The Genius of the Music of Comedy

If you’re an acceptable human being, you’ve gifted some portion of your life since Monday to Robin Williams - though he doesn’t need it now, and seems never to have. Whatever. Maybe we need it instead.

I certainly do. For me, Williams is a procession of touchstones in my own growth. I owe at least some of my childhood awe to his Peter Pan, my intransigent love for play and excess to his Genie, my consent to human limitation to his Sean Mcguire, my principles of acceptance to his Armand Goldman (yes, with a ‘d’). A barely finite string of lessons masquerading as punchlines.

That seems like enough. But yesterday, after rewatching his monologues in Good Morning, Vietnam and learning that the Academy rejected Aladdin’s nomination for Best Screenplay on the grounds that Williams adlibbed half the film, I decided to thank him for something else.

I was reminded of a strange New York Times feature with Jerry Seinfeld, in which he offers - with all undue pomp - almost useless advice on the formation of a joke. But he’s read his Hamlet, or at least knows its most enduring moral, and saves the interview by insisting that brevity is the soul of wit.

“I’m looking for the connective tissue that gives me the really tight, smooth length - like a jigsaw puzzle link. And if it’s too long, if it’s just a split second too long… You will shave letters off of words, you count syllables. It’s more like songwriting.”

He’s right… but by his own admission, spent two years crafting a bad joke about Pop Tarts. On the other hand, Robin Williams spent the duration of a neural impulse awarding us something like this:

Not only does this performance signal the genius of improv - it shows in real time that you can reconcile Hamlet with, say, Oscar Wilde: Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess abbreviated in rhythmic pulse, a chaotic burst ordered in iambs. Go ahead and think up a better summary of pop music than this.

It also happens to be the style I’ve adopted as a writer - one I like to think is flexible enough in its surplus to match form with any subject I pick. Except today. There’s no imitating this man. For one, it took me two hours to write this piece, not 14 seconds. But more importantly, the world lost far too much of its musical spontaneity when Robin Williams decided he had no time left to invent it - not even 14 seconds. We ought to relax for a minute, out of respect. Then, after some time, we can wonder how in the world we’ll get it all back.

Armand Goldman, the staid, gay, Jewish nightclub owner Williams had every excuse to patronize with exuberance, sheds character just once in The Birdcage. It's the oddest scene in my favorite comedy. Watch it, it’s a minute long:

It’s an essential break, one that screams to the audience “I'm doing exactly what I'm telling this other guy to do. I’m keeping it all inside a character. I’m still alive under Armand. I'm still Robin Williams. I'm still the eclectic celebration of life.” In the end, however, the opposite appears to have been true. Underneath the spoken fervor, the unmatched range of style, the genius of the music of comedy, was some unbearable truth even Robin Williams couldn’t put into words. Every acceptable human being wishes he hadn’t kept it all inside.