Newsweek’s 1986 cover profile of Robin Williams, King of Comedy: “You feel you are in the presence of a benign but not easily known soul.”
Welcome to the fast-forward world of Robin Williams, who, at 33, is the unofficial comic laureate of his generation. At a time when live comedy is undergoing a renaissance of popularity in America, Williams reigns as comedy’s lunatic king. It is almost a decade since this computer-quick talent exploded into instant stardom as the suspendered alien on “Mork and Mindy,” and any doubts about his staying power have long since been erased. This year alone he singlehandedly kept the nation awake with his rude wit on the Oscar slumbercast; he cohosted the successful Comic Relief benefit for the homeless with his pals Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg and made an appearance at the Amnesty International concert as well. His fifth movie, “The Best of Times,” came out last winter, and his latest, “Club Paradise,” opens in mid-July. Also in the can is his searing, dead-serious performance in Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day,” which may get a theatrical release before appearing on PBS in the spring. He’s about to film his touring concert show for HBO at the Kennedy Center in Washington. “60 Minutes” is featuring Williams in its new fall season. It’s safe to say that if a straw poll were taken of anyone under, say, 45, Williams would likely be voted the funniest man in America.
It’s not the he tells the funniest jokes. How many Williams one-liners can you quote? Maybe “Cocaine is just God’s way of telling you you have too much money.” No, what Williams evokes in people is not simply laughter but a sense of amazement at the spectacle of a brain on constant spin-cycle. Class stand-up comics from Bob Hope to George Carlin to Jay Leno are stars, but Williams is a shooting star. The mystery is in the motion: what miracle of the synapses got him from point A to point Z? At once a satirist, a comedian and a superb actor, this one-man repertory company dashes from mask to mask, voice to voice, like a man possessed by comic demons. And none of his material is written—he doesn’t even like to listen to tapes of his show afterward. Watching Williams share a stage at Comic Relief with such deliberate old pros as Sid Caesar and Henny Youngman is a lesson in the aerodynamics of comedy: with Williams, comedy entered the jet age. No small part of his excitement is the daredevil appeal: how high can this pilot fly before he spins out of orbit entirely?