This story originally appeared in the February 25th, 1988 issue of Rolling Stone.
He is still a kamikaze of the night. In the cockpit of his blue four-wheel-drive vehicle, he purrs through the hushed, sloping arteries of San Francisco, seeking out comedy huts to raid, improve stages to commandeer. He never strikes before midnight, never allows word of his attack to leak out in advance. He likes it that way. It is the only instant gratification he permits himself nowadays, the only vice he has not sworn off. “Joke ’em if they can’t take a fuck,” he has said, not a little ruefully. Laughs are all that is left, and laughs are what he craves most Okay, maybe laughs and a thriving movie career, but we’ll get to that.
Robin Williams lives in San Francisco. His family migrated to the Bay Area From the Midwest when he was a teenager, and now he has come home to stay, to reclaim normalcy in his life. He has vanquished the demons that had ravaged his reputation: drugs, liquor, womanizing. His primary motivation was the birth of his son, Zachary, who is now nearly five. But despite fatherhood’s cleansing effect, his nine-year marriage to Valerie Velardi is in disrepair. They have been separated — on amicable terms — for more than a year, with no resolution on the horizon. (William’s father died last October, compounding the inner turmoil.) Williams now keeps company with his personal assistant, Marsha Garces, a petite brunette. It is she, in fact, who unfailingly rides copilot during his nocturnal comedy missions.
On successive nights in mid-January, they zero in on a pair of favorite targets: an upscale north-of-North-Beach club called Cobb’s and a scruffy Richmond District walk-in closet called the Holy City Zoo. The latter is where it all began for Williams, where he worked his way from behind the bar to the stage These days Williams, ever the polite interloper, will not lunge for the microphone until all of the scheduled comics have finished their sets. He lingers outside or on a secluded bar stool — usually with a hood yanked down over his forehead — nursing his anonymity before moving in for the kill.
The kill, as perpetrated by Williams, has always been a thing to behold. His brain fires off a synaptic staccato of lunatic frissons. His rubbery face twists and congeals. Marauding voices take his tongue hostage. And on these chilly nights, his antics are as fecund as ever. He switches mineral-water bottles from table to table, announcing, “It’s a little game we like to call San Francisco roulette.” He is Bernhard Goetz taking a Rorschach test (“Is it Oprah Winfrey?”); a male lesbian (“I feel like a man trapped inside a man’s body”); a channeled spirit called Limptha, “an 8000-year-old retail salesman that somehow speaks English perfectly”; and a swishy gumshoe (“The fog wraps around me like a cheap mink coat — that’s the way I like it”).
Late in his set at the Holy City Zoo, a back-row inebriate begins to chant, “Popeye! Popeye!” Williams, a bit agitated, leans forward and solicitously lectures him: “No, Lumpy, no more Popeye. But I have a new movie that just might work, and if not, I’ll be off somewhere shouting, ‘Show me a vowel!‘ There’s a scary thought, boy.”
He refers, of course, to Good Moming, Vietnam, the Barry Levinson film that has been hailed as the first bigscreen project properly suited to the comedian’s frenetic genius. More important, it also promises to be Williams’s first unqualified box-office bonanza (in its three weeks of limited release, GMV earned $1 million playing on only four screens; in its first weekend of wide release, it earned nearly $12 million).
It has been a long time coming. After exploding upon the scene ten years ago as a hyperkinetic extraterrestrial in ABC’s hitcom Mork & Mindy, Williams embarked on a meandering film career. Only his canny performances in George Roy Hill’s World According to Garp and Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson earned critical huzzahs for the Juilliard-trained actor. The rest of his oeuvre has become the soggy mulch of dolorous cable programming: Popeye, The Survivors, The Best of Times, Club Paradise.
Now, as military DJ Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam, Williams is at last happily typecast as an exultant anarchist. Handling the Saigon morningdrive shift on Armed Forces Radio in 1965, he is the father of shock radio, stirring platoons in the fields with nonissue sarcasm. Williams, sans constraint of script, pursues his inimitable manic riffs behind Cronauer’s microphone. He becomes, in quicksilver aims, Walter Cronkite, Gomer Pyle, Elvis Presley, Mr. Ed, Richard Nixon and a host of chowder-head officer. As a fey military fashion consultant who disapproves of camouflage: “You know, you go in the jungle, make a statement. If you’re going to light, clash!” As LBJ, explaining his daughter’s ornithological middle name: “Lynda Dog would be too cruel.”
The role fits. “It’s amazing to me that some people have seen this and said, ‘Well, that’s what Robin does,” says director Barry Levinson. “That’s a bit like saying Fred Astaire dances well.”
The Levinson-Williams dynamic has proved so copacetic that already there is talk of a second collaboration, possibly on a film entitled Toys, which would explore the eccentricities of the toy industry. And there are plans for Williams and Steve Martin to share the stage this fall in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, directed by Mike Nichols, at New York City’s Lincoln Center.
These are bittersweet times for Robin Williams: personal life in flux, professional life in the ascendant. Yet, as his longtime manager, Larry Brezner, explains, “he is handling the crises in a really mature way. There was a point at which Robin would have simply run off and refused to face difficulty. Now, maybe for the first time in his life, he is an adult.”
The newly introspective Robin Williams was in evidence throughout this interview. During the discussion, he swallowed a gallon of coffee (“Betty Ford speed balls”), flounced perkily upon a couch and summoned the usual menagerie of comic voices. And when the interviewer brandished a vintage 1979 plastic Mork doll at the outset, Williams barely blanched.
Do you recognize this guy? [Hands Williams the doll.]
[In a geriatric warble] Oh, look, from the old days! Here, let me check the nose to see if there’s anything up his nostrils! [Inspect doll.] This way we’ll know if it’s authentic. This is amazing. this is the doll that had the bad voice backpack where you pull the string and hear garbled sentences. Some people sued because some dolls in the Midwest actually said. “Go fuck yourself.”
Strangely enough, its body is dated 1973.
Oh, that’s scary. Then the body is obviously from an old G.I. Joe doll or maybe a Ken or a Barbie. Yes. it’s probably from a Barbie doll. “Mommy, look, Mork has tits!” It’s very strange to see this again. It was also strange to see them dismembered after the show was canceled. You’d see ’em hanging out of garbage cans, burned. It’s so weird.
I don’t know whether I’m experiencing nostalgia or nausea looking at this. It’s like a combination of both. But that’s a great way to start an interview. “I handed him the Mork doll.” Well. Let’s put this away for now, shall we?
All right. Do you think Mork complicated your progress in Hollywood?
Hardly. You can’t say that something that took you from zero to a hundred was damaging to your progress. It certainly wasn’t a hindrance economically, either. And no matter what happened on the TV series, I always had the other image: the nightclub comedian. If I’d lust done Mork and nothing else, it might’ve been dangerous. But I always had a total other outlet beyond that character. I thank God for cable TV. Without it, I think it would be death for comedians.
Did you ever find the transition from TV to films unwieldy? It seemed in some ways like bringing a Tasmanian devil into captivity.
Some of the reviews have indicated that. I’ve had an odd habit of choosing projects that were the opposite of me, sometimes to the detriment. People are now saying about Good Morning, Vietnam, “This film is basically you and what you do best. So why did you wait eight years?” Well, I made other choices. I wanted to go against what I was doing on TV — not just with Mark & Mindy but the cable stuff as well. I was saying, in effect, “I’ll act. I’ll show you I can act.”
If Good Morning, Vietnam hadn’t worked out, what do you imagine the status of your film career would be? Did you feel like ‘If this one doesn’t hit, I’m hosed’?
You’re not hosed, totally. You simply slip down the comedy food chain, that list of people who get scripts. It exists. From the top there’s Eddie Murphy and Bill [Murray] and Steve [Martin]. I guess on the next level there’s Tom Hanks, myself, John Candy — there’s a lot of us. It all kind of works that way.
If this film had failed, I’d go down another couple of notches. So you have to work your way back up again or do character parts — or you fall back and punt. Now, with this, I knew I had this open field to run through. The radio broadcasts obviously afforded me the freedom to improvise, yet the story had dramatic elements that provided some interesting turns. It was a chance to fuse those two things together.
Hasn’t it confounded you that Eddie Murphy can sniff out sure-fire parts almost effortlessly?
Very much so. He’s instinctual, like a shark who knows where the blood is. He’s only made a few mistakes. He knows what his area is and what he does. That’s why he’s on top of the script food chain.
Do you agree with those who feel that you’d never found the right role onscreen?
Well, like I said, it was part ego, part stubbornness, in trying to do something unexpected. Then there were other times when I took on slight projects, thinking, ‘I can fix this.’ I got suckered into a couple films like that — The Best of Times, Club Paradise. I thought, ‘Well, they’ll give me the freedom to do my thing,’ but it turned out they didn’t.
Also, for the first time I didn’t have fear or tension. Berry Levinson kind of took away to onus of being “on.” He would surreptitiously roll cameras and not go through the whole thing of “We’ve got speed and — action!” I could ease into a scene, and it helped me a lot. I started to relax.
The real Adrian Cronauer wasn’t exactly the radio desperado you portrayed him as.
No, he’s a very straight guy. He looks like Judge Bork. In real life he never did anything outrageous. He did witness a bombing in Saigon. He wanted to report it — he was overruled, but he said okay. He didn’t want to buck the system, because you can get court-martialed for that shit. So, yes, we took some dramatic license.
But he did play rock & roll, he did do characters to introduce standard army announcements, and “Goooood morning, Vietnam” really was his signature line. He says he learned whenever soldiers in the field heard his sign-on line, they’d shout back at their radios, “Gehhhhht fucked, Cronauer!”
I heard you improvised several characters on mike that we never saw in the movie. Do you remember any?
We left out a lot of stuff because the jokes just took too long to set up. Some other stuff might have been too rough. I was trying a riff on booby traps and said [as black GI], “Now, if it was a pussy trap, people would line up to get in.” Armed Forces Radio used to give out winning bingo numbers, so I tried this: “Our lucky bingo winners are 14, 12 and 35. If you’ve been with any of these girls, call your medic immediately!”
Do you think Bob Hope approved of you moving in on his territory? It looked like he gave you the cold shoulder on the Carson show a few weeks ago.
[As Hope] “Yeah, wiiiild, isn’t he?” I don’t know. Certainly, there’s that line about him in the film: “Bob Hope doesn’t play police actions. Bob likes a big room” I think Hope knew about that, because he leaned over to me at one point and said, “You know, I was there in ’65, but they didn’t want to get all the guys in one place.” At one point he was talking about going to the Persian Gulf, and I said, “I’ll go if you like.” He said, “Yeah, right.” Translated: “I’d no sooner have you there than a third testicle.”
Let’s try mounting a brief retrospective reconsideration of your filmography. What did you think of Popeye?
Popeye was a sweet-enough character. I had to dub that movie over twice, though, because people couldn’t understand what I was saying. I sounded like a killer whale farting in a wind tunnel. The weirdest thing of all was to watch it at one of those Hollywood premières, which are rough to begin with. But when a film doesn’t work – [simulates a seizure] oooh! I remember walking out and seeing this fifty-foot can of spinach. It was like 2001, but on bad acid.
What about Garp?
I think Garp is a wonderful film. It may have lacked a certain madness onscreen, but it had a great core. It had a wonderful sense of family. Maybe if I had known more about children at the time, I could have done more with it. I would love to take now what I know about my son and the powerful feeling of parenthood and play Garp again.
Moscow on the Hudson?
I loved doing it. Immersing yourself into another language and culture is wonderful. Oddly, it was a little bit like Mork in that I was looking at the American culture from the outside. People may have thought the ending broke down and got a little saccharine. Maybe. I’ll always remember leaving some screening where a woman came up and said, “You are really hairy.” She was referring to that scene in the bathtub where my body just looked like fur. She went, “Jesus, are you some sort of monkey?” “Thank you, thank you very much, glad you enjoyed the film. . . .”
For the first time ever you’re seeing a therapist. People around you are saying you’re saner than ever.
[Grinning] Yeah, they bought it.
Has inner peace been difficult to achieve?
Oh, I don’t have inner peace. I don’t think I’ll ever be the type that goes, “I am now at one with myself,” Then you’re fucking dead, okay? You’re out of your body. I do feel much calmer. And therapy helps a little. . . . I mean, it helps a lot. It makes you reexamine everything: your life, how you relate to people, how far you can push the “like me” desire before there’s nothing left of you to like. It makes you face your limitations, what I can and can’t do.
The hardest word of all to say is no. Bette Davis told me, back when I was doing the revival of Laugh In about ten years ago, “The one word you’ll need is no.” The secret is to be able to turn things down, to not take on projects like The Best of Times or Club Paradise just because they say they want you. If they can’t get you, they’ll get anybody, so wise up. They’ll take Gary Coleman.
You don’t audition on a regular basis, do you?
I have recently. I’m not going to play that game of [indignantly] “What do you mean, audition? I’m Robin Williams!” Fuck it, I’ll go read. It’s worth it to try. And it felt better to read with somebody than to get hired and not have the chemistry work out It’s sobering, too, because a couple of parts have fallen through.
I read for a movie with DeNiro [Midnight Run], to be directed by Marty Brest I met with them three or four times, and it got real close, it was almost there, and then they went with somebody else. The character was supposed to be an accountant for the Mafia. Charles Grodin got the part. I was craving it. I thought, “I can be as funny,” but they wanted someone obviously more in type. And in the end, he was better for it.
But it was rough for me. I had to remind myself, “Okay, come on, you’ve got other things.”
Sounds like Robin Williams has grown up.
[Facetiously] Yeah, right. [As Freudian analyst] “But you still talk about your dick a lot, though, don’t you?” It’s been a tough year with the death of my father, the separation from my wife, dealing with life, with business, with myself. Someone said I should send out Buddhist thank-you cards, since Buddhists believe that anything that challenges you makes you pull yourself together.
You used to refer to your father as Lord Posh — he was an uncommonly elegant man, a powerful automobile executive. Did you see him any differently at the end?
I got to know another side in the last few years. I saw that he was funkier, that he had a darker side that made the other side work. He was much older than me; he died at eighty-one. Up until four or five years ago, I kept distance out of respect. Then we made a connection. It’s a wonderful feeling when your father becomes not a god but a man to you — when he comes down from the mountain and you see he’s this man with weaknesses. And you love him as this whole being, not as a figurehead.
Were you with him when he died?
I was here in San Francisco, and he died at home, out in Tiburon [a nearby suburb]. So I was close. He’d had operations and chemotherapy. It’s weird. Everyone always thinks of their dad as invincible, and in the end, here’s this little, tiny creature, almost all bone. You have to say goodbye to him as this very frail being.
At least he was at home and died very peacefully in his sleep. My mother thought he was still asleep. She came downstairs and kept trying to shake him. She called me that morning and said [calmly and evenly], “Robin, your father’s dead.” She was a little in shock, but she sounded happy in a certain way, if only because he went without pain.
Is it true that you scattered his ashes?
[Chuckles] Yeah, it was amazing. It was sad but also cathartic and wonderful in the sense that it brought my two half brothers and me together. It kind of melded us closer as a family than we’ve ever been before. We’ve always been very separate.
That day we gathered right on the sea in front of where my parents live. It was funny. At one point I had poured the ashes out, and they’re floating off into this mist, seagulls flying overhead. A truly serene moment Then I looked into the urn and said to my brother, “There’s still some ashes left, Todd. What do I do?” He said, “It’s Dad — he’s holding on!” I thought, “Yeah, you’re right, he’s hanging on.” He was an amazing man who had the courage not to impose limitations upon his sons, to literally say, “I see you have something you want to do — do it.”
What has fatherhood taught you about yourself?
That most of your actions have consequences with the child. And I’ve learned to have the security not to worry that he will love me — as long as I keep the connection strong enough. I’ve learned not to try to force the love. You can’t All you can do is try to set up a world for him that’s safe and stable enough to make him happy. I want to protect him and shield him from public sight. I want him to have his own life.
How is he handling your separation?
Very well. He’s more comfortable with it now. He understands it. He sometimes gets confused and calls someone by the wrong name. But we have a good custody agreement, so he comes and goes freely. He knows exactly how many days he’s here and how many days he’s there. Children at his age do not want to deal with the anger and the volatility or whatever would develop. As long as things are peaceable, he’s fine switching back and forth. Also, he doubles down at Christmas: “Look, I got this many dinosaurs.”
Do you find yourself performing for him?
Yeah, and sometimes he’ll love it. I did a Señor Wences thing for him. I dressed my fist in a napkin and was Mother Teresa. I played her drunk and made her drink water, which I’d spill down my arm. He liked that.
The hard part is when you really have to back off and provide him with the time to play alone. Children are a drug. I used to say they beat the shit out of cocaine: you’re paranoid, you’re awake, and you smell bad. It’s this constant metamorphosis. This is a precious time. Some of those lines in Garp ring true. I never thought I would literally sit and watch a child sleep. But you can. I never thought drat would be real.
You’ve been drug free for how long now?
Five years. Six months before Zach was born I basically stopped everything.
Do you remember the last time you were on the cover of Rolling Stone, in 1982?
Wasn’t the basic premise that I’d cleaned up my act?
The headline was “Robin Williams Comes Clean.” Was that honestly the end of the self-abusive chapter in your life?
There was no going back. I realized that the reason I did cocaine was so I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody. Cocaine made me so paranoid: if I was doing this interview on cocaine, I would be looking out the window, thinking that somebody might be crawling up fourteen floors to bust me or kick down the door. Then I wouldn’t have to talk. Some people have the metabolism where cocaine stimulates them, but I would literally almost get sleepy. For me, it was like a sedative, a way of pulling back from people and from a world that I was afraid of.
Going from zero to a hundred on the American fameometer, I take it, was a bit harrowing.
I was twenty-six or twenty-seven, 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!”
Talking about your marriage five years ago, Valerie said, “If I had said, ‘Don’t cross this line,’ he would have been long gone.” In retrospect, was she too tolerant of your indulgences?
Maybe. I don’t think I would have been long gone. I think I was crying out for someone to say, “Enough.” In the end I had to make my own line. Anybody who finally kicks himself in the ass and wants to clean up makes his own line. You realize the final line is the edge.
Is the failure of your marriage a great disappointment to you?
It’s not disappointing. That’s why therapy helps a lot. It forces you to look at your life and figure out what’s functioning and what isn’t. You don’t have to beat your brains against a wall if it’s not working. That’s why you choose to be separated rather than to call each other an asshole every day. Ultimately, things went astray. We changed, and then with me wandering off again a little bit, then coming back and saying, “Wait, I need help” — it just got terribly painful.
Would you admit you’re tough to live with, even cleaned up?
Oh, God, yes. I’m no great shakes. It’s the “love me” syndrome combined with the “fuck you” syndrome. Like the great joke about the woman who comes up to the 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.
Couldn’t you have gotten therapy sooner and circumvented a lot of the trouble? Were you afraid of it?
A little bit. My mother is a Christian Scientist, whose tenets maintain that you can always heal yourself. So I said, “Well, I’ll fix myself.” But there are certain things you can’t fix in yourself. You can get yourself healthy. I kicked drugs alone — I never went to a hospital.
You may be the only celebrity who beat dependency without the benefit of the Betty Ford clinic. What’s your secret?
With alcohol it was decompression. The same way I started drinking, I stopped. You work your way down the ladder from Jack Daniel’s to mixed drinks to wine to wine coolers and finally to Perrier. With cocaine, there is no way to gently decompress yourself. It took a few months. Someone said you finally realize you’ve kicked cocaine when you no longer talk about it. Then it’s gone. It’s like pulling away and seeing Pittsburgh from the air. People come up to you with twitching Howdy Doody jaws, and you think, “Hmmm, I looked like that.” You realize that if you saw by daylight the people you’d been hanging out with at night, they’d scare the shit out of you. There are bugs that look better than that.
How much money do you think you ultimately spent supporting your drug habit?
The weird thing about the drug period was that I didn’t have to pay for it very often. Most people give you cocaine when you’re famous. It gives them a certain control over you; you’re at least socially indebted to them. And it’s also the old thing of perfect advertising. They can claim, “I got Robin Williams fucked up.” “You did? Lemme buy a gram them.” The more fucked up you get, the more they can work you around. You’re being led around by your nostril. I went to one doctor and asked, “Do I have a cocaine problem?” He said, “How much do you do?” I said, “Two grams a day.” He said, “No, you don’t have a problem.” I said, “Okay.”
How often does John Belushi cross your mind these days?
Not a lot. I mean, he crosses my mind. I’ve been through the grand juries, I’ve talked about it. And I know, in the end, I was only there [in Belushi’s bungalow at the Chateau Marmont the night of Belushi’s death] for five or ten minutes. I saw him and split. He didn’t want me there, really. He obviously had other things he was doing. I do think I was set up in some way to go over there. A guy at the Roxy said John wanted me to stop by his bungalow. But when I went by, he wasn’t looking for me. He wasn’t even there. When he arrived, he said, “What are you doing here?” and offered me a line of cocaine. I took it, and then I drove home. If I had known what was going on, I would have stayed and tried to help. It wasn’t like he was shooting up in front of me.
The next day, on the set of Mark & Mindy, Pam Dawber came up to me and said, “Your friend died.” Here was a man who was like a bull. I didn’t talk about it immediately at the behest of some people. But not talking about it only created more controversy.
What motive would there have been in setting you up?
I don’t know. You could say it would have been a great bust if it had happened.
Robert DeNiro, along with Belushi, supposedly had summoned you there, right?
I called DeNiro’s room upstairs, but he was with company. And John wasn’t around. It just didn’t seem like I was really called there. Obviously, all the elements didn’t fall into place, because I didn’t stay long.
Have you harbored some guilt over his death?
It took me a couple of years to go, “Wait, there’s nothing to feel guilty about.” I was there, yes, but a lot of people saw him that night, did drugs with him or talked to him. Yeah, there’s a feeling that if you could have known, you would have stayed and talked with him or dragged him out to get something to eat. I wasn’t close enough to say, “Hey, don’t be an asshole!”
I mean, I admired the shit out of him. I’d had a wonderful time with him. One time he took me to a heavy hardcore punk club, and I was scared shitless. People were slam-dancing, which I’d never seen before, and there was a band playing called the Bush Tetras. He said, “Guess which one is the woman.” I said, “The guy on the right?” And he said, “They all are! Ha, ha, ha!” It was like being on a tour with Dante, if Dante were James Brown. He took great delight in seeing me go, “Whoooaaa!” I was like Beaver Cleaver in the underworld.
Do you think you can ever deal autobiographically with your drug problem onstage the way Richard Pryor has?
I can now, I think. It’s because he did it so well that I choose to talk about it almost in a third person. I’ve hinted at it. I mean, everyone knows exactly what I’ve done; it’s implied.
Moreover, can I really stop people from doing drugs? I can’t proselytize. [Comedian] Bob Goldthwait probably hit on the best anti-drug campaign ever. He said that he’d read a quote where Bob Hope said he smoked marijuana once. Can you imagine a picture of Hope toking weed, going, “Wiiiiild, isn’t it? This hooch is wild! This Many Jane really drives me nuts! Ya know, I’m so hungry, I can’t tell you!” Some fifteen-year-old would see that and go, “Oooh, fuuuck, man!”
You recently played the Prince’s Trust concert, in England. Did you clean up your act for Charles and Diana? I suppose you had to lose your royal-incest material.
Yeah, the royal-family shaving routine. “Oh, hemophilia!” There’s a fear there. You’re not allowed to talk about what might be happening in their lives. So how do you keep your anarchy and still keep your respect? You have to talk about cultural differences, about how their newspapers make the National Enquirer look like Pulitzer Prize material. [As a page-3 girl] “My name is Betty, and I don’t like bombs — but look at these missiles!”
Meeting the princess was amazing. She’s exquisite. I knew he would have a certain presence, but with her you go [long wolf whistle], “Wow!” She’s obviously been trained to do certain things, one of which is this look: she’ll look at you, then turn away, then look at you again. It’s beyond coquette. It makes you go [as Goofy], “Oh-ho, shucks, ma’am, you’re so purrrty!’ Before the show she asked me, “Do you know what you’re going to do tonight?” I said, “No, I really don’t know, but after you see it, I don’t think you’ll want me back.” She said, “Oh, don’t tell me that.” And she gave me one of those looks. “Whoooaaa, golly, ma’am.”
As a comedy professional, are you going to miss the Reagan presidency?
Am I going to miss Reagan? Or is that Miss Reagan? That’s a great movie title: Miss Reagan. [As Butterfly McQueen] “Oh, Miss Reagan, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout balancin’ no budget!” People say satire is dead. It’s not dead; it’s alive and living in the White House. He makes a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day float look ridiculous. I think he’s slowly but surely regressing into movies again. In his mind he’s looking at dailies, playing dailies over and over. Nancy’s kind of in another world too. She’s pushing for him to get a Nobel Peace Prize, but she’s out arm-wrestling with Raisa on the lawn.
Did the recent rash of religious scandals surprise you at all?
[Comedian] Sam Kinison, who was once an evangelist himself, has always said that these people have dark lives. Still, who would have the balls to say, “God will take me away unless I get $8 million”? As if God’s a large man named Vinnie, going, “Where the fuck’s the money?” They’re selling the promise of hope on the strength that there’s no such word as audit in the Bible. The Lord was not audited. Jesus did not have an accountant, even though he was Jewish. That would be great, to play Jesus’ accountant: “Okay, we’ve got nails, that’s a valid expense. How many dinners did you have this week? One? Okay, we can write that off.”
Did you see the item about the pope supposedly wanting to meet Madonna?
And she said, “If he wants to meet me, let him come see the show.” Yeah, that’s nice when she gets herself confused with her predecessor. [As Madonna, snapping gum] “He wants to say hello? Sure, tell him to come backstage.” [As a black bodyguard] “Madonna! Madonna! John Paul’s here!” [Madonna] “The Beatles?” [Bodyguard] “No, just one guy. He’s wearing a yarmulke. Okay, Yo’ Emmense, she be out in five minutes. She gotta get outta her lace thang. Can I get you somethin’? Some wine? Crackers? So, you got two names. You from the South? That’s ermine you’re wearin’, right? You a little light in the sandals? Ha, I’m kiddin’ you. Madonna, come on out here!“
A few years ago, you ended one of your cable shows with a vignette about Albert Einstein. You quoted him, saying, “My sense of God is my sense of wonder about the universe.” What do those words mean to you?
It’s like Mel Brooks’s great line as the 2000-year-old man [in a Yiddish accent]: “There’s something bigger than Phil.” You can’t help but see it when you deal with nature in the extreme. Like when you’re body surfing on Maui and a storm suddenly makes a ten-foot wave come at you. It gives you a sense of your mortality. Or it’s when you see something incredibly beautiful. I get it when I see Zachary changing. Here’s this being who is you but not you slowly growing and forming opinions of his own.
It stems, too, from a sense of horror at things that go on in the world. The planet’s climate is changing at such a drastic rate, causing the worst blizzards and droughts in history. Now there is an incredibly large hole in the ozone layer. Like Shakespeare said, this place is such a delicate, fragile firmament. It’s a one-in-a-billion crapshoot. And we’re fucking it up.
Einstein is your idol, isn’t he?
Yeah. Good old Al. [Chuckles.] Imagine Al doing stand-up. [As Einstein] “So, it’s relative. Does that mean I have to make love to my mother? No, I’m keeding, please! I gotta go. . . . I came back to make a bomb. Nagasaki! Who’s there? It was a joke! Hey, I gotta go!” Wasn’t he wiiiiild?