HBO’s Documentary, ‘Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind,’ Tearjerker

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I laughed, I cried, I was moved…

When I became a teenager in the ’70s, comedians were as important to me as rock stars. It was truly a golden age of comedy. David Letterman, Steve Martin, the original cast of Saturday Night Live (Belushi, Aakroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray), Gary Shandling, Elaine Boosler, Jerry Seinfeld were all exploding on TV (on Carson, SNL, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas’ shows) and at the movies. Steve Martin was probably my first comedy crush but the guy who was the white-hot sun in this universe of stars was Robin Williams.

In the late ’60s and all through the ’70s comedians would release albums. That was how they made most of their money. Bill Cosby was never a big hit at the box office, he built his quaalude empire by selling comedy albums from concerts he’d recorded. George Carlin, Cheech and Chong and many others were introduced to us the way rock and roll was, by dropping a needle on a vinyl album on the stereo. The apex of the comedy album was probably the late 70’s. Steve Martin had two monster albums, 1977’s Let’s Get Small and 1978’s A Wild And Crazy Guy. I’d seen Martin on SNL and loved him. Before my first proper album, Some Girls by the Stones, my actual first vinyl album purchase was Wild And Crazy Guy. I saw Steve Martin as my first concert at Kemper Arena, a 15,000 seat stadium. My friend, Stormin said that everybody in his high school, and he is from a tiny little village out on the plains of Kansas, would listen to that album, memorize the lines and do the bits at school for the chicks. All of us in the suburbs of Kansas City were doing the same goddamm thing. “And she had the best pussy….” If you weren’t athletically gifted, but you could be funny, a girl might actually turn her head toward you…

One of my early, early album purchases was Robin Williams’ first album, 1979’s Reality…What a Concept. It remains a cherished item in my collection. We were all Williams’ fans from his sitcom, ‘Mork and Mindy,’ but with his first comedy album, he was allowed to step away from the role of Mork and unleash his wild, comedic id. On side two of the album he improvises a fake Shakespearean play based on suggestions from the crowd. At one point, during a soliloquy he’s trying to make a decision and the crowd is yelling suggestions… and he cries out in mock despair, “Assholes do vex me…” It’s a line I use to this day, especially at work. It was sheer genius, his ability to create characters and put them in hilarious scenarios. The man’s brain worked on a warp speed most of us can’t get to.

After ‘Mork and Mindy’ Williams did a number of comedy specials through the ’80s, which were released on tape and later DVD, I recommend all of them. Eventually he transitioned to the movies. There were so many great ones, ‘Dead Poet Society,’ ‘Good Morning Vietnam,’ and of course later ‘Good Will Hunting.’ Eventually the movie thing started to sputter. He returned to television to do a series again, ‘The Crazy Ones,’ a sitcom that apparently only I liked. And then three years ago came the heartbreaking news that he’d committed suicide. He had Parkinson’s disease, which none of us knew.

I took the news hard. I think the reason I loved Robin Williams as much as I did, was because no matter how manic the comedy or how serious the drama he was acting in, hiding behind any performance was this big, giant heart. You could see it in his eyes. There was a quality, maybe it was sadness, maybe it was a longing to connect, that lingered behind those big blue eyes. He could make me laugh while making me want to put my arm around him at the same time. I still find it hard to believe he’s gone.

Last night, fittingly on the eve of what would have been Robin’s 67th birthday, I got home from a week of keeping Austin Weird, and finally got the chance to sit down and watch HBO’s superb ‘Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind.’ That line, “come inside my mind,” was from that first comedy album I purchased, Reality…What a Concept, during a bit where Williams would invite the audience into the mind of the comedian, into what he was thinking. At the end of the bit he screams, “fuck you, what do you want from me anyway?” Look it up, it’s fucking funny.

I laughed my ass off during the first few minutes of the documentary. It starts with an excerpt from his hysterical performance on ‘Inside The Actors Studio’ (another must see), and cut to a few other performances. But oddly, and maybe I’m just getting sentimental, I found myself tearing up during much of the two hours. The documentary takes you through his whole life, from his lonely childhood and intense relationship with his mother to Julliard, to stand up and then stardom with ‘Mork and Mindy.’ For a man who made so much of us laugh, he was, as the Rock Chick noted last night, a very troubled man. He actually was briefly with Belushi at the Chateau Marmont the night Belushi died. The late 70s, early 80s were a hard partying time. Part of me wishes I’d been old enough to party with these guys and part of me is relieved I never did.

There are cameos from many of Robin’s friends who happened to be comedy geniuses. Billy Crystal, David Letterman and Elaine Boosler are all part of the documentary. I love what Letterman says, “I was just standing on stage hanging onto the microphone for dear life, and here’s Robin wandering out into the crowd.” It’s obvious how close a friendship Billy Crystal and Robin had. I think the most heartbreaking interview sequences are the ones with Pam Dawber, who played Mindy. I had always heard that the two didn’t get along. It’s obvious that was totally wrong. She teared up a couple of times… and so did I.

This is the second superb HBO documentary I’ve seen this year about a comedian. Unlike the one about Gary Shandling (HBO Documentary: The Must-See, Moving Tribute, ‘The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling’) that I found fascinating because I knew so little about the man, this Robin Williams documentary literally moved me to tears. I don’t know why, I just have a special place in my heart for Robin. The comedy universe is a little less bright with him gone. I recommend any fan of comedy or Robin Williams to see this documentary immediately… You might want to bring a handkerchief.

It’s a dark ride folks, laugh as much as you can.

 

HBO Documentary: The Must-See, Moving Tribute, ‘The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling’

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*Image taken from the internet and is likely copyrighted

It’s not very often that I see or hear something on a school night (or a work night as the case may be) that keeps me up this late writing about it. However, I just finished the 2nd straight night of watching the moving, in-depth documentary on HBO, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. The documentary was lovingly prepared by Shandling’s close friend and Hollywood “big shot” Judd Apatow who is not only a stand-up in his own right (I saw him skewer Bill Cosby in a fantastic routine), but also a director, producer, and writer of great renown. Apatow was not only a friend of Shandling’s but was mentored by Shandling from the time Apatow interviewed Shandling when the former was in high school. Apatow has unprecedented access to all of Shandling’s notes, diaries and archives and it makes for a compelling story.

It might seem odd that a classic rock/drinking blog like B&V would pause from it’s usual fare and take the time to discuss a comedy legend. But for us down here at B&V humor and comedians are almost as important as rock and roll. In the 70s one could argue the real rock stars were comedians. What a generation of comics… Robin Williams, Steve Martin (who I saw live at Kemper Arena, yes a stadium), David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, almost the entire original cast of SNL (John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Aakroyd, Bill Murray) and of course, Garry Shandling. That generation of comics took up the mantle of Richard Pryor and George Carlin and took comedy to new heights. The epicenter of all that humor was The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. What a scene that must have been.

The 2-part documentary isn’t all laughs. Shandling was a truly tortured soul. His life was really framed by the loss of his brother when he was only ten. His mother didn’t even let young Garry go to the funeral because “she didn’t want him to see her cry.” He got no closure, no chance to grieve. To describe his mother as “doting” with Garry after the loss of his brother is a polite way to describe her smothering behavior. No wonder he never married or had kids… After college at the University of Arizona, where he studied engineering, Shandling began writing. He moved to Hollywood and very quickly ended up writing episodes for Sanford and Sons and Welcome Back, Kotter. Shandling’s vision of comedy as art was too broad to be confined by the formulas necessary in sitcom television and after being hit by a car and almost dying, he made the decision to go into stand up comedy. The rest as they say is history…

His career kept gathering momentum until he finally made his first Tonight Show With Johnny Carson appearance, which was the brass ring for any comic at the time. It’s clear how much Carson thought of Shandling when you watch the clips. It’s hard to overstate what a big deal it was to impress Carson. After that Shandling’s stand-up career took off. Along with Leno he was named co-guest host for Carson but eventually bowed out of the gig as he found nightly comedy too confining. By then he was already working on his own show, the groundbreaking It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. He eventually also turned down replacing David Letterman when Dave moved to CBS to compete with Leno. After a five year run on his first show, Garry went on to do a second historic show, The Larry Sanders Show set backstage at a fake talk show. And since this is a rock and roll blog, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention I saw both Tom Petty and Warren Zevon on that show… In the documentary he’s also pictured with Ryan Adams, which surprised me. Shandling’s record collection must have been a lot like mine…

What is so special about this documentary is that it centers on Garry Shandling the man, not just the comic. Yes there are funny clips, but you see how important Zen and his spirituality was to Shandling. He saw comedy as a way to explore the truth of who he was. He brought an intelligence and thoughtfulness to his comedy that you don’t see/hear every day. The man was extraordinarily generous with his time and mentored so many people – Apatow, Kevin Nealon, Sarah Silverman. He truly was what Buddhism calls a bodhisattva. He held pick-up basketball games at his house every Sunday with comics and show biz types that were the stuff of legend. He was obviously beloved by his friends which surprisingly to me included David Duchovny.

That’s the fascinating thing about this documentary. Shandling was such a dichotomy of a person – at the same time, a comic/artist bent on applause and success and in parallel a spiritual searcher looking for the Zen ideal of calm, peacefulness. Those things seem so incongruous to me… Many of the shots start with hand written notes Shandling made to himself – “be yourself,” “let go,” and several other Buddhist themes run through his journaling. While he was a friend and mentor to many, he was also a mercurial artist, who had a lot of conflict in his life. Being a perfectionist is it’s own kind of torture… trust me, I married one. It’s all such an amazing portrait of a complete person struggling to make sense of life, career and love. You come away regretting not only his loss, but it’s hard not to wish you’d known the man. He was a special talent.

I loved this documentary. We should all have a friend like Judd Apatow, who does an amazing job with an obviously beloved subject. And lets be honest, I’ve never heard so many great dick jokes… Beyond that, I was moved to tears toward the end of the nearly four and a half hours. It’s really worth the time commitment. If you’re a fan of comedy or Garry Shandling, this is a must-see documentary.

Cheers!