Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams' podcast appearances illustrate what the beloved funnyman was like off-stage and off-screen

Mork and Marc-ky
(Photo source: Marc Maron)
Robin Williams' A Night at the Met taught me as a kid that these things called stand-up albums can still be funny even without visuals. I played the fuck out of my cassette copy of A Night at the Met when I was either 13 or 14. I practically memorized the first two minutes of that album, where Williams introduced himself as Minnie Pearl ("Hooooooowdy! Oh, wrong opera house...") and then smoothly handled an annoying heckler.

Williams' knack for both improv and juggling various accents and zany voices first made me laugh via Mork & Mindy reruns and 1987's Good Morning, Vietnam, the first movie to let Williams be Williams instead of a watered-down screen version of himself, which was why it became his first box-office hit after nearly a decade of one underperforming comedy movie after another (although I'm fond of Moscow on the Hudson and The Best of Times, a Ron Shelton-scripted sports flick that paired him with the less manic but equally great Kurt Russell). His ability to bring all those accents and voices to life was so strong that even when it's divorced from the visuals during the Night at the Met album, it still cracked me up.

Williams, who was battling alcoholism and depression and unfortunately, took his own life yesterday, was the kind of larger-than-life, anarchic entertainer you love the most when you're a kid or teen. A generation of '70s and '80s kids loved him for being the bizarre Mork. The generation after that loved him for his shtick as either the Genie from Aladdin, the perfect embodiment of Williams' freewheeling brand of humor, or Mrs. Doubtfire. But like many things you enjoy as a kid, parts of A Night at the Met haven't aged well, just like how Williams' dialogue about chasing Vietnamese women in Good Morning, Vietnam screams out that it's the '80s, even though it's supposed to be the '60s, or how his reference to the Dog Pound from The Arsenio Hall Show during Aladdin is so 1992. When you're 13 or 14, Williams' imitation of a slow Chinese driver in A Night at the Met doesn't make you cringe because you haven't been taught yet that you don't have to tolerate non-Asian comedians' often lousy and offensive impressions of Asian folks. When you're in your thirties and your tastes in comedy have leaned more towards the likes of Hari Kondabolu, Aamer Rahman, Kristina Wong and W. Kamau Bell, who, like Williams, hails from the Bay Area, Williams' Chinese driver character makes your eyes roll.

That's why, when I outgrew some of the hyperactive, accent humor-driven shtick Williams brought to his family-friendly (and often mawkish) comedy movies, the talk show appearances where he'd frequently puncture the stuffiness of both his interviewers and the talk show format and finally, last year's CBS show The Crazy Ones, I was glad to see Williams expand his range and show a different side of himself: as an effective and understated dramatic actor (Insomnia, World's Greatest Dad). And something that's been overlooked in all the obits that have mentioned his comedic achievements, his film work and his kindness as a person was that way before WTF with Marc Maron and the comedy podcast explosion, Williams was one of the world's earliest celebrity podcasters. From 2000 to 2002, Williams hosted a radio show for Audible.com and mixed free-form material with interviews with other comedians and actors, as well as authors like John Irving and Harlan Ellison.

"Once I started doing it, I went, 'Oh, this is great!' It's like going back to the great comedy albums, like Jonathan Winters, Firesign Theater, George Carlin," said Williams while he promoted his Audible.com show to Charlie Rose, who's really showing his age while trying to understand and then explain to viewers the concept of downloadable audio.

Williams' Audible show is no longer available "due to licensing contracts expiring," which sucks because it'd be really nice to re-experience Williams the radio host and what his free-form humor was like when he wasn't playing to a theater crowd, a studio audience or a club full of drunks. In all the time I've spent up in San Francisco, I never got to meet or stumble into Williams, who called San Francisco home and preferred it over showbiz-minded L.A. ("I once got stopped by a cop [in L.A.] and he handed me a script"), but I was always curious about what he was like off-stage or without any cameras to play to. Williams' guest appearances on WTF and Harmontown offer some good glimpses of what that true--and rather shy--self was like.

The 2010 WTF episode, which Maron removed from premium subscriber-only status immediately after Williams' death so that he could let everyone access the episode, makes for poignant listening now, not just because it features a soft-spoken Williams being honest and candid with Maron--who's had similar struggles with drugs and divorce--about his relapse while filming a movie in Alaska, his divorces, the accusations that he was a joke thief and the moments of depression he (and David Letterman) experienced after heart surgery. It's also because the WTF episode--the episode that was my first exposure to Maron's podcast, as well as many listeners' first exposure to WTF--is like the passing of the torch from a short-lived early podcaster to a podcaster who has gone on to do much more with digital media than Williams even achieved as part of Audible and has turned into a podcasting pioneer. While it's mostly serious, Williams' WTF installment is still funny as hell, like when he recalled how the shooting of Awakenings in New York got disrupted by a wino who was a De Niro fan or when he imagined a conversation with his own conscience. Williams was even more subdued during his brief 2013 appearance on Harmontown with Bobcat Goldthwait, who, as a filmmaker, got perhaps my favorite dramatic performance out of Williams in the dark comedy World's Greatest Dad.

On the night of the recording of Harmontown, Williams happened to be browsing through comics with Goldthwait at Meltdown Comics, the L.A. comic shop where Harmontown is frequently recorded, and hosts Dan Harmon and Jeff B. Davis surprised the Nerdist Theatre audience by bringing Williams and Goldthwait up to the stage. During the 2013 show, we learn about Williams' tastes in comics (Moebius and Transmetropolitan), which were as hip as his tastes in music (as Questlove recalled on Instagram, Williams once recognized in an elevator the members of the Roots, whose music one of his sons introduced him to, and he fangirled big time over meeting them). It exemplifies something that was so endearing about Williams: as he grew older, he continued to be delighted by new things, whether it was a younger comedian's work, a Warren Ellis comic or the sounds of Questlove and Black Thought. And like the WTF conversation, the Harmontown episode provides a glimpse of Williams' shyness.

When Williams wasn't on, like the way he was on stage at the Met or while promoting his latest movie at a press junket or on a talk show, he came across as a genuinely shy and humble person who felt more comfortable when he was channeling other characters--like "Robin Williams"--than when he was being himself. In the coming weeks, we're going to hear ad nauseum about "the clown who was crying on the inside" a la Bill Murray in Quick Change or Pagliacci. I'm already sick of that goddamn cliché. Using that cliché to describe his depression is as tired as all those Williams movie trailers that were soundtracked with James Brown's "I Feel Good." As those podcast appearances demonstrate, Williams was complicated, much like depression itself. That complicatedness is part of why we liked Williams and now miss him.

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