|Robin Williams - Live on Broadway|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 19 November 2002|
Taped for HBO but released on DVD by (oddly) Columbia Music Video, this was the big New York engagement of Robin Williams' standup comedy tour of 2002. He wound across the country, doing his fast-paced act to huge, enthusiastic crowds, and this DVD captures the show splendidly as it was staged at the Broadway Theater. The sound is crystal-clear; there must have been quite a battery of mikes – including the one on Williams’ shirt, which he adds to the act.
It's almost exhausting to watch the dynamic, constantly-moving Williams do this long performance which really should hardly be called stand-up, since he simply doesn't stand anywhere, ever. He runs, hops, twirls, flings out his arms, talks into his elbow, tosses water around -- there's a table full of bottled water behind him, the only other thing on the stage -- and keeps up a constant stream of talk, both as himself and as other people, with Michael Jackson a favorite topic. Jackson, Williams says, complained of racism; "Honey, you got to pick a race first," says Williams, in an urban black chick voice, adding "You got to pick a gender, too."
Williams is so free and graceful that it all seems completely spontaneous, as if he's making up the whole damned thing on the spot -- but he did work out a script before beginning the tour. Most of his best lines are indeed scripted; it's the way he shifts so rapidly from one topic to another that's the spontaneous element. In the brief and only moderately interesting conversation between Williams and director Marty Callner included as an extra, Callner admits to having had a bad time of it for about the first ten minutes of this show, since Williams actually did go off script. But in this discussion, Williams spontaneously comes up with some funny material.
It's like W.C. Fields, who, like Williams, always seemed to be making it up as he went along -- but a biographer found some of Fields' movie scripts, and found them heavily annotated by the great comic.
Some people are disappointed to learn that Williams is not 100% extemporaneous, but what's important is that he's funny -- and he may well be the funniest man alive, at least when he has his own material and is free to behave as the spirit moves him. He's a fine actor in straight material, as he showed in "Insomnia" and "One Hour Photo," both released in 2002. He's not as effective in movies when he's required to be funny to someone else's words. But when it's all Williams, you're likely to laugh hard enough to run out of air -- you keep gulping back the laughter so you won't miss a line. And there are a lot of them, coming with machine-gun rapidity.
On visiting Graceland, Williams says "I never knew Ray Charles had a decorator's license." Taking off on Mike Ovitz's charges of a gay Mafia, Williams shushes the audience: "Shhhh, there's a gay Mafia. Shhh, the mauve hand...the fairy godfather" -- and launches into Marlon Brando: "does this pistol make my ass look too big?"
He gets political. The Supreme Court, he says, banned the execution of retarded people, and he's instantly a Texan: "Well, shit, where's the fun naow?" Jane Fonda found God and left Ted Turner, says Williams, "and Ted found out it wasn't him." Sometimes there are lines that don't really connect much to anything else, but hang there in the air, funny anyway. "Canada is like a loft apartment over a really great party," he says. Later, he mentions that after 9/11, National Guardsmen in camo uniforms standing guard with camo-painted Humvees posted themselves at either end of the bright orange Golden Gate Bridge. "A compassionate conservative," he veers. "I don't know what that is -- it sounds like a Volvo with a gun rack."
The French are also a favorite target; he's constantly doing a kind of generic Frenchmen, smoking a cigarette and biting off sneering little comments about the world at large. At another point, he's suddenly a drunken Scotsman inventing golf. "A game where you can dress like a pimp and nobody notices!"
The camerawork is fluid and inventive, most of the time keeping up with the speedy comedian; at the end, it's no surprise to see that the show required a huge number of cameras. It's also well edited -- surprisingly well, when you notice in the dialog scene between Williams and his director, and in the "noises" extra feature (a little compendium of all the weird noises Williams makes) that there was some material filmed for the show but not included, it seems quite surprising, even though the show is quite long in the first place.
Williams expends so much energy -- he's constantly sweating -- that you fear that once he leaves the stage, he'll collapse. And maybe he does, but he used to do acts like this a couple of times a day, and then go to another club and do a new one. Of course, he's older now (another favorite topic), and not on drugs, but he's athletic, graceful and, despite the seeming improvised quality of his act, he's precise and disciplined. He's a very special person in the world of show business, and at times almost incredibly funny.