At my old website, we used to run Ghoul Pool contests. It’s an easy way to pander for audience participation, and I didn’t think anything of it until one year I found myself editing the entries. Suddenly and unexpectedly I got really bummed out as I culled through people’s submissions and I thought about how I would feel if some of these people died. I didn’t much care for doing Ghoul Pools after that.
Robin Williams is dead. I hadn’t thought much about Robin Williams in some time, and while I don’t have the level of mourning that I’ve expressed for others, I can say with absolute certainty the world is not as great as it once was without Robin Williams. Rest in peace.
Here are three things I’ll always think about when I think about Robin Williams.
1. “Al, you old son of a bitch! How do you feel about that call today? I mean the Dolphins! Fourth-and-three play on their 30 yard line with only 34 seconds to go!”
“How do you think I felt? Betrayed. Bewildered… wrong response?”
“I’m not sure.”
Whenever I get together with my parents, I know we’re going to have a good time if The Birdcage is on. Yeah, the movie is sort of garish, ridiculous and filled with clichés coming from every angle, but once you get past some of its flamboyance, it’s filled with tons of great, tiny little character moments like that dialogue exchange above.
I adore the idea of one gay man attempting to teach another gay man how to act like a straight man as if he even has any idea what he’s talking about. He realizes it halfway through their little fake rehearsal, and the moment of sheer befuddlement and panic painted on his face gets me every time.
When I think about Robin Williams, I don’t think of this movie, even though it’s probably my favorite of his by far. His character Armand Goldman is so inextricably part of the fabric of these characters, this world, and those moments, I lose myself in it every time and have to remind myself that it’s got Dianne Weist, Gene Hackman and Hank Azaria too. I love all those people, and normally I’m fully ready to swallow them whole in everything they’re in.
In The Birdcage, they become part of the whole, and all I think about is how much I can’t wait for the next scene, no matter where I am. Robin Williams hits like 10 homeruns in this movie (“Stop crying! Goddamn you! I’ve got to get out there before they eat enough to see the bottom of the bowls. Fuck the shrimp!), and yet I forget it’s him. It’s absolutely fucking brilliant, and while it’s undeniably Robin Williams, his perfect mesh with the ensemble is what makes me adore it the way I do.
2. Contrast that with my one notable memory of Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show,” which is the exact opposite of this. Sometimes you could have way too much Robin Williams. And on one episode of “The Tonight Show,” he was the lead guest, and Tracey Ullman was the second guest. I think the third guest was just a big tray of amphetamine backstage because the energy between these two maniacs was off the charts. Jay couldn’t hope to contain them, and normally I despise shameless mugging to this extent, but the whole thing had such anarchic glee – combined with Jay’s growing and palpable discomfort and annoyance – I couldn’t help but love it.
One of my favorite food writers, Albert Burneko, says this about ketchup, “It doesn’t taste bad (and anyone who tells you it does is more interested in claiming cultural high ground than in telling the truth), so much as it tastes a lot. Vinegar and sugar and salt and tomato, all in wild abundance…”
That’s like Robin Williams to me. He’s not a bad comedian – as some holier-than-thou beatnik comedy snob asshole who’s more interested in asserting intellectual superiority than telling the truth – so much as he’s a lot of comedian. And when you put him next to boring old Jay Leno, all that flavor is a delight and all that energy gets plastered onto the comedy show blank slate. I still think about the unhinged jouissance of this “Tonight Show” segment from time to time. It always makes me smile.
3. For as touchy-feely as Robin Williams could be – and oh sweet Moses were some of his movies treacly schmaltz fests – I always liked him best when he seemed dangerous. He creeped the shit out of me in Insomnia opposite an exhausted-but-wired Al Pacino. He played a wonderfully unsettling weirdo on an episode of “Law and Order: SVU.” And in what counts as probably the movie with the least redeeming qualities that I inexplicably love, his performance as Rainbow Randolph in Death to Smoochy is totally untethered and sort of terrifying.
For reasons I cannot articulate well, this line always obliterates me, “Look what you’ve done to this place. It’s all Dian Fossey. When I lived here, it was Bob Fosse. Right there, I had a big painting of a naked chick holding a little plant; very tasteful, no bush…”
I think it’s his definition of “tasteful.” Or maybe how he has this story right on deck for when he enters his old apartment. Maybe it’s the reference to both Dian Fossey and Bob Fosse in the same sentence in reference to interior decorating. I don’t know why I find this so funny, and truth is, I don’t want to know because it’s more enjoyable just to enjoy the perfect absurd line delivered flawlessly by a master.
And that’s the essence of comedy. There are people out there, who, no matter what they do, will find a way to make you laugh good, hard laughs more than a few times. Robin Williams certainly gave me that, and whenever I see him pop up on cable pretending to be straight to fool a Conservative senator, picturing him and Tracey Ullman terrorizing Jay Leno, or imagine him taking design cues from Bob Fosse, I’ll always smile and laugh at least a little bit.
Thank you, Robin Williams. And rest in peace.