I wasn’t going to write about Robin Williams in this space. When I heard the news about his death I didn’t really feel shock or sadness or anything. He’s a celebrity, not my uncle. With very few exceptions, celebrity deaths have never much moved me for reasons that are as unclear as they are uninteresting.
I was even kind of glib about it for a minute. Probably 15 minutes after I saw the news and digested the few but painfully ample details, I tweeted:
I bet now you all wish you’d watched “The Crazy Ones”
— Alex Castle (@alexcastle718) August 11, 2014
I chuckled to myself, I thought it was a good joke. Because instead of thinking about the man, I was thinking about this huge ridiculous Bullshit Machine that we’re all living in, and how it was going to take this sad news and use it to blot out the sun for at least a couple of cycles, help us forget the taste of Iraqi quicksand and domestic police rioting by wallowing in this man’s consummated pain. (I happened to be at a lake house with my folks when we heard the news. My dad’s reaction: “The good news is, the TV here is broken.”)
I was thinking about this insane Bullshit Machine that will poke and prod at every detail about how this man died, and pretend that they made it easy on him. I imagined all the same pop-culture bloggers (who I eagerly read on a daily basis) who have been shitting all over everything this man has done for the last 15 years lining up to lionize him and mourn the loss of an artistic voice they’d all long since quit paying attention to.
I’m not saying I was any different. I didn’t watch The Crazy Ones either. I loved his early standup and either rented or watched all his early movies on HBO, up to the early ’90s, but I punched out somewhere around DEAD POETS SOCIETY; I never saw MRS. DOUBTFIRE or JUMANJI or HOOK, much less obvious crap like PATCH ADAMS or FLUBBER or WILD HOGS or almost any of the many other (presumably) crappy movies he made after CADILLAC MAN. Once he started getting Movie Star Parts (like from GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM on) he seemed to be getting more and more treacly middle of the road pandery. He was great in DEAD POETS SOCIETY, or at least I was the exact right age to think so at the time, but he developed this habit there of putting his jaw forward and a hand on his hip and trying to be like a Jimmy Stewart-type Permanent Good Guy Inspiration, in a way that he seldom seemed to shake, reaching for some kind of weird movie sainthood — the kind the Tom Hanks has — that led him into cheesier and cheesier choices like TOYS and JACK and FATHER’S DAY and PATCH ADAMS and WHAT DREAMS MAY COME. There were more after that, so many more, but they all just kind of blur into one big unwatched movie for me.
We were all agreed on that, right? Strictly on a critical level, in terms of our interest in his career, didn’t we all think Robin Williams was more or less done? The details of his death are incredibly sad and I am very sympathetic to what his family and friends are going through. But come on, hipsters, admit it: if Robin Williams had just decided never to work again on Monday, rather than doing what he did, most of us would hardly have noticed.
So I made a joke insinuating blame for his fatal bout of depression on the universal critical trashing his last high-profile project was greeted with.
Whether or not you watch CBS’s next sitcom (the network currently has four, none of them very funny), The Crazy Ones, comes down to whether or not you like Robin Williams and his shtick.
If you do, then by all means watch, though you might be thrown off by the odd tone and the desperation of it all.
If you’re not a fan (or you’re merely an ex-fan), then avoid this at all costs — because The Crazy Ones is Williams being Williams, which used to be a thing a while ago but now seems more like a thing you’ve seen too many times.
(It’s said that comedians have a hard time giving up the need to please people, but so many of them end up becoming pretty good dramatic actors and often do their best work there. It certainly seems that Williams going against type is far more successful and palatable, but that’s probably because I’m no longer in the crowd that’s enamored with him being constantly wacky.)
Television had a unique way of tapping into Williams’ immediacy, his vivacity and his improvisational genius. Late-night talk shows would exploit those talents for years; if you needed a ratings boost — or an adrenaline boost — you could always book Williams to come on and either try out some new bits or just completely take over. Talk shows run best on unpredictability, and Williams had an unrivaled knack for wedging his brand of verbal daredevilry between commercial breaks. He was the easy fix, the shot of “uh-oh” or “this should be good” that yawning late-night viewers wanted before sinking into their pillows.
Over the course of The Crazy Ones pilot, in which he plays Chicago ad executive Simon Roberts, Williams busts out all his greatest hits know from the ’80s, ’90s, and today: Marlon Brando, kung fu, an elderly Eskimo chief. In an early scene, an underling laughs at his voices, leading his frustrated daughter/partner Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar) to yell, “Do not encourage him!” The Crazy Ones is a show meant to encourage him to be Robin Williams to do all the material you know so well, whether you still love it or not.
But [in 1989] if you needed a human being to not only generate something out of absolutely nothing, but get big laughs doing so, your first, second and fifth choices had to be Robin Williams.
That’s what I was thinking about when I wrote that tweet. Not the man or his family or the pain he and they must have suffered because of his depression and his death, which is what I should have been thinking about. I was thinking, where was all this media compassion over the last ten, fifteen, twenty years of his career? Instinctively I processed the news by looking for the bullshit in it and turning it into a joke — a habit that, come to think of it, I learned from watching Robin Williams as a kid.
I read all these thinkpieces about him. I started thinking about the man, not the Bullshit Machine. I started watching old clips on YouTube, and I realized how completely jaded and ungracious I have become about this dude.
I started watching his 1982 concert video AN EVENING WITH ROBIN WILLIAMS and realized gradually as it went on, as he wades through the audience for no good reason other than to postpone his planned material, how many times I must have watched this thing when I was 13, 14, 15, in basements on sleepovers, rented Friday after Friday until somebody just finally kept the tape or figured out how to copy it. Was this ever on TV? I feel like it was a VHS only release.
I’m also struck by how much more of the material makes sense to me now as an adult than it did when I was a kid. I hadn’t read great books or watched classic movies or absorbed the headlines or done anything with my private parts when I was that young, so 80% of his references — so, so many references, quotes, impressions — bounced right off me. It might as well have been in Portugese at times, and IT DIDN’T EVEN MATTER. I watched this thing 5,000 times anyway, memorized it, watched it again. That is a massive gift, to be funny even when the audience has no idea what you’re talking about.
I haven’t looked at it in at least 20 years but every syllable of it is familiar as I watch it now. This is a formative building block in my sense of humor, what I think is funny, how I try to be funny myself. There are lines in here that I’ve been quoting for almost 30 years that I had no memory of where they come from. I was a huge Robin Williams fan… until I wasn’t.
I started to notice that the rapid-fire improv that everyone praised so effusively when he did talk shows was really just a collection of a dozen or two dozen stock bits that he whipped out every time. The applause meter. “Men with pants so tight you can tell their religion.” Big black guy voice. Little gay guy voice. Tiny toddler voice. Mr. Happy. The devil’s dandruff hunk: “Paranoid and impotent, give me more of that! Wake up feeling like a vampire on a day pass.”
I’d think, why’s he trying so hard? He doesn’t need to repeat all this stuff. We’ve heard all this stuff. He’s already won! Desperation, as they say, is the worst cologne, and it started to make him seem uncool.
And the movies he was picking weren’t helping. BICENTENNIAL MAN? JAKOB THE LIAR? LICENSE TO WED? LICENSE TO WED?!? Robin Williams was initially cool because he was completely unpredictable, because you never knew what kind of crazy shit was going to come out of his mouth next. But Hollywood tamed him and turned him into the exact opposite of that.
Let’s face it, Robin Williams wasn’t cool anymore, at least not according to the Internet cognoscenti. That’s not a crime. Everyone runs out of gas. Nobody tops their first few albums. The fact that he got old and lame was as predictable as the sun setting. I was never mad at him, I didn’t hate him, I didn’t bash him in any comments sections — I just didn’t pay any attention anymore.
But in this weird Internet age, where nothing catches the popular imagination for more than a couple of days at most because there’s always five more things to take its place, we seem to be very eager to dismiss things, to write people off, to pretend that just because they’re not that good now they were always terrible. But it would take a thousand PATCH ADAMSes to cancel out one WORLD’S GREATEST DAD (dude — watch WORLD’S GREATEST DAD) or FISHER KING or WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. People have been calling him a hack, saying he stole material, shitting on his movies forever, but now that he’s dead, we’re all suddenly huge Robin Williams fans again?
I shouldn’t have let myself forget how important Robin Williams was. We all forgot, and now we’re all pretending we didn’t. I don’t know what the lesson is — maybe just that we could try and go a little easier on our fading cultural icons in the future, shouldn’t take such delight in pissing on the grave of their talent, so we won’t look like such craven starfuckers when we’re laying flowers on the grave of their body.