Robin Williams – “Reality…What A Concept” (1979)
WHAT IS THIS? Most people don’t treat comedians the way they treat musicians. They see a five-minute late night set on YouTube, or catch a random track on Pandora and think they know how that comedian performs. But much like any band, the joy of following a comic comes from seeing their humble beginnings and watching them grow. And much like with music, decades of comedy history lives exclusively on records. HAIL SATIRE! PRESENTS RECORD SETS focuses on the first albums of entertainment’s greatest funny people. Our first selection is the 1979 debut album of Robin Williams entitled “Reality…What a Concept”.
ROBIN WILLIAMS: The now late-great Robin remains known to most for his starring roles in countless quality films like “Good Morning Vietnam”, “The Birdcage”, “Dead Poets Society”, “Mrs. Doubtfire”, “Good Will Hunting” and of course, “Aladdin”. But at the time of this recording, that was all ahead of him. Robin grew up at the LA Comedy Store and you can hear the core audience knows his style. But with the 1978 premiere of Robin’s sitcom “Mork and Mindy”, he was far from being an unknown. In fact… with his current role as the madcap alien in rainbow suspenders, Robin was on the verge of being typecast.
The most insightful moment of the night comes when Robin requests a suggestion for his improvised Shakespearian play, and the audience responds first with “Robin Williams!” (Robin replies “Who’s that?”), followed almost instantly by “Mork!” “No, no, mon! We not doing that tonight, mon!” Williams retorts in a semi-Jamaican tone, ”No ‘nanu nanu’ tonight, mon! I’m free from that here!” But as the crowd rapidly resorts to chanting, Robin seems only to heighten their begging with laughter and refusal. This is the only moment of the album I can actually hear Robin sweat, because it’s the one time he’s actively denying the audience what they want most. It breaks the principal rule of improvisation, the style of make-it-up comedy Robin excels at, which is built on the theory of “Yes And”. But he swiftly takes control of the uncomfortable beat and turns it into a teachable moment about the nature of stand-up. “Time out! I have to explain one thing. I ain’t doing the Mort. That’s why I perform here – to do something different!” A comedian’s stand-up may not be your favorite thing they’ve done, but it always remains defiantly their own thing. And as with most things Robin Williams, “Reality” is certainly “different”.
THE ERA: Likely the first striking element of “Reality” is the poorly aged cultural references. Robin’s set is littered with them, some so obscure and specific that even Wikipedia shrugged at my searches. (“Hello, Gore Vidal for Thunderbird wine!”) Future pressings of this album that sell in hipster chic record shops would be well served by a series of footnotes explaining the significance of the well-worn cultural landmarks like Eve Arden, Joan Sutherland, Nefirtite, Don Ho, Hare Krishna, etc. Often Robin’s lightening fast timing salvages certain era specifics, but even I can assume the full segment on conservative author William F. Buckley hit harder forty years ago.
Another curiosity of the late 70’s comes in the forms of Robin’s go-to punchlines: Soviet Russia and trippin’ acid. With the Cold War in full-tilt, Robin hurls enough vodka-flavored zingers to put Yakov Smirnoff to shame. In minutes you get Karl Marx as Groucho Marx, Nadia Comenci sounds like a baby jokes and recurrent wordplay that these are “soviet suppressions”. Most of USSR-centric material seems pre-planned, yet Robin’s baby Nadia voice becomes his surrogate audience member (as a baby: “I don’t know what this [act] is, but it sure is stupid”). More organic (and more frequent) is Robin’s fascination with laughter being drug induced. Granted – Robin worked plenty of clubs in the 70’s and surely was privy to plenty of strangely intoxicated patrons – but he will frequently translate his jokes like he’s the closing act at Woodstock (“And now a poem written on acid entitled ahhabulaguhala”) This remains interesting on a meta level because of Robin’s well-documented fondness for intoxicants, so perhaps his assumed audience fascination with getting “blown away” aught to be faced inward.
THE RECORD SET: Let it be said, Robin Williams’ mind moved faster than any other comic of his generation. “Reality” shows him like a humor cheetah, swiftly darting from concept to concept, style to style, voice to voice. His one-liners sing like quickly riffing staccato notes, seemingly planned but impossibly in-the-moment. Even his frequent crowd work yields fascinating discussions, but only within Robin’s own energy-powered mind. A common example of Robin’s “crowd work” comes in the form of asking a fan their name or occupation, only to instantly think of another joke before they have a chance to reply. This is best showcased with the hilarious “Reverend Earnest Anger’s (Disco Temple of Comedy)” routine, which allows Robin (as a soulful preacher) the much-need opportunity to shrug off the planned-material and enter the audience to riff, which yields some of the greatest “Google that!” references of the night (“Praise Jeesel!” is the best reference to vaudevillian George Jeesel on Side A). As Reverend Anger, Robin performs “miracles” through the power of comedy: spouting healings words (“Take my wife, please!”), praising a gender-neutral lord (“You say “Amen!’ and you say ‘A-woman!’”) and offering sage advice (To feel the “power of comedy” at home, grab the back of TV set. “It’ll knock your ass across the room and give some a laugh!”) This is Robin at his most unencumbered.
Robin’s true gift was his pace, because it was impossible to chart consistently. Gags string together like divinely crafted tweets, perfectly timed and said at breakneck velocity. But the magic was Robin’s ability to gage an audience’s taste for a line without pausing. His performances always avoid laugh fatigue because there are literally no pockets of silence – Robin rides his last laugh into his next joke. He’s even so good that the minute he stops to breathe, he gets a reaction. (*beat* “Wait! Are you just laughing at nothing now?”)
Part of the fun of “Reality” is it also really feels like a nightclub. Robin asks about the drinks, the lights dim and people walk in late (and Robin re-does his entire first bit in triple time). Audience participation takes zero explanation when it comes to the call-and-response portion of the show. (As Mr. Rogers: “That’s severe radiation. Can you say severe radiation? *beat* Nice try!”)
LEGACY: Over the course of this record’s 43 minutes, it gets very easy to become over-whelmed by the sheer Robin Williams-ness of it all. That is to say, I can hear that this act is funny, but why is this act funny? Is it the references? The witty premises? The improv? The character voices? The mostly-decent impressions? The absurd amount of energy? The easy answer would be to say that it’s all of those things, because that would be true. But my personal theory about the success of Robin Williams as a truly unique performer in the world of comedy, as well a dearly missed human being, is one thing: his honesty.
Robin’s style of humor provided him an instant pulse on what an audience is into, and what an audience dismisses. For most it takes decades of hard labor onstage to develop enough material to fully change direction based on the perceived attitude of the room. Robin was doing these veteran backflips at 28. Robin was quite simply a performing prodigy, and that bold fearlessness is summed up best with “Come Inside My Mind”, which closes Side B.
After a relatively odd tangent about casting a bug in “A Street Car Named Desire”, Robin reads the audience: “I-I’m sorry. I seem to have lost you.” Then he enters into a whole new routine, seemingly inspired by this barely noticeable laughter gap. “SO THIS IS COMEDY HELL”, he un-judgmentally booms. “Come inside my mind and see what happens when a comedian eats the big one.” As we tour Robin William’s 3-D House of Humor, we’re privy to the fast-paced mind of ready to please performer rapidly searching his database for the right zinger. On the way we meet his subconscious (growling like a junkyard dog), his ego (which shrieks “HELP MEEE”) and his sending orders to launch a “pity response” (singing a sad ballad version of Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”). But the most telling real life moments come when a few inner-Robins argue about the nature of comedy:
Robin 1#: “I’m doing brilliant! I’m improvising like crazy!”
Robin 2#: “No you’re not, you fool! You’re just doing pee-pee ca-ca. No substance! You’re not talking about any truth, any realities! Why don’t you change the nature of man instead of just talking about drugs and people passing out? Help the world!”
Robin 3#: “Shut up, both of you!”
These schizophrenic tendencies remain a hallmark of Robin’s unique brand of humor, but on a meta-level, it’s so easy to read into this vulnerable moment. Is it possible that even at such a young age, Robin was already cynical about his gifts? Did he feel his stand-up was just a waste of time? Did he really believe that comedy like his couldn’t be a force for good and change the world? These jokes showcase the painful fact that often the mind of a comedian can never be content. There is no silence for the restless mind and despite Robin’s meteoric rise in the late 70’s, he’s always competing against an impossible to satisfy comic standard. Which makes his final line all the more appropriate – “What the fuck did you want from me anyway?” Despite it’s directness, Robin says this good-naturedly and fully aware that the audience is still having a good time. Never the less, how gratifying it must have been to take off the “Mork” hat for one night in 1979 and be free. Freedom. That’s what Robin Williams captured for many people. Freedom to say what you mean. Freedom to be as brilliant as you can be, or as physical, or as fearless. When Robin took the stage, he showed you the potential of the human spirit. What more COULD you want
Check out Robin Williams’ “Reality…What A Concept?” at the link below:
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By Vic Shuttee