Robin Williams was the first funny person I remember. It might have had something to do with the rainbow coloured braces and exuberance on display on Mork & Mindy which would have been especially appealing to a five year old, but the effect stuck. Through those childhood years he informed my notion of what comedy was, and more importantly, how it worked, even though the impression he gave is largely a false one when looking at comedy as a whole. Comedians like Williams (although really how many were there ever?) encourage that feeling, that solipsism by proxy, that nobody writes comedy, it’s all coming out of the comedian’s head in real time right there. Until my early teens, the assumption that Williams had left me with I applied to everyone I adored: Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, John Candy. But even as I discovered that this wasn’t true, it became clear that Williams was the exception. Much like Kafka’s approach to writing, it seemed that Williams absolutely had to be funny at every opportunity, and had the skills and quicksilver mind to service that need. You often hear stories of the shy, and pointedly unfunny demeanour of comedy superstars when they’re not on the clock. You never hear that about Williams – every junket, every personal meeting, Robin did not disappoint. Many a movie has been enhanced by the improvisational feet of film he contributed (and the untold miles on the cutting room floor, especially at Disney, where his genie was working blue in every sense, but killing in the sound booth.) I still, to this day, have Williams’ opening salvo on his first show in Good Morning Vietnam committed to memory, even though at the time of first remembering it, I had no idea what half of it meant. To this compulsion to be like that, however, there was clearly a cost. We live in a world now where we know enough about the talented people among us for what should be shocking news to not quite feel that way. I felt punched in the stomach this morning when I heard, but my brain took over and handed me a subconscious list of data as to why this was, like with Philip Seymour Hoffman, sadly inevitable.
As well as an electric comic, he was an accomplished straight actor, moving effortlessly from comedy to drama: no superstar comedian has work like The World According to Garp and Insomnia in their abilities. The accusations of joke theft, which I only became aware of a couple of years ago, I still find baffling. Still not knowing any specific examples of it, I find it hard to reconcile how that would have happened alongside how he worked. I’d recommend checking out his season three episode of Louie, Bobcat Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad and his episode of WTF with Marc Maron to feel around the edges of the man and what he was capable of. I’m also reminded of a recent interview I heard with Neal Brennan, co-creator of The Chappelle Show, with Barry Katz on his Industry Standard podcast. Neal said that, despite his success, the lack of love he felt as a child could never fill the hole that his success has given him, there was no level of fame or dollar amount that could ever do more than fill 30% of it. What drives the funny and talented will never do for them what it does for us.