Robin Williams Remains A Comic Genius In Time Life’s Unprecedented 22-Disc Collection

Robin Williams: Comic Genius may be the new gold standard for comedy retrospectives
Robin Williams: Comic Genius may be the new gold standard for comedy retrospectives Photo by Time Life

Like many of those who will pick up this Robin Williams retrospective from Time Life – I entered with one overwhelming question in need of resolution: Why? Why would such a creative brilliance extinguish his own flame from a world that seemed to love him so? Why after five years does this loss cut so deep for millions around the globe? Why did Robin Williams take his own life?

That answer of “Why?” is no more clear after thoughtfully chewing on this insanely comprehensive 22-disc retrospective of one of America’s greatest entertainers. There may be no greater answer than the obvious, but the continued reporting of his various diagnosed (and misdiagnosed) illnesses would appear to be to the agreed-upon source of blame.

Yet another question is what this collection Robin Williams: Comic Genius attempts to bathe in light – how? How did one classically trained thespian single-handedly rewrite the book for the modern comedian, movie star and yes, icon? How can even a gifted mind take one germ of external stimuli and weave it into a yarn that stretched across night clubs, arena stages, television performances and motion pictures for years on end. How did Robin Williams change the game and become Robin Williams?

What Time Life has assembled in its exhaustive culling of stand-up spots, late night appearances, home videos, stints at award shows and much more attempts to answer the query. Even those with dedication in the era of VCRs and round-the-clock scouring of YouTube would be hard pressed to have assembled a vault of a more diverse and fascinating set of clips and cameos spanning across more than 35 years in Hollywood. The oldest material dates back to pre-Mork and Mindy days in 1977, while the latest in Williams' lifetime come from 2013, with various retrospectives and new materials created after his passing.

The full collection offers an overwhelming amount of material – it took this reviewer more than three months of dedicated binging to view the estimated 3,126 minutes (52+ hours) of content across four volumes.  The experience was both a microscope and a cassette stuck in fast-forward. Knowing the eventual tragic end in store, the journey was as moving as it was hilarious.

Broken into volumes mostly based on content, the quality of Williams’ gags does vary wildly – but that’s no slight. Like watching your favorite indie band grow to national prominence, the duds can be as rewarding as the champions in the grand scheme. But be prepared – experiencing Williams’ improvisational gifts in such close proximity can offer a translucent image of how the sausage gets made. To see the evolutions of the punchline “I’m so excited I could drop a log” for example, grow from stage performances on HBO to a guest spot on Laugh In with Frank Sinatra and later on talk show couches in the 21st century may have the unintended side-effect of demystifying the jester’s aura to a degree. On the other hand, seeing nothing become something before your eyes is nothing short of breath-taking. 

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Comic Genius is divided into four volumes, across 22 discs.
Photo Courtesy of Time Life

While Williams began his career on stage, it was initially in plays, not stand-up. Sadly, no footage appears to exist of the actor taking on an early production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a production alongside Christopher Reeve which he references frequently. Beyond this wish list, the first volume of the collection focuses on Robin the Comic with the full productions of the five stand-up hours released in his lifetime (1978’s Off-The-Wall, 1983’s An Evening with Robin Williams, 1986’s An Evening at the Met, 2002’s Live on Broadway and 2009’s Weapons of Self Destruction). Certainly much ballyhooed at the time, these specials are far from undiscovered gems – in fact, they stand as the essential building blocks of Williams’ immense legacy as comedian proper. They offer the viewer a chance to see how Williams managed his comic verve and go-for-broke instincts in rooms of various shape and size.

The free-wheeling night club fun of Off-The-Wall is infectious, as Robin climbs rafters and even suckers some of his famous friends in the audience onstage for fun and games, almost Fallon-eque in a form. Sitcom legend John Ritter tries his best to keep up in some improvised scene work – and this is exactly the type of not-good-enough-for-traditional-television that makes this special feel more like a peek into the real LA comedy scene of the time, as opposed to the more sanitized product form mostly captured.

Evening is similarly manic, if not a little sweatier – metaphorically speaking, as Williams always works to a lather across his decades onstage.  The highlight of the comic’s second special may be the filmed bookends of Robin Williams meeting a roughed up version of himself, an oddly poignant creative decision, perhaps itself a commentary on the enormity of Williams' continually growing stature in show business. It also juxtaposes nicely with his repeatedly stated goals: to make an audience feel something. These segments, in earnest, show the very earliest signs of Williams’ future as an Oscar-winning dramatic performer – they’ll choke you up, and they bravely don't chase the laughs.

Live at the Met remains one of the most revered hours of stand-up, winning Williams his second Grammy for Best Comedy Album and a Television Critics Association Award of Achievement in Movies, Miniseries and Specials. It's a masterclass on stand-up and true step forward for Robin’s material as he’s forced to bring a different level of performance to the enormous Metropolitan Opera House. Without the ability to easily see his audience, the riffs off-topic are more contained, and thoughts on bigger issues such as substance abuse, politics and then-modern masculinity are more distilled and cutting. The special begins with such wonderful unabashed glee as the entertainer bounds across the backdrop of larger than life wagon wheels, and ends with another sweet note as Robin addresses his young son Zak.

It is not until a new century dawns that Williams feels the urge to return to the stage, this time on Broadway.
Here we see the most noticeable transformation, as the lights of movie star status have carried Williams to new personal and professional heights. Adding to the element of “what will happen,” this special really pushes the fact that it's to be recorded LIVE on HBO – a move that adds even more juice to an already revved 98 minutes of mania. Clearly, this lust for stand-up has been percolating a long while in the actor so by 2002, Williams lets loose to overwhelming acclaim as this special nets another Grammy and also claiming five nominations for Primetime Emmy Awards.

If the spark is what first brought Williams to prominence, his undeniable stamina is what propels Broadway and his next special, Weapons of Self Destruction. But while his 2002 outing is a high, the 2009 jaunt could be considered a low as the accomplishment seems to be more that Williams can still physically do the task, after suffering several setbacks including a 2006 break sobriety from alcohol, a 2009 emergency cardiac surgery and soon-to-be finalized divorce from his longtime second wife in the span of just a few years. The special does have a few highlights, including some extended take downs of Bush-era politics and the rise of prime comedy targets Sarah Palin and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  But undeniably, this is a more subdued Robin and as the final dedicated stand-up special released in his lifetime, a quiet send-off.

Yet Comic Genius is far from finished with Robin’s stand-up – the Time Life set also includes several unreleased performances in full involving the comedian’s continued dedication to performance for the United States Armed Services through the USO. Like Bob Hope before him, Williams did a number of dates overseas for over a decade during the American conflicts in the Middle East, and included here are Robin’s star studded USO Christmas Show with appearances by Lewis Black and Kid Rock, as well as extended appearances in Bahrain, Iraq and Kyrgyzstan.

Additionally, the set includes a full evening at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas from 2007, which includes material to-be seen in Weapons, as well as jokes not recorded elsewhere on the set. This inclusions, while in no way rivaling the canon inclusions, are yet another treat for those who feel like they’ve seen all the Robin available – many of these are exclusive to the box.

The set also comes with a myriad of bonus clips and often full programs from additional sources.  Highlights include excerpts from The Catch A Rising Star 10th Anniversary Special (featuring Robin cutting up with fellow comics Billy Crystal and Richard Belzer), The Comedy Store’s 11th Anniversary (where a bearded Robin shares the stage with legend Richard Pryor), two HBO Young Comedians specials including Williams’ first appearance in 1977 and later, as a success story on the All-Star Reunion event in a full 59 minutes of best-of revelry with the likes of Steven Wright, Howie Mendel, and a young Ellen DeGeneres.

Beyond stand-up, the collection wields an array of appearances on Robin checking in with various chat shows across both the American airwaves, and the globe. These vary in presentation, offering one of the bigger questions marks on the set. Williams appeared on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show an impressive 27 times, yet only four of those episodes are catalogued here. While disc space limitations may be the culprit, the episodes themselves appear uncut (aside from musical appearances), which offer roughly 25 minutes of non-Robin Jay Leno material each episode to sit through.

On the other side of the equation, Williams appears on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live ten times, of which 9 (!) are included on the set. The catch is – included here are ONLY the moments of Robin, with most of Kimmel’s monologues from 2004-2013 discarded. Your mileage will vary as your weigh the pros and cons, as the Leno shows offer a fuller time capsule (with appearances by Kevin Nealon and Billy Crystal thrown in), where the Kimmel appearances offer a full picture of the focus of the set. Sadly, no spots of Robin on the couches of David Letterman, Conan O'Brien or Jon Stewart make their way to disc - a loss, to be sure.

Robin was equally prolific on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and three full Carson episodes have been included here – though wisely, not the much circulated and readily available penultimate episode featuring Bette Midler which has likely entered any conceivable television hall of fame. The curators should be commended for including an absolute gem from 1991, where Williams appears alongside an in-character Jonathan Winters. Other volumes also include a singular episode of Oprah for which Williams promotes the upcoming film The Fischer King (and the episode absolutely does tread into personal territory as was Oprah’s agile gift), a rarely seen pre-tape segment of the blink-and-you-miss it Whoopi Goldberg talk series and two full episodes of the really fun UK panel series Graham Norton (which features Robin alongside Happy Feet co-star Elijah Wood).

For a more thoughtful look at Robin’s creative mind, some of the most substantial conversations occur on Charlie Rose’s PBS program, of which yjtrr interviews are included – including the rare comparison of Williams right before winning the Best Supporting Actor trophy for Good Will Hunting in 1998, and a return in 2002 to see how that honor changed Williams’ life. A 2001 appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio with James Lipton remains one of the most enduring deep dives, with over two hours of material that probes the performer’s id and contains a number frequently YouTube’d sound bites that resonate years later.

One of the crowning jewels of the impressive set are all three of the (nearly) complete Saturday
Night Live
episodes hosted by Robin Williams in 1984, 1986 and 1988.  Even today, uncut classic SNL episodes remain a hard thing to come by both on disc and via online streaming. It’s remarkable that, while never a cast member himself, Williams claims a number of unique designations for a host including a one-off stint hosting Weekend Update (or as it was known during the ’84, Saturday Night News) as well as playing the President in the now-iconic sketch “Earpiece” where Williams’ gives his best Ronald Reagan. Even when some sketches fall into less remarkable territory, it is a sight to behold to watch Williams playing with future superstars Eddie Murphy, Dana Carvey, Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman and Julia Louis Dreyfus.

The set’s fourth and final volume focuses extensively on Robin’s appearances at Award Programs, both as a host or presenter or as a recipient of a prize. The various academies behind The Oscars, The Emmys, The Golden Globes, The American Comedy Awards, The Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize, The American Film Institute, The People’s Choice and TV Land Award have all provided the bulk of their Robin-centric moments to the set. While some moments cut through the pageantry, most are simply what you’d expect: a man either accepting an award graciously or tossing off a few one-liners before presenting.

The major exception may indeed be the funniest clip across 22 discs when Willams, nominated for Best Actor in One Hour Photo at the 2002 Critics Choice Award alongside heavy hitters Jack Nicholson for About Schmidt and Daniel Day Lewis for Gangs of New York, is smacked with the shocking reality that he has lost the award… to BOTH men. In an upset, Nicholson and Day-Lewis tied for the prize, leaving Robin as the category’s only loser. Never shy, Robin turns an invite from Jack to say a few words on his behalf into a rollercoaster 12-minute affair roasting the entire industry and leaving behind a performance certainly worthy of a later Critic’s Choice, if not a second Oscar. It is unbelievably funny.

There are lesser inclusions whose disc space may have been better served elsewhere - the collection includes two discs of a Best-of Mork and Mindy, which while interesting, are easily purchased in full elsewhere with more economic means. But the disc includes some truly remarkable antiques like Robin's appearance at Norman Lear-produced celebration of the American Bi-Centennial in which Williams gives a slam poetry style monologue as old glory herself. Another treasure is Robin rocking out with jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin, or an extended cut of a seemingly real-life promo made for a certain film director who could claim the accomplishment of wrangling a usable take out of the tangent prone actor. Both gems were apparently from the comedian's extensive private tape collection. Sadly missing is any of Williams' famed work on the semi-annual telethon Comic Relief with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, a pretty obvious omission that is thankfully on disc elsewhere. Also, from my personal wishlist, the improv Robin does on Who's Line Is It Anyway would have been a very nice addition of something not readily available elsewhere.

With so much content presented in this collection, Time Life ensures that Comic Genius offers more than enough brilliance to chew on for the rest of your life. But perhaps the most affecting piece included in the collection may very well be why there is a set in the first place, the expansive 2018 HBO documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind. You can imagine how much of this thought-to-be-lost material was being uncovered with the intent to help visualize the narrative of the high profile event directed by filmmaker Marina Zenovich, who also helmed a similar projects about Richard Pryor entitled Omit the Logic.

Here is where the set does it’s best to answer that original "Why?" question on some many viewers minds. The two hour-telefilm does so - if not conclusively – then artfully. The documentary, along with the set, includes new interview with comedians like Martin Short, Jay Leno, Lewis Black, Paula Poundstone (who Williams fought to get her a stand-up spot on one of his episodes of SNL), agent David Steinberg and more. It is a comprehensive retrospective worthy of a generational figure like Williams, and doesn’t gloss over the unsavory chapters of his life: adultery, drug abuse and his eventual suicide.

Come Inside My Mind is a tasteful culmination of the man’s life, and almost serves as the medicine that you’ve dreaded after enjoying disc after disc of comedy candy. Robin Williams was human, after all, and his pain is merely hinted at in his work. By taking his own life on August 11, 2014 – he left behind a world that misses him to this day without much of a good-bye.

Even as the special alludes to with its title, Come Inside My Mind dates back as far as his earlier comedy record, Reality… What A Concept. As Williams riffed it back in 1978, the joke emerges after a few zingers jokes bomb outright: “Come inside my mind, and see what it's like when a comedian eats the big one.” Acting out his inner conflict, a schizophrenic scene follows. Voice One boasts, “I’m doing brilliant! I’m improvising like crazy!” to which Voice Two counters, “No you’re not you FOOL, you’re just doing pee-pee ca-ca [with] no substance. You’re not talking about any truth, no realities. Why don’t you change the nature of man instead of talking about drugs and passing out? Help the world!”

Whether he intended to or not, Robin Williams did help the world. His humanity is soaked into so many performances he left behind. Through his gifts, as well as his struggles, Robin was a great role model and advocate for individuality and freedom of expression. As he preached in character during Off-The-Wall: “You’ve got to be crazy, it’s too late to be sane. Too late! You’ve got to go full-tilt bozo, because you’re only given a little spark of madness. And if you lose that, you’re nothing. From me to you, don’t ever lose that. It keeps you alive.”

Five years after his passing, we’re all still learning to live without Robin Williams around.

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Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, doing some funny make-em-ups or preaching the good word of supporting education in the arts.
Contact: Vic Shuttee