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On Monday, August 11, 2014 Robin Williams was found not breathing in his home and this news signalled the death of a genie and friend to fans all over the world. The 63 year-old comic legend left a legacy and ability that will never be matched. This funnyman and actor had a style that was a mixture of hectic and non-stop delivery combined with a sort of pathos.
Watch any of Robin’s interviews and the pathos is there. When the comic would go off on tangents of comedic riffs, his hilarious impromptu performances were tinged with an almost desperate urge to please. To make the recipients of his comedic genius, and non-stop delivery, happy and to leave his interviewers and their crew laughing, seemed to be more important to the entertainer than the actual interview itself.
Robin’s entertainment value in interviews was impressive. The man was able to perform for any size audience, whether it be a man, or woman, with a camera, or an entire filming crew. Watching outtakes from any of Williams’ films, it is obvious that he was almost unable to “not perform” for these audiences made up of fellow entertainers or the film crew itself.
Before Williams earned a legion of new and younger fans by playing the lamp-bound chameleon of a genie in the 1992 Disney film Aladdin, he practised his vocalizing skills in his first animated feature the year before. Playing the part of a human scientific experiment, a bat named “Batty Koda” Robin did his first “rap” and used his already present ability to change the comic beat, on-a-dime.
At least one young fan and presumably many more, discovered Williams through his “appearance” in Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. Rather interestingly, this first feature-length animated feature, was produced in 1991 and the filmmakers opted to hold the film so it would not compete with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. This delay in release, resulted in Ferngully: The Last Rainforest coming out the same year as Aladdin.
Robin Williams played the genie, a friend to the “street rat” Aladdin. More than the actor’s comedic genius and impromptu riffs as the magical wish giver, it was the performer’s ability to make the audience feel his innate goodness. Genie felt special and won new fans for the man who began life on television as an alien named Mork. The performer’s death, as a result of his alleged long term depression combined with the devastating news that he had contracted Parkinson’s has left a hole in the world of comedy and, for some, in their everyday life. The death of not only the genie but a personal friend.
Williams was, in essence, almost as alien as his character in the television series Mork and Mindy. Not because he was strange or from another world, but because of his unique ability to make almost anything funny, or even funnier. He, more than any other human being, was able to “stream” funny. His “faster than the speed of light” mind could leap from one hilarious supposition to another at the blink of an eye.
Providing different voices, accents, characters and ages to support his key change to another tune of comedic happenings or themes Williams was a master. On a Dean Martin Comedy Hour, a summer replacement show circa 1975, Williams was shown at a comedy club doing improve. This was about the time he started on television as Mork.
Robin’s freewheeling routine included a great sequence where he called Spock a Vulcan Chihuahua, inside of another comedy riff, and then without skipping a beat, headed back into his first hilarious improvisational delivery. No one else has ever had the ability to do that without it sounding forced or wrong, only Williams could do this, seemingly, without any extra effort.
The news that the comedic giant suffered from depression so deep that he attempted to slit his own wrists before opting to take his life another way, is disturbing, but not too terribly surprising. Robin’s mentor, Jonathan Winters – another comic genius who specialised in off-the-cuff riffs featuring different characters – was another who battled depression his entire life.
Winters also underwent treatment for bipolar disorder and nervous breakdowns. The two men developed a close friendship and worked together on the 1970s series Mork and Mindy. Both comics branched out as actors and both had the ability to touch fans deeply. It is part of almost any comedian’s legend that there is a deep sadness, or anger, behind all that projected humor. So neither of these two men were unique in their problems with depression, rather, they were part of an exclusive club; one which treats its members badly.
Robin Williams and his death less than a week ago, has left many shocked and depressed at the loss of the Genie and friend of not just Aladdin, but all of us who love to laugh and dream of having the ability to so effortlessly entertain others. While prayers certainly go out to his loved ones and his close friends, each of these calming requests for peace are made with an ache in the heart and a sense of disbelief. So long Robin, you did not just bring a lot to the party, for many you were the party.
By Michael Smith