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Robin Williams Live on Broadway. The title says it all. Few stars are starrier or have successfully undergone more re-inventions and permutations than Williams. From his first public splash as Mork on Happy Days to the spin-off that pulled him, Pam Dawber, and Jonathan Winters into the seventies, it was clear that the man had a knack for evoking laughs. His comic delivery is characterized by a frenzied pace and a frenetic scrambling of voices, references, and topics. You hear it in his earlier stand-up comedy recordings: Live at the Met (1986) and Throbbing Python of Love and Reality What a Concept, from sometime in the seventies. What a concept, indeed! Has it really been that long that Williams has been at it?
Of course, his movie career has been extraordinary with roles from the comic to the crazed to the earnest and serious. He has made forays into sappy family films like Patch Adams, just as Steve Martin has, but Williams has returned recently to darker, and now smuttier material by doing Death to Smoochy, One Hour Photo, and now Live on Broadway. I remember really liking Williams in The Fisher King and/or Moscow on the Hudson. I remember disliking him in Jumanji. But that wasn't much of a movie. Oh! Then there was Hook. I forgot about that one. And Popeye, an under-appreciated gem of a film.
In the 80s, your old friend Gooden was doing stand-up comedy himself. I remember hearing that Williams was a notorious joke thief, a gag snagger, a punch line poacher. I also heard about his out-of-control cocaine addiction. Amazing that the man has skirted so many obstacles from drug burnout to angry lesser comedians to losing the magic in his funny bone. He's still at it, and still a comic genius. With Live on Broadway, he's back to the fast-paced patter. He's got the mugging and physical comedy to go with it, and he sweats like a fat man doing calisthenics in the noonday sun. He wears the trappings of the stand-up comic very well, and he puts a lot of other comics to shame.
Of course, it's still stand-up comedy, so it still has a predictable basis of reduction and diminishing. That's the fundamental building block of the stand-up comedy bit: the belittling of something, the spotlighting of quirks and foibles and casting them in the negative, the insulting of people and places, the reduction of individuals or whole cultures to stereotype. Most stand-up comedy works by reducing things to absurdity. Which is all well and good, except that this reviewer got burned out on the whole genre during the comedy glut of the late eighties.
Williams spends energy mocking many cultures and peoples in a terribly funny way. He removes a lot of the romance from sex, with comic panache. His put-downs are highly amusing. In addition to this basic pattern, Williams treads on some other familiar territory. Mind you, he does it well for the most part, but the fact he does the rapper, the sassy Black woman, the fascistic German at all is a little disappointing. We've seen these characters and voices done by Anglo comics many times, and it doesn't have a fresh or interesting aspect left.
Another pattern of comedy that Williams has is the jumping of topics in a rather random way. Like most comics, he has bits that are mainly unrelated to one another. He makes an uncharacteristic attempt to segue, but I'm still not sure how he manages to tie a discussion of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt to the scene in heaven after an Islamic jihad.
I'm tired of the lack of through-line in stand-up, the absence of a larger narrative or significance to what I'm listening to. A good counterexample is Garrison Keillor, who is quite entertaining after his own style, but who always has some kind of tale to tell in addition to the larger career-long narrative he delivers: the homage and depiction of Lake Wobegon.
Williams is heavy on the profanity. One DVD feature that's also found on the VHS edition is a version of the concert that consists of only the bad words spliced end to end, much like the cult short film Pulp Fuction that did the same thing with Tarantino's film of similar name. The fact the these single words, strung end to end comprises a good six minutes is not necessarily good for Williams' image: it's evidence that his humor hinges overmuch on profanity.
If you want a laugh, though, this film will give it to you.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.