Robin Williams: Farewell to the King of “Dad Humor”

If you had asked me on the morning of August 11th if I considered myself a Robin Williams “fan,” I probably would have shrugged. Sure, I liked some of his standup and he had made some good movies, and I don’t think I know anyone in my age range who can’t quote “Friend Like Me” word for word. But I’d skipped most of his recent work based on some cringe-inducing trailers, had no intentions to see “The Crazy Ones” and often criticized his comedic style for putting too much emphasis on delivery over content.

Still, a part of me felt there was a comeback lurking in there somewhere, that in a few years there’d be a sudden performance that made everyone gasp again, one last hurrah along the lines of Good Will Hunting (which I still haven’t seen all the way through) that would be the one we’d all point to in discussions decades later. Call it the Being There instinct, the idea that a versatile comedian in a bit of a rut would take one more turn that surprised us while still feeling like a natural extension of their career.

Then the news hit. And it hit me hard, harder than I expected.

I found myself with a lot to say, and yet I’ve held off on writing this post because I needed some time to process my feelings. Now, thanks to some of the conversations I’ve had, especially with my brother, I think I’ve hit on the reason I and so many people my age are grieving: he represented a generation of what I call Dad Humor that we all grew up under.

More than anything else, he worked hard. Perhaps too hard. Watch some of his stand up again, and you’ll notice he seems to get more applause than laughs: there’s so much effort in what he’s doing you just want him to feel appreciated. Whenever I watch his movies and I get to those scenes where he just tells irrelevant jokes and all of the other actors have to stand around and laugh for five minutes, I feel uncomfortable. We all know people like that, who try so hard to earn your affection you just want to tell them “OK! WE LOVE YOU! PLEASE STOP!” The sweat seems unnecessary and painful. But it’s what made him who he was, and also tied him to fathers, who often have to sweat mightily for an unappreciative audience.

Although he did blue work in clubs and onstage, Hollywood banked on the image of Williams as a likeable nut that was still comprehensible, the sort of figure who could crack jokes but still wanted you to go to school and get a job, etc. It was the kind of humor that I imagine was very freeing for some parents: yes, you have to go to work, yes, you have to drive in traffic and take care of your kids, but you can do it your way. You can give yourself an outlet on a day-to-day basis, you can be “a cut up” while coloring between the lines. And in fantasy movies like Hook and The Fisher King, Robin Williams became an almost mystical figure, a persona that led to movies like Toys and Being Human that are certainly not good, but were so captivating in their awkwardness you kind of need to see them anyway just to say you did.  Also, he was friends with Harlan Ellison, the only person on the planet so insane he could make Robin Williams his straight man:

Growing up, my own dad shared many traits with (and was heavily inspired by) Williams’ comedy. To this day, he still likes to do voices, riff on everyday objects and frequently interrupts others and himself for one-liners. And he had his own mystical side, too. There’s no one else I know who has both discussed Robert Bly’s Iron John with me and admitted to shooting Tic Tacs at squirrels with a slingshot.  I think there’s always a little bit of mystery to your parents, and milking that undercurrent for all the sentiment it’s worth brought Williams to the pinnacle of his career.

Then the 00’s came along. While his major films in the first five years of the Millennium (Insomnia, One Hour Photo, and yes, Death to Smoochy) explored his darker, creepier side, the trajectory seemed to shift later on. The last few years have, at least according to movie posters, shown a sense of exhaustion in Robin’s movies: they make him look like a tired old white guy playing a series of tired old white guys. Just look at the titles: Old Dogs, RV, World’s Greatest Dad, Angriest Man in Brooklyn, That One With The Robot Babies Where He’s A Priest That I’m Too Tired to Look Up,  etc.

Even within this tightening category, however, there was some inspiration. World’s Greatest Dad has problems, especially a parade of unnecessary montages that almost turn the movie into a musical, but Williams is not one of them. It may be a dark comedy about a desperate man’s attempt to exploit his asshole son’s accidental death, but the scene where Williams discovers the body is not played for laughs and heartbreakingly done. In a way, it was kind of a full circle return to the dads he had played before, only this time using a more cynical, ink-black brand of humor to deal with a much harsher reality of life.

Up to his final days, Robin wasn’t just active: as my friend Trevor said, he was omnipresent. His influence spread to all media, his filmography is prolific, and his legacy is undeniable. There’s been a lot of lists and articles asking people for their favorite “moments” of Williamsness, and I think I’ll close with his speech from The Fisher King, a scene that didn’t land him an Oscar but did give him a chance to unintentionally describe his whole career:

In the end, Robin Williams was just trying to fill a need, both in himself and his audience. I bet a lot of us wish we could have carried the cup to him. But at least sometimes he was able to bring it to us. RIP.

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