Saturday, September 6, 2014

Lives on fire: Robin Williams and Joan Rivers



CAN WE TALK? Because the last 25 days or so have been harsh and terrible and a little soul-crushing if you’re a human being who laughs from time to time, or hopes to, in our headlong march toward the great inevitable.

Joan and Robin, Robin and Joan. They were seismographs, they were weather reports of the human condition. They were two lives on fire, blazing through our time with the gift, the gentle (and not-so-gentle) weapon of comedy, and we were helpless when they brandished that weapon, tears in the eyes for reasons that had nothing and everything to do with joy and sadness. Never more so than now.

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“He had that other gear,” Wall Street Journal culture writer Christopher Farley told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC last month. Farley was speaking about Robin McLaurin Williams, the relentlessly electric comedian and actor who took his own life on Aug. 11, at his home in Tiburon, Calif., at the age of 63.


Robin Wililams in an early (and peerless) stand-up performance


In films from “Mrs. Doubtfire” to “Good Morning Vietnam,” from “Dead Poets Society” to “Good Will Hunting,” Williams displayed the panorama of the human experience in roles that have permanently cemented themselves in the culture and the life of our time. But Williams first pushed his way into our consciousness as a blazingly original comedian able to summon gold from the dross of everyday life in a way that was breathtaking to observe.

I was lucky enough to witness it firsthand; for one brief shining moment, I was present at the creation of a legend. I met Robin Williams sometime in the fall of 1980, as a green-as-grass reporter for the Boulder Daily Camera, located in the real-life Colorado college town where “Mork & Mindy,” Williams’ breakthrough TV series, was set.

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THE “MORK & Mindy” crew was shooting scenes for an episode entitled “Dueling Skates,” in which Mork, Williams’ alien-on-Earth character, challenges Wheels, a roller-skating phenom and the owner of a day-care center, to a skating duel through Boulder, as Mork’s way of stopping Wheels’ plans to level the building. One of the interior scenes was shot at a shopping center, and it was there I watched a phenomenon in the act of becoming.

I managed to borrow a script of the episode, and I watched from the set and read along as a scene was shot. It was clear that, for Williams, the script was just a blueprint, merely a sketch for his manic talents.

Williams riffed brilliantly, taking the literal words of the script as a springboard from which his own ideas exploded like a Roman candle in darkness. When they finished shooting the scene, the crew and everyone one within earshot were doubled over in laughter. It was a glimpse of a legend in utero.

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There was nothing he wouldn’t try to do. He’d visited Colorado the year before, stopping in Denver to shoot another episode — and paying a visit to the Denver Broncos cheerleading squad with hilarious results, when he put on one of their uniforms and trotted onto the field at Mile High Stadium. He didn’t just push the envelope; he tore it to shreds and reassembled it in his own inimitable fashion.

Laughter and pain are lockstep companions, with each other and for each of us. In the years since “Mork & Mindy,” Williams regaled us with a universe of performances; maybe none was more illustrative of the demons to come than his star turn in “The World According to Garp,” the 1982 film of John Irving’s celebrated novel.

In the film, directed by George Roy Hill, Williams plays T.S. Garp, a moderately successful writer seeking to shield family and friends from “the undertow” of existence, the inexorable pull toward the final finality that awaits us all.


AN EXCERPT from Irving’s book is especially, painfully telling now, in light of the events of Aug. 11: “But T.S. Garp felt guided by an impulse as old as Marcus Aurelius, who had the wisdom and the urgency to note that ‘in the life of a man, his time is but a moment ... his sense a dim rushlight.”

He said much the same thing seven years later, in another film, with another passage, a call to live life as fiercely as possible. “Seize the day,” he told us in “Dead Poets Society.” “Because believe it or not, each and everyone of us ... is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold and die.”

“Mork & Mindy” co-star Pam Dawber will pay tribute to Robin Williams in “Robin Williams Remembered,” a one-hour TV special airing Tuesday, Sept. 9, on PBS. She’ll no doubt offer personal insights into her own encounter with the world according to Robin Williams, a galaxy of possibilities, a seemingly limitless source of material, a place of laughter and pain we got to live in for too brief a time.

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JOAN RIVERS died at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City on Thursday, after going into cardiac arrest after undergoing a surgery on her vocal cords at an Upper East Side endoscopy clinic on Aug. 28. She was 81 years old. You know what happened, of course: She wouldn’t stop talking in the doctor’s office and the tube got stuck in her throat.

Over the top? A bit much? Outrageous? Welcome to the world of Joan Rivers’ brand of comedy, where nothing was outlawed, nothing was going too far. That was the Rivers cardinal rule: Everything and everyone was a target of opportunity.

The inescapable irony of a comedian who spent more than 50 years using her vocal cords like no one else — dying because they needed work ... Joan Rivers would have laughed at that. Like Joan Rivers laughed at us, and with us. Like Joan Rivers got us to laugh at ourselves.

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When Joan Alexandra Molinsky exploded into the public eye on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” on Feb. 17, 1965, she was a breath of fresh air by accident. The boy’s club of late-night television — and back then, even in its infancy, that’s what it was, much like today — was hardly ready for a brash, hypertalking Jewish blonde from Brooklyn ready to take on all comers. She walked on the set an anomaly and walked off a bona-fide star.

In later appearances there, and on her own trailblazing talk show, nothing was off limits; politics, marriage, bodily functions, the physical peculiarities of aging, urologists, gynecologists, zaftig physiognomy; people she loved, people she loved to hate — all of it in a slim, noisy, exuberant package crowned with a blonde bouffant as irrepressible as the woman underneath. Joan Rivers unfiltered.


She turned herself into the hardest-working woman in show business, but the supernova who broke big in 1965 got her start years earlier, with Rivers honing her skills as a stage actress and stand-up comic in Greenwich Village, working at tough-crowd nightclubs in Chicago and Los Angeles, and doing work as a gag writer on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

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SHE GOT another kind of big break years before, watching Lenny Bruce perform. “He was an epiphany,” she told Gerald Nachman in the book ‘Seriously Funny.”

“Lenny told the truth. It was a total affirmation for me that I was on the right track long before anyone said it to me. He supplied the revelation that personal truth can be the foundation of comedy, that outrageousness can be cleansing and healthy. It went off inside me like an enormous flash.”

That flash roared into the public consciousness and stayed there for more than 50 years.

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And nobody got off scot-free. Christie Brinkley was “a living testament that peroxide causes brain damage.” She once met Queen Elizabeth, who “was wearing soap-on-a-rope for jewelry.” A newly-married friend used to be “a poster girl for herpes.”

“I did the osteoporosis benefit this afternoon and got a stooping ovation.”

Johnny Carson once asked her: “Don’t you think men like intelligence [in a woman] more?”



“Please,” Joan said. “No man has ever put his hand up a woman's dress looking for a library card.”

No one was spared. Not even herself: “My hot flashes are so bad I was hit by a heat-seeking missile.” “My car is so old the hand brake has liver spots.” “I worked a Jewish nightclub, we had a two-complaint minimum.”

One of the titles of her books was “I Hate Everyone ... Starting with Me.” And she appeared playing herself in episodes of “Nip/Tuck,” the FX TV series about two plastic surgeons in Miami and Los Angeles, in a brilliant sendup of her own enduring preoccupation with plastic surgery.

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IF COMEDY makes pain bearable, pain makes comedy necessary. As with every comedian, she had her share of genuinely rough times. Her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, killed himself in 1987, three months after her groundbreaking Fox talk show was abruptly canceled. She was briefly bulimic and contemplated suicide after Rosenberg’s death. Her sister died last year.

But she never stopped moving forward. Her sense of timing was impeccable, right up to the end. In February of this year, exactly 49 years after her “Tonight Show” debut, Joan Rivers came back to the show, now hosted by Jimmy Fallon (the youngest “Tonight Show” host since Carson). She came again the following month.



Tim Teeman in The Daily Beast reported Thursday that Rivers died the same day she was supposed to host a party at Bergdorf Goodman in New York for Betty Halbreich, a friend and the store’s personal dresser, on the occasion of her memoir.

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“Only the day before she was rushed to hospital, Rivers had — with her usual targeted, risqué snarks — laid into the celebrities on the VMA and Emmys red carpets on E!’s Fashion Police,” Teeman reported. “That show bought her persona — the master deflater of ridiculous Hollywood ego and flummery — to Rivers’ youngest audience.”

When she died, Joan Rivers — comedian, actress, writer, author of 12 books, producer, director, jewelry pitchwoman, philanthropist, fashion diva — had achieved the kind of multi-hyphenate resume that the world rarely sees from anyone.

It’s tempting, and utterly predictable, to call Rivers a “pioneer” of women in comedy. While it wouldn’t be entirely fair to say that without her there’d be no Roseanne Barr or Ellen DeGeneres, no Chelsea Handler or Melissa McCarthy, no Rosie O’Donnell or Sarah Silverman, no Amy Poehler or Tina Fey, no Aisha Tyler or Jenny Slate ... their road would have been more difficult without Joan Rivers uproariously paving the way.

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JOAN AND Robin, Robin and Joan. We didn’t have them long, or at least long enough, but hey, we’re mighty damn lucky these meteors passed our way at all. Our world’s colder, slower and more impoverished today for their passing.

And the great beyond? Don’t get me wrong. I’m very, very fond of life in this world, but it’s OK to envy those souls in the next one, watching a show headlined by the two new arrivals, at the Pearly Gates Theater.

It’s a safe bet they’re all laughing their asses off right now.

Image credits: Williams and Rivers: via Joan Rivers Twitter page. Williams as Mork: © Paramount Pictures. Williams and cheerleaders: Associated Press. Rivers color shot: via Twitter. Rivers portrait: James Kriegsmann/Michael Ochs Archives, via Getty Images. Rivers on ‘Tonight Show’ 1965: NBC.

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