“People over here are going, ‘What the hell’s he doing now?'” Robin Williams says, halfway through his career-making 1982 stand-up special. Then he unleashes a demonic laugh and gives an order. “Catch up!” That was Robin Williams at his best — a wild-eyed one-man comic rampage, riffing at warp speed about sex and drugs and politics, faster than other human brains could follow. The world spent years trying to catch up to Williams — his motormouth energy seemed inexhaustible. He became such a beloved figure, twinkling and grinning in so many feel-good family flicks, it’s easy to miss how startling and outrageous he was when he first appeared.
Williams’ death at 63 came as sad and shocking news. But there was always a dark and lonely side to his humor. “It’s the ‘love me’ syndrome combined with the ‘fuck you’ syndrome,” he explained to Rolling Stone in 1988. “Like the great joke about the woman who comes up to a comic after a show and says, ‘God, I really love what you do. I want to fuck your brains out!’ And the comic says: ‘Did you see the first show or the second show?’ One hand is reaching out and the other is motioning to get back.”
Williams became a star in the late 1970s, on the short-lived kiddie sitcom Mork and Mindy. The show was definitely an artifact of its time: Mindy had a framed Jackson Browne album cover on her wall. Williams fell into the Hollywood party scene, doing coke with John Belushi at the Chateau Marmont on the night Belushi died. As Williams told Rolling Stone, “I was 26 or 27, and then, bang, there’s all this money, and there are magazine covers. Between the drugs and the women and all that stuff, it’s all coming at you, and you’re swallowed whole. It’s like “Whoooaaa!” Even Gandhi would have been kind of hard-pressed to handle it well. [As Gandhi on cocaine:] ‘Just one line, if you pleeeze. I’ll just do a little and save the world — fuck India!'”
The 1982 special An Evening With Robin Williams: Live and Uncensored is where he really turned into the Williams the world came to know and love. His sitcom buzz was fading, and both of his big movies had flopped. So he went into the special roughly as famous as John Ritter or Gabe Kaplan. But he came out of it fully formed as Robin Williams. If you only know Williams as the genial, harmless figure of his later films, this is the place to investigate what made him a star.
The performance begat a hit comedy album, Throbbing Python of Love, but it needs to be seen to be fully absorbed. Williams sweats up a storm in a Hawaiian shirt and black leather pants, evoking the kind of hangover where “you can hear snails crawl.” (“Oh shit — gravity works!”) He trashes Reagan and the Cold War mentality. He brings in a rock & roll sensibility — he even scored a minor MTV hit with the clip where he does Elmer Fudd singing Bruce Springsteen: “When we kiss…ooooo…it’s wike fiiii-yaaaah!” Note: Springsteen hadn’t even released his version of “Fire” at the time, so this guy was already riffing on Bruce bootlegs in 1982. Talk about ahead of the game.
Williams spent the rest of his career playing variations of the loveable-lunatic character he perfected in this comedy special. His go-to role was an irrepressible man-child whose perpetual boyish energy and twinkly eyes offended the uptight cynical squares around him. (Until they learned a few valuable lessons.) Williams reprised this role so often it became his trademark, from Moscow on the Hudson to Good Morning, Vietnam to Dead Poets Society. He won an Oscar in 1997 for playing a relatively restrained version, as Matt Damon’s shrink in Good Will Hunting. But in a way these heartwarming roles came to overshadow what Williams did best. He played a psycho in the 2002 chiller One Hour Photo — yet he was even scarier in his brilliant, uncredited turn as a sadistic mime in the 1992 cult hit Shakes the Clown.
Williams’ humor was acerbic but never bullying — he was savage and affectionate at the same time, spacey yet humane. Consider him telling a San Francisco audience in 1982: “I have good news for you: While you’ve been here this evening, groups of gay men have broken into your home and redecorated it. You’ll come back to your house going, Austrian drapes?”
It’s hard to overstate how bizarre this gag seemed in the Eighties —a gay joke that wasn’t a homophobic putdown. It wasn’t even a joke about sex. It was edgy — you had to know a thing or two about gay stereotypes to get it. But the humor was in the blasé way Williams challenged you to keep up with his sense of anything-goes tolerance. He made people laugh at their own prejudices and hang-ups. Compare this to the anti-gay jokes that stars like Eddie Murphy were doing at the time, and you can get a sense of why people were genuinely shocked by Robin Williams. The world wanted more of him, much more. And that’s why the world is grieving for him today.