This may well prove to be the definitive biography of this great figure in American comedy.
Amongst comedians, Robin Williams was the angel and devil on America’s shoulders, capable of outrageous vulgarity as well as an almost maudlin tenderness at times. He could play macho just as easily as he could play camp. He could affect a high sophistication, made easy by his naturally patrician tone of voice, or he could mimic American philistinism at his purest. He could take on virtually any accent, usually because the resulting imitation was a gross caricature (often funny, admittedly). And though not all his jokes landed, and certainly some of them have not aged well, like Don Rickles or his immediate inspiration Jonathan Winters, he was an equal-opportunity comic, whose harmless eagerness to skewer others hid in plain sight a need to be loved and accepted, and to bring the whole world, in its mad entirety, somehow closer to him.
He was broad not only in his comedic range, but in his performing range as well. He conquered stage, small screen and silver screen, filling every corner of those three mediums with his own instantly recognizable brand of madcap humor—a stream-of-consciousness, free-associative, hyperactive wizardry for the attention deficit disorder generation. But he could also play it straight when necessary, the fragile voice of reason preaching humility and understanding.
In Dave Itzkoff’s biography, the author mercifully opts to avoid excessive lionization, though it is hard for those writing about Robin Williams to avoid attributing some sort of genius to him, an attribution that often stands in for a more thorough, meaningful engagement with him as a person and as a performer. Itzkoff instead pursues a far more fruitful line of inquiry, carefully tracing the steps of the late comedian’s life in order to see, essentially, what made Robin “Robin,” and how the two coexisted, sometimes harmoniously, and often not, over the 60-plus years of his life.
Thanks to unparalleled access to Robin’s friends and collaborators, as well as to Robin himself, this may well prove to be the definitive biography of this great figure in American comedy. Its chief strength is that it does away with the one-size-fits-all explanation of the “sad clown” that many have been eager to foist upon Robin’s addiction and depression. At times, Itzkoff can be too much of an unabashed admirer of Robin’s, though it is hard to imagine meeting him and remaining unaffected by his charisma. There is a measure of critique in that certain behaviors, namely joke-stealing, harassing “Mork & Mindy” co-star Pam Dawber, causing his fair share of marital strife and being hugely insecure about the success of others.
The most interesting part of the book by far, beyond the sociological value of being immersed in the world of 1970s comedy, are the parts about Robin’s childhood. There isn’t really a specific trauma to be found here, only vast wells of loneliness that the comedian seems to have suffered from for his entire life. Sure, the unhappiness and its attendant forms of “acting out” would later be exacerbated by periods of instability and dissatisfaction caused by external factors, but even when all was relatively well, it seems, the feeling was never far away. It is easy to see something sad in a young Robin playing with his huge array of toy soldiers, which he would keep his whole life, but perhaps there is more than sadness there—the contained chaos of such a large collection of toys reminds one of his comedy, after all, and it is a comfort to know that, from time to time, he found solace with a person (himself) in which he at other times struggled to find company.