Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On Robin Williams

Last night, after the terrible news of Robin Williams' death, I tried to think of a peer to compare him to. Then, almost as quickly, I gave up. For a comedian who became famous in an era that produced a gobsmacking amount of top-flight comedic minds — Steve Martin and Billy Crystal and Bill Murray and Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd — it was startling how alone he stands as a sheer talent.

One of my favorite stand-ups of all time was Richard Pryor. I don't think we've produced an equal, but we can see his descendants all the time. We've never seen a descendant of Robin Williams. We probably never will.

The word unique is frequently misused, but here it's true: Williams' talent for comic invention was unique.

Oh, and he was also a terrific actor. While late in his career he was often stuck in less-than-stellar projects, there's still a staggering amount of work to recommend. Anyone who can play both the professor unhinged by grief in The Fisher King and the terrifyingly restrained killer in Insomnia can do practically anything. (If you haven't seen it, he's fun in a cameo in Kenneth Branagh's underrated Dead Again.)

While surfing the net today, I've been touched by the moving responses to Williams' death. People are reacting to his talent, and his friendship, and the sheer tragedy of his death. But I think there's something more to it. Among his peers and his comic descendants, Williams stood alone not just because of his talent but because of his openness. He wanted to entertain his audience, and he wanted to move them. In a way, this could backfire as Williams picked projects — Jakob the Liar and Patch Adams zoom into mawkishness — but it also endeared you to him. Patch Adams may be terrible, but Williams clearly believed in the message of humor-as-healer and threw himself into it. Unlike many of his peers, he never held part of himself back.

In an interview yesterday, David Edelstein noted that Williams had never found a collaborator like Will Ferrell has found in Adam McKay, one who could both tease out and contain his quicksilver talent onscreen. That's true, but the juxtaposition startled me. The thought of Williams making Anchorman or Talladega Nights — which is not necessarily what Edelstein was proposing — is mind-boggling; Williams was just too sincere for that brand of detached meta-humor.

That sincerity is just one of the many, many talents he brought to his projects, and it's just one of the many, many reasons he'll be missed.