This endlessly fascinating glimpse into the early persona of the whirling-dervish comic captures a live performance at The Great American Music Hall in Williams’ home town of San Francisco. His description of the theater: “The Sistine Chapel as done by Frederick’s of Hollywood.”
Much of his act is like that: smart, topical, a little bit lewd. (OK, maybe a lot lewd: a good deal of the show is devoted to his penis, otherwise known as Mr. Happy.) Yet as would continue to be the case throughout his career, it wasn’t Williams’ material that was so funny, but the delivery. The rapidity of the jokes is astonishing, particularly considering how tenuously they’re linked. It’s as if he walks on stage not with a single routine but 184 of them, all tangentially connected. The thrill comes in watching – in real time – the ways his synapses are firing to get him from one joke to the next.
Indeed, you get the sense that one second of our time is like 10 seconds to Williams. Halfway through a riff on the Falkland Islands he’s planning out a bit on Alexander Haig. Before those jokes have registered, he’s suddenly singing a Bruce Springsteen song as Elmer Fudd. “Ha, ha ha!” he cackles when the laughs seem to be lagging behind. “Catch up!”
The most remarkable moment comes when the show slows down.
Still, the most remarkable moment of An Evening with Robin Williams comes when the show slows down. After he announces that he’s about to have a baby, the crowd responds with a communal “aww” and offers polite applause. He immediately deflates the sentiment by launching into a routine in which he plays both himself – as a domineering dad trying to direct the kid into comedy – and his own child, who wants nothing to do with show business. Williams plays his child as a baby, then a teenager, then an independent adult, at which point his version of himself is now a lonely old drunk. It’s somewhat funny, but mostly weird, plaintive and sad, until Williams – as his grown child – says, “Pop, I’ve come to take you home.” Perhaps the sentimentality that Williams would go on to embrace in his movie career wasn’t forced upon him, but came from within.
There’s another facet of An Evening with Robin Williams that suggests he was intimately aware – and conflicted about – the multiple personalities a life in show business often necessitates. The special begins outside of the theater, with Williams “playing” a newspaper salesman trying to sell copies on the street. Twice he refers to “Robin Williams” as a “crazy guy” and tells people, “He hasn’t got an act. He’s just out there.” The special is bookended by a similar scene, only this time a trick of the camera allows Williams to literally talk to himself – both in character as the newspaperman and as “Robin Williams.” Walking down the street together, chatting about how the night went, their figures gradually merge into one. It somewhat explains how Williams’ jokes came so fast: he had multiple comedians in his head.