Remembering Robin Williams
Robin Williams likes to work without a net. If you’ve ever seen a recording of him onstage, you know what we mean: His shows are totally improvised, just the irrepressible Williams and the audience, usually howling with laughter. No canned jokes, no dress rehearsal, no repeating funny lines that worked last time. His movie roles always start with a script, but Hollywood directors and millions of fans have come to count on Williams—and his peculiar genius for improvisation—to make them laugh, or cry, often when they least expect it. And since his early days on TV as Mork from Ork, Williams, now 54, has seldom disappointed. From a homeless man suffering from dementia in The Fisher King, to a divorced father who dresses up as a nanny in Mrs. Doubtfire, he’s tackled characters of every stripe.
In full comedy mode, this month he’ll play Bob Munro in RV, a movie about a workaholic father who takes his family on a business trip in a motor home. Over the years, journalists who interview Williams have learned to expect the unexpected. So at Reader’s Digest, we were prepared to be greeted by Williams reciting the Gettysburg Address as James Brown using a Croatian accent while performing a German slap dance. Instead, we met a subdued, normal guy–who happens to be abnormally funny.
Reader’s Digest: You trained at Juilliard, a very serious acting school. When did you start concentrating on humour?
Robin Williams: I left school and couldn’t find acting work, so I started going to clubs where you could do stand-up. I’ve always improvised, and stand-up was this great release. All of a sudden it was just me and the audience.
What’s that like, working in front of a live audience?
It’s frightening and exhilarating. It’s like combat. Look at the metaphors: You kill when it works; you die when it doesn’t.
Bombing is bad. Killing is good.
Do you remember your first routine?
Vaguely. It was in San Francisco, in the ’70s, at this place called The Committee. I was a football quarterback on acid—kind of a funky Lawrence Welk, like Welk doing Soul Train. It was a pretty wild time.
There are different kinds of humourists–the political type like Jon Stewart, or the more observational like Jerry Seinfeld. How would you define your humour?
It’s kind of the lazy Susan effect. It has samples of all–blue, some very personal observations, some political observations, some world observations, some making fun of the celebrity world, and it’s insanity and hype. It kind of goes everywhere.
Do you work from a script?
No. It’s more like headlines. “German Pope.” You build off a topic and explore how far you can go.
Do you practice?
No, I don’t practice anything. I spend time looking over ideas and then just get out and do it. Even when I did my Broadway show, I did 15 minutes no one had seen before, because that was the night that Michael Jackson protested about Al Sharpton bailing on him. I said, “Wow, if that man bails on you, this must be really a lost cause.”
Wouldn’t it be safer to script it?
Safer is not a good thing.
Do you ever self-censor?
People would say I never censor. As Billy Crystal says, “I don’t have that button.”
Is anything not funny to you?
Anything that is not funny at a certain point will be funny.
You’ve gotten away with stuff others wouldn’t. Why?
Maybe it’s a likability, that I seem fluffy. Occasionally I will be angry–someone will really push the button. But I always came from the idea that I enjoy this. It’s a blast. Maybe that keeps it from being intense.
From Knock Knock to Yo’ Mama, check out 7 Classic Jokes and Their Fascinating Origins.