Robin Williams was, without a doubt, one of the greatest comedians and comic actors of all time. He also was, without a doubt, one of the most mocked and derided comedians and comic actors of all time.
So I was confused when, in the wake of Williams’ unfortunate suicide, I scanned my anguished Facebook feed and heard CNN’s Wolf Blitzer (he who never met an “uh” he didn’t like) deliver the news of Williams’ passing with the somber tone usually reserved for the likes of Nelson Mandela.
Hadn’t Robin Williams become the punchline himself over the last 25 years?
Maybe we joshed so much because we loved. But there was usually an acidic tone to the mockery, which perhaps reached its apotheosis in the Family Guy episode where Peter sits down with Williams and things get extremely groanworthy. And who can forget the episode where everyone Peter touches turns into Robin Williams, which at first delights Peter but after repeated exposure becomes grating and, well, grating. Not to focus on Family Guy: posts like this and this are typical of the vitriol hurled at Williams over the years.
There is no way to overstate how beloved Williams was from the late 1970s through the 1980s. His electric turn as Mork from Ork in the ABC sitcom Mork & Mindy was a phenomenon that found his face plastered on magazines and lunch boxes alike. His standup comedy was biting and full of manic energy that swept up audiences into fits of hysteria. His dramatic roles in movies like “The World According to Garp” and “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Dead Poets Society” and “The Fisher King” drew rave reviews from critics.
Entering the 1990s, though, there grew a palpable (and perhaps unreasonable) sense of “Is that all there is?” Robin Williams impersonations began to spring up, and they usually weren’t flattering. Many of his movies were received with disappointed and often perturbed groans from critics and audiences alike. The image of a coked-up non sequitur machine became the default setting for Williams’ place in the cultural zeitgeist. Not only that, but for many cynical Gen Xers, Williams’ standup became symbolic of schmaltzy Baby Boomer humor, pilloried alongside the likes of Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg and Sinbad.
Williams subsequently found a new, younger audience thanks to his delightful work in children’s films like “Hook” and “Aladdin” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.” And he still continued to deliver brave, winning performances in more adult fare like “Good Will Hunting” and “The Birdcage.” Still, lingering above it all was the pervasive eye-rolling and groaning directed at the man himself.
So where’d all that haterade go last night and today? Why is the death of a much-derided comedian generating so much anguish and reverence?
Perhaps it was that, beyond all the mockery and nastiness directed at him over the years, there was an undeniable empathy embedded in Robin Williams himself that made people love him even if they hated his work.
We’ll all miss you, Robin. Even the haters.