With the world falling apart, we answer burning questions.
Jim Carrey is seriously funny
Robin Williams’ comedy at its most manic never fully appealed to me, his motor-mouthed stream of consciousness seeming perhaps a bit too aimless and not nearly as funny as Jim Carrey’s rubber-faced buffoonery and more focused (if equally absurd) kinetic physical comedy. But when Robin Williams flipped the switch to poignancy, he was difficult to top, his hangdog expressions and welling eyes tugging at those heartstrings with both hands. But as Jim Carrey began to shift toward more serious fare, his dramatic performances were often more nuanced than Williams’ overt sentimentalism, most notably in his downtrodden role of Joel Barish in Michel Gondry’s masterful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Carrey’s filmography demonstrates a greater commitment to exploring human consciousness and questioning human perception and reality as a fabrication that the majority of us simply agree upon. Whether it’s through the comedy-drama hybrid The Truman Show or his embodiment of the ultimate authenticity-challenging performance artist, Andy Kaufman, in Man on the Moon, there are often more layers to Jim Carrey’s most compelling dramatic performances. Even the darkly comic The Cable Guy, released at the height of Carrey’s slapstick ‘90s fame (and a risk to his career at the time), plays with the notion of perspectives that aberrate from our agreed-upon notion of what constitutes “normal.” Williams nearly makes up the gap with his own darkly comic performances, such as in Bobcat Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad, or in his villainous turns, which are admittedly far more chilling (think Insomnia) than any similar role Carrey has attempted. But when all is said and done, Williams may have a more impressive cinematic resume, but Carrey makes me laugh and makes me think more than Williams does. – Josh Goller
I don’t give a (rhino) shit! It’s Robin for me!
I remember my dad watching Jonathan Winters on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” and laughing so hard I thought he was going to pass out. When a loony young comedian in a Hawaiian shirt joined him on the guest panel, I had the feeling of a torch being passed. I became a Robin Williams fan on that day. In the early era of cable TV, Williams’ stand-up specials were equal parts comedy and magic: how did he snap so quickly from persona to persona? One moment a gummy Russian babushka and the next moment a drawling John Wayne. His brain seemed to operate at hypersonic speed, blasting out ingenious one-liners and impressions like a human being with a fast-forward button. No one before or since has hit that peak. Actual John Wayne movies paled for me because the actor seemed to be doing a low-energy version of Williams’ masterful impression of the swaggering cowboy.
Jim Carrey arrived at a time when I wasn’t watching a lot of television or catching silly movies at the cinema. Everything I’ve seen of his has been long after the fact. Did I ever actually watch The Mask, or just a bunch of gifs over the years? My favorite Jim Carrey performance caught me entirely by surprise when my girlfriend and I watched Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls late one night. I experienced a cascade of passing-out laugh attacks, to the point that I was afraid to continue watching in case it killed me. So dumb, and yet so brilliant.
The treacle that Williams dabbled in when he switched to feel-good cinema dampened my enthusiasm, but when he had a good role, he proved his dramatic chops. His performances in Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society are genuinely powerful, and he’ll always be the face of one of my favorite fictional characters, Garp. Jim Carrey’s dramatic work, while good, made less of an impression. Have I ever actually watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind all the way through? My inability to remember that might be ironic, but I can’t recall enough of the movie to be sure.
These days, Jim Carrey has become an inspired painter of political cartoons–his Twitter feed is pretty amazing–and Robin Williams is, to quote the only funny joke in Patch Adams, blinking for an exceptionally long period of time. And while Jim Carrey birthing himself from the anus of an animatronic rhinoceros is one of the goddamn funniest things I’ve ever seen, Robin Williams is the one who will always inspire me to stand on my desk and call him My Captain. – A.C. Koch
It’s Mork for the dorks!
Nanu-nanu, everyone! The answer to this question depends how old you were when each comic madman took over the world. I’m a kid from the ’70s, so there was a time when Star Wars and “Happy Days” meant everything. Those were the conditions of life back then. Everyone watched the same shows on network television. Cable was in its infancy, so if you disrupted the typical beats of a sitcom tens of millions of people saw it. That’s how cultural phenomena were born and the way Robin Williams became famous. He played Mork from Ork with the improvisational fervor that would mark his best known work and the role proved so popular Williams had his own sitcom, “Mork and Mindy,” a few months later in the Fall season of 1978. Kids like me started wearing rainbow suspenders like America’s favorite Orkan, and a Mork action figure soon went on adventures with the Kenner versions of the Star Wars crew.
By the time Jim Carrey became part of the anarchical force that was Keenan Ivory Wayan’s variety show “In Living Color,” I was out of high school and nerd enough to see him as part of a lineage of generational comedians that included Williams, Jonathan Winters, Eddie Murphy and Jerry Lewis. Carrey’s physical transformations were astounding to witness and his early roles in Ace Ventura and The Mask brought some much needed madness to mainstream comedy. But, Williams was establishing his genius beyond broad comedy, though it always featured somewhere in acclaimed performances like Moscow on the Hudson, Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poet’s Society and The Fisher King. Both performers struggled with establishing themselves beyond madcap bankability, but Carrey seemed to be chasing Williams’ career path with more serious performances in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon. Williams eventually got the gold while Carrey remains wanting.
Shazbot, this is about to turn serious. When Robin Williams died, I realized how much I loved his work. A deep sadness hit me that has never occurred before at the loss of a public personality. He was a touchstone of childhood and adolescence, imbued with importance that can only get bestowed during those formative times. He will always signify joy to me, even when juxtaposed by the violence of his suicide. That was a very human act for someone who seemed accustomed to existing at superhuman speeds. He will always endure as Mork, Garp, Mrs. Doubtfire and John Keating, the eternal o’ captain, my captain, but I miss the fact of him in the world. – Don Kelly
Don’t underestimate Jim Carrey
First glance, first thought, no question: Robin Williams is clearly the winner. Even proposing this versus is simply unfair. I remembered when Robin Williams died and that among my family, friends and students, each person had their own favorite Williams film: Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, Dead Poets Society, Good Morning Vietnam, even The World According to Garp (that one dear friend with whom I shared an enthusiasm for both Robin Williams and John Irving). The characters he played gave him space to be zany and vulnerable, angry and sensitive. I initially appreciated Robin Williams for two significantly different performances–his role as Mork from Ork and his raunchy, brilliant stand up in Reality…What a Concept–so it should not have surprised me that everyone had their own particular Williams persona they adored.
Having quickly reminisced about my enthusiasm for Robin Williams, I decided that he had the opportunity to shine through so many different roles, but Jim Carrey was always fundamentally Jim Carrey, with his extraordinarily flexible face and over-the-top physical comedy. I recalled those characters from movies that appeal to adolescent boys: Ace Ventura, the dreadful Dumb and Dumber. It was easy to be dismissive. Then I went over to IMDB and scrolled through his filmography. I remembered that he was brilliant as the Riddler in contrast to Val Kilmer’s so-serious Batman. Then there was The Truman Show, which I have never seen in its entirety. The same is true for a dozen other Jim Carrey films, and I realized the question is unfair because I don’t have enough information to say that Robin Williams is clearly the winner.
I remembered wanting to write about Jim Carrey’s artwork, especially when he live-Tweeted while painting shortly after that particular aspect of his creativity became public knowledge. And how spot-on, sarcastic and smart his paintings are. Memoirs and Misinformation, Carrey’s book of autofiction, is scheduled for release this fall. I look forward to reading it, and maybe screening some of those older films in the meantime. – Linda Levitt
Laughing through the tears
If we’re talking pure acting ability, then Jim Carrey probably has the leg up on Robin Williams. Carrey’s underrated ability to inhabit and energize tricky and often unlikable characters is best in class. And in his heyday, his physical comedy was the best work this side of Lucille Ball. Even better than Williams.
However, if we’re choosing one of them based on all of their onscreen merits, Robin Williams is the obvious choice. A truly gifted comedian, Williams had so much heart that he made even clichéd, underwritten and badly written parts into classics. He was one of the few actors who could make you smile with just the sound of your voice, and the rare performer who could make you cry to saccharine gobbledygook like Patch Adams and Bicentennial Man.
When at his best and matched with good material, Robin Williams was a performer unlike any other. How many of us laughed to the point of tears for more than one of Mrs. Doubtfire’s many mishaps? Why can we all sing “Friend Like Me” from scratch? Even when he played against type, as the villain in films like Insomnia and One Hour Photo, part of me rooted for Williams.
While Jim Carrey is incredibly gifted, there might be someone else someday who comes along and does what he does. That’s not the case with Robin Williams. He was one of a kind, and we were all lucky to have him. – Mike McClelland
A question to destroy marriages
I discussed this question—of Carrey versus Williams—with my wife, framing the topic as a silly one because there can be no doubt about the answer. Why debate something when the solution is so obvious? She agreed…until I took her agreement as an invitation to then lay out the very easy, very apparent case that Jim Carrey is the right answer. She was horrified; she was just as confident that Robin Williams is the clear, simple choice here. So maybe it is a good debate topic after all.
In 1994, Jim Carrey starred in three of the most hilarious films of the entire ‘90s: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber. These are three of the most watched (and re-watched) films of our era and having revisited them as an adult myself, I still laugh hysterically. Carrey continued to make good stuff after 1994, but nothing topped that year’s offerings. And as a Carrey partisan, I will concede that his schtick got increasingly schtickier over time (and therefore less funny), but his comic efforts of the ‘90s showed an impressive range that included The Cable Guy and The Truman Show.
Williams has never come close to making me laugh as hard as Carrey. He was good in funny parts; for example, many of the criticisms of Disney’s live-action Aladdin remake emphasized that Will Smith could not come close to matching Williams as the Genie. Maybe Williams could be great in a wider variety of roles—there is certainly no Good Will Hunting on Carrey’s IMDB page—but in a comedy, Carrey is far superior. So that is the crux of the debate: does Williams’ rangier career make him the favorite in spite of Carrey’s undeniable dominance as a comedic actor? I say no. The pleasure I have derived from even just Ace Ventura: Pet Detective over the past 25 years far surpasses anything Williams has added to my life. – Ryne Clos
Williams…by a hair!
In a contest between Robin Williams and Jim Carrey (childhood staples for many of a certain generation), the debate comes down to two conversations: their effectiveness as arbiters of comic shenanigans and their effectiveness in against-type dramatic turns across their respective careers. This would involve highlighting significant works in both modes for each actor. Williams’s style, which mixed an innate ability to improvise on the spot with rhetorical eloquence, was best-used in films like 1992’s Aladdin, in which he voiced the title character’s helpful and rambunctious Genie, and 1993’s Mrs. Doubtfire, in which he played a struggling actor who takes on the role of an English nanny to remain close to his kids. His dramatic work, though, resulted in three of his four Academy Award nominations, resulting in a win for 1997’s Good Will Hunting, playing the troubled therapist of Matt Damon’s eponymous math prodigy, and much acclaim for 1989’s Dead Poets Society, playing a troubled class’s unorthodox new literature professor. Though he had rough spots throughout, Williams’s output suffered tremendously in the mid- to late 2000s, with a series of low-rent studio comedies pushing him out of the mainstream.
Carrey’s career, bolstered by his own improvisational style that he mixed with his playful physicality, has had a much rougher, more stop-and-start quality. His early major roles, from 1994’s one-two-three punch of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (which spawned a sequel just a year later), Dumb and Dumber, and The Mask to roles within the next few years like those in 1995’s Batman Forever and 1997’s Liar Liar, were mostly considered successful more on the basis of his performances than the movies themselves. After several years of (to Carrey, at least) being pigeonholed, he bled this into a decade-long campaign to revitalize his brand with dramatic performances: 1998’s The Truman Show (perhaps his best-ever turn), 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and 2007’s The Number 23. Then he remained quiet after a number of personal tragedies and setbacks.
I believe that history will be kinder, overall, to Williams than to Carrey. As for me? I am at a stalemate. Both share a rambunctious, improvisational style that could both benefit and endanger the comic roles they take, depending on the strength of the role and the supportive material, and both share a keen eye for nuanced dramatic work. By a hair, I vote Williams, perhaps for a more prolific body of work. – Joel Copling