of references and comparisons. These free-flowing streams of consciousness were also gleeful, often joyful – though not always – and completely impossible to script.

Director and fellow actor Henry Winkler recalled in the Hollywood Reporter on Monday that scripts for the Mork sitcom were half the size of normal sitcom scripts because writers simply left a space for the comedian’s improvisations, denoted, “Robin does something here.”

Williams quickly leapt from the small to the large screen, expanding his repertoire to include dramatic roles in such films as “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and “Good Will Hunting,” for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.

This transition is particularly significant because the Mork character had become a cultural phenomenon, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. It was virtually impossible to walk into a school in those days without hearing a student mimic Williams’ “nanoo, nanoo” from the show.” Yet, the comedian did “this most extraordinary thing,” he says. Williams managed to reach escape velocity within four years and re-create himself in a series of film roles that went on for years.

“Williams seemed to have an uncanny ability and vulnerability to take on so many personas,” says Dwight DeWerth-Pallmeyer, associate professor of communication studies at Widener University in Chester, Pa. More than just a phenomenal comedic improvisational impersonator, as was his mentor Jonathan Winters who died last year, he says, “Williams could intellectually get inside characters in a nuanced way that reflected both the depth of the characters he played and his own intelligence.”

And yet for all that intellectual ability, the comedian battled drugs and alcohol abuse throughout most of his career. As the Los Angeles Times noted, the comedian once told People Magazine that "Cocaine for me was a place to hide.… Most people get hyper on coke. It slowed me down.… And I was so crazy back then, working all day and partying most of the night: I needed an excuse not to talk."

However, unlike some with whom he was close who did not win their struggle with substance abuse – such as close friend John Belushi who died of a drug overdose – Williams managed to escape an early death. His style influenced a generation of comedians who were in the process of remaking comedy itself.

“He came up with the likes of Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman,” says Mr. Thompson, all of whom were “turning comedy on its modernist ear.” He points to others such as Mr. Martin with his Dada arrow through the head and David Letterman and “Saturday Night Live,” who were redefining late night talk shows as a parody of the genre.

“Williams accelerated the pace about seven times and he threw out the whole Henny Youngman formal structure of a joke with certain rhythms,” points out Thompson. Indeed, says Christopher Sharrett, a Seton Hall University film professor, “his energies and improvisational skills became models for a new generation of stand-up comedians.”

More comfortable on camera, or on stage than off, Williams often used his personal struggles to infuse his work with a deeper humanity up until his death, says Wheeler Winston Dixon, film professor at University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He continued to work, if at a slower pace as a result of such battles, returning to series TV this past season for the first time since his Mork role, with his recently canceled sitcom, “The Crazy Ones.”

“If in recent years, after his heart surgery, he had slowed down, he showed with ‘The Crazy Ones,’ that he was still in there pitching, being generous to his fellow cast members, in a show that should have succeeded, but never caught fire.”

Williams was not without his critics. His “always ‘on,’ please-love-me manic humor was off-putting to more than a few of the ticket-buying audience,” says Professor Sharrett, who adds that it became a running motif throughout his career. “Sticky-sweet movies like Patch Adams make the case for his defense a bit tough,” he adds, and notes that “for some, he was the epitome of the self-obsessed comedian serving middle-brow tastes.”

Nonetheless, it was this effort to find himself that may lie at the heart of his most valuable gift, says Derek A. Burrill, associate professor of Media and Cultural Studies at UC Riverside in Calif.

“Probably the most important contribution he made to pop culture, across so many different media, was as Robin Williams the person,” he says via e-mail.

His manic intensity and his honesty about drug and alcohol addiction and depression – particularly the way he worked it into his characters and his stand-up comedy, “allowed all of us to be honest with ourselves about those same things, while it also helped us to understand the artistic mind at work,” he says.

“There was also a depth of humanity in his work, an understanding of what it means to be different, and how everyone has a creative and generous side – he thoroughly understood and explored the impulse to connect with others at a very basic level, something that the best entertainers know how to tap in to in order to speak about larger truths,” he says adding that he joins a cast of comic luminaries with similar, singular talents, such as Tom Hanks, Bill Cosby, Peter Sellars, and Richard Pryor, he says, who all have “that special something.”

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