November of 2009, in response to Newsweek's "Twelve Comics Who Aren't Funny," I offer, "Let Us Now Bash Robin Williams Part I," in which I defended (most of) the unfunny twelve, and complained that the Newsweek writer, Sarah Ball, should have taken on sacred comedy cows like the late George Carlin and Robin Williams.
Ball never got around to such an article, and so, a little while back, I offered, "Let Us Now Bash Robin Williams... And George Carlin!" in which I did my best to de-deify Carlin, the late comic legend.
Today, I offer the "Let Us Now Bash Robin Williams -- The Final Chapter" in which I finally get around to the eponymous Robin.
Here we go:
My complaint with Carlin was that he brought up weighty topics and offered wisdom, but not while getting laughs, and therefore his exalted status as a comedian, up there alongside Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, was not deserved. The reverse is true with Robin; he brings up weighty topics, offers punch lines that get laughs, but he does not offer wisdom. And so, he too, should not be exalted.
It appears that he does offer wisdom, but if you look closely, it's a con job -- he brings up a weighty topic, but he pays off the premise with -- at best -- jokes that segue to a much easier target. At worst -- and almost exclusively in recent years -- he pays off the premise with "dick jokes," i.e., easy, dumb punch lines, often involving the penis or some sort of bodily function.
How did Williams gain the reputation among so many as having something to say?
First, there was the the cluelessness of the entertainment press at the dawn of the stand-up comedy boom, circa the 1980s. Scribes writing for every periodical from the New York Times to Rolling Stone assumed the new breed of nightclub comedians was comprised of hordes of young David Brenners with nothing more on their mind other than airline food.
Had the culture tastemakers dropped by the NY, LA, Boston or Chicago comedy clubs, they would have caught the sets of Barry Crimmins, Randy Credico, Bill Hicks, Scott Blakeman, Jimmy Tingle, A. Whitney Brown, Lewis Black and a host of others, all incisively, and with big laughs, torching social and political topics.
Instead, every couple of years theater reviewers would take in a Robin concert at, for instance, New York's Metropolitan Opera House. Once seated, they would confuse the respectability of the venue for the content of the show. Laudatory reviews would pour in all saying some version of, "Williams is the only comic out there willing to take on the important topics and does so hilariously, while also offering brilliant commentary -- blah, blah, et cetera."
But if they had quoted actual jokes, the veil of misunderstanding would have been lifted and the con-job would have been quite evident -- when you go back and watch the concerts, you quickly notice, that although Robin had not yet sunk to ninety minutes of talking rectum jokes of recent days, there is no incisiveness offered.
For instance: The topic of a society hooked on cocaine is broached during the Live at the Met (1986) concert. But analysis of the topic is dropped for a punchline on how Japanese people snort coke and golfer's clothing.
The topics of guns and God is broached, but the investigation devolves into the topic of Chinese drivers, drunks hunting deer and Tammy Baker's jiffy-pop hairdo.
With the media encamped at Lincoln Center, the public bought the hype. How could you blame them? Where were the bulk of the Americans to see the new comics? Some tourists came to New York and found their way to the Improvisation or Catch-A-Rising-Star comedy clubs, but most went to see Cats. And meanwhile, the multitude of comedy clubs sprouting up at every former disco club from Bangor to Okinawa were less likely to book the cutting edge political comics.
And, then, factor two -- Robin's movie career. Turned out Robin was a great actor, with gravitas appropriate for roles way surpassing the lightweight fun of Mork from Ork. Seize the Day, Awakenings, the Fisher King, Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting came to theaters and the public got the gravitas of the films and heartfelt performances Williams delivered, confused with what the material he delivered on the stage. Could the winner of an Academy Award really be fixated on the penis and making fun of Asians?
Over the years, as Hicks, Black, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Bill Mahr, among others -- assisted by a now clued-in entertainment press -- brought authentic insight into stand-up prominence, the Williams myth remained.
I must add on a personal note, that even having laid all this out, I was nonetheless boggled watching Williams' most recent HBO special, Weapons of Self-Destruction. Feel free to skip the next few paragraphs as it does get tedious, but for those who care to, here is a rundown of the various weighty topics raised, followed by the nexus of the actual punchline:
Topic: Pharmaceutical companies. Topic of punchlines: Rectal ventriloquism. "Rectal exorcism." "Opening up your a--hole and..." A talking dick. "F*^ked in the a--." "Sh#^ting in my pants." Talking sperm. (Another) "finger in my a--." A--hole opening up.""If she puts a finger in my a--, than off we go."
Topic: Evolution. Topic of punchlines: "The mushroom cap, (penis)" Scrotum and balls. "Put the balls in the turkey neck." "Next to the a--hole, one of the uglier things we made." How to "start" the penis, "by hitting the balls really hard." "Curtains, (vagina.)" "The vagina was originally made horizontal." The vagina talks. "Two hands, two tits, that's it!" "Fire in the a- hole."
Topic: His own alcoholism. Topic of punchlines: "Hey, somebody shit in my pants." A camel licking your balls. F^#king a sheep. (Another) a--hole talking. A--monkey." Women with tattoos look like something or other crawling into the a--hole. "Leave the dick on, and in an hour I'm going to turn on the a--hole."
(In comparison, check out Richard Pryor on his own addictions.)
Topic: Recent heart surgery. Topic of punchlines: "A horse sized cock." Getting a blow-job with a whistle in his dick. Sh^#ting standing up. Masturbating a tiny vagina. Proper hand gestures for connoting masturbation. (Another) "rectal exorcism." "Demon turd, fall from his a--."
(In comparison, check out Richard Pryor on his heart attack.)
But, the audience, throughout, was delighted. At one point, a woman laughed with such gusto at a joke that ends with a non-nonsensical punch line featuring the words, "head for the tits, I know my way from there!" that she ricochets forward as if her seat has been rear-ended by a Mack truck. The evident highpoint of the show, a riff on alternative fuels that ended, "You can fart and s^*t your way across the country -- F*@k green, go brown!!!" brought a thunderous ovation so loud it was as if Williams had just delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
And so I admit, clearly humor is in the eye of the beholder. But in the name of legions of comics who have scratched their heads at family gatherings over the past few decades when aunts and uncles were appalled that they didn't consider Robin a comedy God, I figured a bit of perspective was more than overdue.
One more point. Even on Self-Destruction, a few routines are mostly dick-joke free and journey admirably towards making a point. But, as comedians know, if you count on dick jokes ninety percent of the time, you suffer from your own choices, dumbing down the audience. Result being that even modestly inventive and intelligent riffs bomb, as does a nice routine on gay marriage and a great bit about banks offering "economic freebasing."
And finally, also on the upside of the Williams ledger, he soon comes to Broadway in the anything but a laugher, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and despite uneasiness in some theater circles, my bet is on him being terrific.
Lastly, I welcome all comments that I'm a bitter, unfunny, jerk. To that end, you can watch my days in stand-up and decide if I should have been part of the aforementioned, "Unfunny 12."