Behind the clown, a fatal frown

Behind the clown, a fatal frown
Actor-comedian Robin Williams was found dead last week of an apparent suicide.

Robin Williams could be incredibly annoying and was often saccharine to the point of inducing gagging.

Yet, I am a huge fan.

There was a time when I had his routines from An Evening At The Met memorised.

His 1987 hit Good Morning, Vietnam is both engrossing and frustrating.

Engrossing because William's Armed Forces DJ and his "Gooooood Morning VIETNAM!" marked the start of a type of hilarious monologue never before seen in movies.

And frustrating because I don't want that point to arrive when the comedy turns to drama.

I was one of those kids back in the early 80s running round shouting Nanu Nanu - Williams' catchphrase in sitcom Mork And Mindy - impressed by this grown-up being silly.

It was only watching the reruns in my late teens - that time of discovering heroes in both music and comedy - that I realised just how amazing Williams' brain was, and how subversive he could make an incredibly whitebread TV show.

(Watching it now, there are some lines that suggest the censors were more naive back then.)

That he won the role of alien Mork by sitting on his head while waiting for the audition just impressed me more. He became an instant hero.

Williams' brilliance is obvious in that show. There is a clear point where the writers realised they only had to give a basic plot and some lines to the supporting cast.

The rest of the directions were just "stand back, watch Robin".

Williams was a mix of silliness and sharpness and you can only marvel at the lightning fast connections he makes. It's no surprise that the cast is often seen breaking out of character and into laughter.

His TV success also saw him start abusing drink and drugs. You could blame that on the pressure to be hilarious on demand. Or that the role threw him from struggling street performer to worldwide star.

Yet he was brutally honest about battling his demons and his depression, even turning it into part of his stand-up routine. Even the biggest fan would have to admit his success in films fluctuated.

Sometimes the sentimentality was cloying and the supposedly funny ones were flatly laugh-free.

The less said about Old Dogs the better. And because we knew how funny he could be, the criticism could be harsher.

And there's some irony that the ultimate comedian's best work in film was when he was being serious. And it was when he was the villain that he truly excelled. Insomnia and One Hour Photo were Williams at his most chilling.

LIVE

But to see Williams at his comedic best, he had to be seen in the live arena. Stand-up, chat shows, interviews - he was so often a dynamo of hilarity.

There's even footage of him effectively saving an audience at a BBC lecture from boredom after a technical failure delayed the recording. He just got up, started riffing, and the audience lapped it up.

Hilarious, yes. But at times it was tiresome.

On chat shows, he could be the ultimate guest, ditching convention and firing adrenalin into a dull format.

He could also turn attention-seeker. There are apocryphal tales from press junkets of pleading with him to do the interview, not the routine.

His death makes every groan at his shtick feel petty, almost ungrateful.

There was/is nobody with Williams' ability and energy. It takes a tragic event like this to realise just how large a gap he has left behind.

US talk show host David Letterman said there is no off position on the genius switch.

Sadly for Williams, his personal demons had none either.

HELPLINES:

Care Corner Counselling Centre

Hotline (Mandarin) : 1800-353-5800

Website: www.carecorner.org.sg

Samaritans of Singapore (SOS)

Hotline: 1800-221-4444

Website: www.sos.org.sg

Institute of Mental Health

Hotline: 6389 2222

Website: www.imh.com.sg


This article was first published on August 13, 2014.
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