Robin Williams, first punk on American TV

photo by Michael Dressler, 1979
photo by Michael Dressler, 1979

Adolescence, of course, is rife with cravings and disappointments. At the age of 16, I had little idea how satisfaction of those cravings could result in profound disappointment. In 1984, on a family trip to San Francisco, I wrangled a buck or so from my father in order to purchase a cookie from the Blue Chip Cookie Company, just north of Ghiradelli Square. When I emerged with cookie in hand, my Dad reported, “Robin Williams just walked by.”

“Wait, huh?” I gasped. “Yeah,” my Dad said. “Just walked by with his kid on his shoulders.” It was a Sunday night, in one of the most tourist-y parts of the City, and Robin Williams just walked by. I scanned the heads of the crowd to the east of us. No sign of Mr. Williams. I bit angrily into the worst cookie ever.

Let’s figure Greil Marcus is right, and embrace the notion that punk’s virtue resides in its power to negate all that came before, and thereby wrested new possibilities from history. Williams’ Mork, then, was TV’s first punk on this side of the Atlantic. If The Sex Pistols disrupted the order of things with “Anarchy in the UK” and a few choice curses with Bill Grundy, Williams’ Mork on Happy Days (and after) — and Williams the stand-up comedian — represented so much more. Not the Pistols’ return of the repressed, of course, but a decimation of repression altogether. Williams’ capacity for “improvisatory theater of one,” as he noted in an interview with Terri Gross, tore asunder the form of stand-up comedy, and nearly sent David Letterman back to Indiana, as he reports in this touching segment.

Under Williams’ comic genius, narrative gave way to hyperlinked clips, character-to-character-to-character, and heralded my favorite features of the 80s: remote control television, MtV, jump-cut editing, and day-glo attire. Who can forget Williams as Mork with egg in hand, tossing it in the air and, with profound compassion and hope, commanding, “Fly, be free!” His comedy did the same. It was compassionate, and absolutely rife with hope and possibility. Williams’ work affirmed so much, and helped make adolescence much more bearable.

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