Sunday, October 5, 2008

Robin Williams Live: 57 going on seven?

Robin Williams, "Weapons of Self Destruction," Fox Theater, Detroit, October 3:

You can find a lot of the jokes from Robin Williams' current tour on IMDB and in the Late Show clip at the bottom of this post, but reading/seeing them on screen doesn't come remotely close to the experience of being in a crowd of thousands watching a raving comic genius live on stage, connecting an endless series of mental dots and keeping his audience laughing non-stop for nearly two hours. With only his rubber face, aging body, and half a dozen water bottles as props, Williams tore down the house in Detroit on Friday night.

Like Blue Man Group, the former Mrs. Doubtfire got a lot of mileage from late arrivals to the front row, beginning with a blond woman who Williams instantly described as "beautiful, and with real Michigan titties!" That set the tone for an evening of political humor, social observations, and a whole lot of schoolyard scatology and body-parts jokes.

The showpiece of the evening, without question, was a long discourse about "the committee" in charge of the alleged "intelligent design" of human genitals, and although the routine had the audience roaring throughout as Williams mimicked the various "committee" members justifying their design features for men and women, we couldn't help but realize that this was all essentially the same stuff kids talk about starting around second grade.

What makes it work are the ancient rhetorical canons of style and delivery. Comedy is as good as the comedian delivering the content, and Williams's reputation as a maniacal master of improvisation is already on stage long before he arrives. He could recite his grocery list and make it work, so a rehash of schoolyard dirty talk becomes comedy nirvana in his hands. But really, at 57, should a man still be this preoccupied with testicles, or with bowel movements, as Williams seems to be? He's seen a lot over nearly four decades in TV, films, and clubs — surely there's some material in those experiences beyond what's below the belt?

And in fact, when the Academy Award winner and former Mork from Ork does dip into life experience, there are plenty of reminders that this is no second grader with only potty jokes on his mind. Relatively quieter moments in the show found Williams pondering the irony of suddenly worrying about the side effects of prescription drugs after so many years of seeking out the effects of illicit ones.
Hyperactive re-enactments of getting drunk, turning belligerant, driving against traffic, and waking up in bed with a stranger were funny enough to make the audience weep, but it wasn't hard to imagine that Williams probably did all of these things—and how not funny they must've been.

Following that line of thought, WB couldn't help but wonder how much pain and loss were behind all of the great laughs. Robin Williams was one of the last people to see John Belushi alive, and there had been a lot of drugs involved. Although it was decades ago, that scar will surely never disappear. And what was that line he slipped into his routine about being an alcoholic, and about starting to drink again after 20 years of sobriety? Then we recalled catching in People that his marriage broke up a few months back, which was at least his second one, which was the one with the woman who was the nanny.... We hate to resort to tired clichés about the "tears of a clown," but sometimes clichés exist for a reason.

While studying at Juilliard, Robin Williams was told to quit wasting his time by John Houseman, the famed acting teacher who everyone wanted to study with. Already so talented that Houseman knew he was ready for prime time, Williams has proved his former teacher right by having a hugely successful career. There's never a straight line in Robin Williams's stand-up act, but his fast and spot-on impersonation of all types of humanity is an extraordinary display of comic genius. Pain and loss are classic tools in a comic's kit, and no one performing today has a better gift for turning private trials into not just jokes, but full-body, allusive, social critiques so funny you don't realize you've just watched a powerful multi-topic morality play—complete with a reminder, at the end of the encore, to be good citizens and vote.

More info about the Self Destruction tour, ending in December, is here.



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