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A Warm-Up Act

Robin Williams Got So Good at Making Movies That He Never Looked Back. Until Now. Will His Latest Shtick Click on the Comedy Scene?

September 19, 1999|PAUL BROWNFIELD | Paul Brownfield is a staff writer in The Times' Calendar section

Robin Williams, the $20-million-a-picture star, is standing outside a comedy club near his home in San Francisco. It's a drizzly August night, going on 10:30. Williams' personal assistant drifts in and out of the club as Williams waits in a deserted courtyard. He is doing absolutely nothing. He doesn't pace. He doesn't crack jokes. He's off the clock, and off the clock Williams is not a clown. Tonight, you could project a million different emotions onto his face. He's vulnerable. He's guarded. He's off someplace in his head. Then again, who knows if he is any of these things? Maybe you're thinking of "Good Will Hunting," his impenetrable therapist look. Maybe you're under the misconception that when he's not on, he's down. * In a few minutes, Williams will go onstage at Cobb's here in the Cannery. He'll do an hour and then go home. Back in the 1970s and '80s, when stand-up comedy was a vibrant part of the American culture, he lived in places like this, inhabiting clubs like a gym rat, the performance sweat eventually eating through his Hawaiian shirts. He hung out into the wee hours with other comedians, a crowd that would watch his ascent with amazement--an amazement sometimes laced with accusations and incredulity. Audiences weren't conflicted. They fell in love with the prolific exhibitionist who invited everyone to his kiddie party onstage: Yorick from "Hamlet," Moammar Kadafi, your Yiddish-speaking uncle.

For assorted reasons, that all stopped, but it stopped primarily because Williams got into movies, made a lot of them and became successful, an Academy Award-winning actor. Now, he says, he wants to go back--or at least as far back as a celebrity of his magnitude can. In the next six months, after hawking two new movies, he intends to focus on stand-up comedy. He doesn't know how or where or when, exactly, he doesn't know the dates and details, he just knows that he's done too many movies (11 in the past four years and 17 this decade, not including cameos in a handful of others), and that something's missing.

Over the years, Williams has dropped into clubs to get a fix before a talk show or Comic Relief appearance. This, he promises, is going to be different. This is going to be great. "It's like priming a pump with endorphins, sweating and everything, and then all of a sudden everything starts to flow--body, mind, everything," he says.

*

Williams' last official act as a stand-up comedian came in 1986, with "Robin Williams--An Evening at the Met." He may feel ready to resume his place as an out-there artist, but the ground has shifted since he left. All those big-hearted characters at the movies have turned Williams, once a comedy icon, into something else: what New York magazine film critic Peter Rainer recently called "a sad, old show-biz story--the dulling out, at premium prices, of a once-firebrand talent."

Rainer made the comment in his review of "Patch Adams." The 1998 film grossed $135 million domestically but also made a lot of critics and comedy fans angry. Here was Robin Williams' "Titanic," all mawkish and exploitative, with the star as an eccentric doctor healing with laughs, using sick people as props.

"It's a wonder Mr. Williams' friends, the ones who aren't on his payroll, haven't tried to do some kind of intervention on this guy," wrote the New York Observer's Ron Rosenbaum, in a recent column about how warmth destroys a satirist's voice.

"Now comedians are doing routines based on Robin's dramatic career," says Bernie Brillstein, the longtime talent manager whose Beverly Hills firm, Brillstein-Grey, represents Adam Sandler and David Spade, among others. "It's the first time I've seen people take shots at him. He's become a semi-cliche. And that's too bad."

Even before "Patch Adams," Williams was an established saccharine figure, an easy mark for comedians. In July, at Just for Laughs, the Sundance of comedy festivals in Montreal, comedian Andy Kindler suggested a version of "Scared Straight," the documentary about the social program that pairs up hardened convicts with juvenile offenders to discourage them from a life of crime. They should take young hack comedians, Kindler said, and lock them in a room with Robin Williams. You could call it "Scared Funny."

This is typical fodder from the younger, alternative comedy crowd, for whom Williams is fuel for cynicism. He is, after all, a huge star. His movies--"Aladdin," "Flubber," even "Good Will Hunting"--aren't hip or violent. He hasn't sold out with a gun in his hand. And even at its best, Williams' live comedy, while dazzling to behold, never taxed audiences. In fact, says Laurie Stone, author of "Laughing in the Dark: A Decade of Subversive Comedy," Williams' performances were not so much journeys into the unknown as glimpses of the crowd-pleasing star he would become.

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