Only two figures in American comedy in the last decade or so have fully availed themselves to the fierce energies that crackle across the American landscape: Richard Pryor and Robin Williams. They've put major talent at the service of major risk.
Pryor appears to be still going through a period of reassessment after his near-fatal accident in 1980. The pain that was the nerve of his expression and gave him his aura of danger has been assuaged; he doesn't seem to be finding full release in comedy right now.
That leaves Williams who, in his appearance Friday and Saturday night at the Universal Amphitheatre, showed us that the success that has admitted him to the most hallowed recesses of Hollywood acceptance hasn't slowed him a bit.
Williams has always had formidable acting and mime skills, but in the past he worked out of sheer speed. His nervous system was plugged into the circuits of American pop sociology, and he always appeared on the verge of overload.
He borrowed the sense of frantic human surrender to hyper-mechanization from Chaplin and added his own images of technology and the Space Age. From Jonathan Winters he learned how to fragment his personality and flash up a voice and persona for dozens of characters. He's still borrowing--now we hear the primal screams of Sam Kinison and Bob Goldthwaite. He made nonsense sounds, he enacted paranoia, chagrin and authoritarian threat. He could do three things in the time it takes to light a match. But underneath, he wasn't saying much.
Williams' current concertizing has taken him across the United States and will culminate in an HBO special in July. He still has the fastest reflexes in comedy, but the Williams we're seeing now has a few things more to say about what we live with in this country.
The feminization of men is a given now (he opens as a Chippendale boy) and its brute machismo alternative is retrograde. (He parodies a beer commercial, saying: "Here's to men doing manly things. You've just killed a small animal. It's time for a beer.") The theme moves on to alcohol. ("After you pass out, you wake up like the man in 'The Fly,' crying in a tiny voice, 'Help me! Help me!' ") To the stonehead who says, "Alcohol is a crutch, man," he replies: "Yeah? Well why are you macrame'd to your couch?"
The comic treatment of being loaded and stopped by a traffic officer has the added imagery of a motorcycle cop descending from his chopper and saying, "God, am I well-endowed!" If it's a Beverly Hills cop, a "handsome, chiseled man," you'll hear, "I'd like to give you a ticket, but first I'd like to do a scene from 'Streetcar.' " The drug spiral includes cocaine. At the end, "and there's your dad, with five cups of coffee and 16 cigarettes saying, 'I never did drugs.' "
The program segues into the Reagan Administration's confusion of show business with reality. (Secretary of State George P. Shultz's alarms are sounded in the voice of Peter Lorre--all current events in Ronald Reagan's mind are translated into movie imagery.) A couple of notes on the international situation. ("The U.N. is like a traffic cop on Valium.")
Then, "Dr. Roof," a hefty black female sexologist with vehement down-home sexual advice which would make the original Dr. Ruth pale. And then, the longest segment, which Williams has been developing for years--sexual manhood and fatherhood, from the point of view of an erection all the way to being a father and seeing your young anarchist outflank the anarchy in you. And having your own father stand aside and laugh, as if to say, "Now you know what it's like."
Everything Williams said or did in the course of his concert pointed to the absence of health all around us. (He'd never bring up the words sickness or environment ; he's too clever for that.) It's as though, having become a father, he's begun contemplating what kind of world his child would inherit.
Robin Williams is an irresistibly funny comedian. He's always been a one-man total wacko theater. But now he's deepening, and darkening. He's becoming moral without being moralistic. There's a world of subtlety in that distinction.