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Robin Williams Comic Genius
The title of this DVD goldmine for fans of Robin Williams' stand-up and improv work can be described with a word that Williams used frequently in his acts over the decades: Redundant. After his singular success in stand-up, film, and TV, everyone should know at this point that the Comic Genius description comes prepackaged with the name. It was for me when I first came to San Francisco for grad school in late 2002, but I mostly knew of Williams' genius through his film roles, a cornucopia of comedic and dramatic work that showcased his immensely versatile talent.
But I didn't know much about his stand-up work, coming from a country where his HBO specials weren't available. A San Francisco native who became a beloved figure of the city as his fame rose; he represented the perfect welcome for me as I bought his 2002 Live on Broadway special on DVD on my first day in the city. As I sat in front of my laptop and laughed my ass off for 90 minutes, worrying that the coarse and humorless woman who rented me my ten feet by ten feet room would think I'm having a seizure, suddenly this strange city where I knew no one didn't feel so intimidating anymore. Within Williams' every move as a stand-up and improv performer, there was an undeniable positive energy that was infectious, hence the laughter gave way to hope and joy. In this invaluable set full of not only all five of Williams' HBO specials, but a bevy of extras that might even be more fascinating that the features, that feeling is lovingly encapsulated for further generations to capture Williams', well, comic genius.
Off The Wall: This 1978 special is aptly named, since it represents Williams in his most brave and manic mode. He switches so effortlessly and with such rapid pace between prepared bits, improv, and crowd work, that he squeezes in four hours worth of material into one. In many ways this is the most exhausting single hour you'll spend in a while, but the experience is more than worth it. The switch between prepared bits, character work, and improv isn't very seamless, since Williams' approach is more scattershot than contained. This of course matches his fully chaotic sense of humor while he was starting out as a fearless improviser. For that raw and original Williams feel, Off The Wall is essential viewing. 4/5
An Evening with Robin Williams: This school of comedy packaged in a 90-minute special represents the ultimate synergy between Williams' prepared act and his crowd work, which seamlessly blends in for an experience that never drags or lets up from the first second to the last. This is Williams fully in his element, welcomed with open arms by his beloved San Francisco after his hit show Mork and Mindy was just cancelled, and just before his massive career as a movie star took hold. This career limbo allows Williams to truly let loose and have a great time with the audience. 5/5
An Evening at the Met: This legendary 1986 special captures Williams' performance at the Metropolitan Opera, so of course it's full of jokes about how Williams giddily inserts coarse jokes into a location that was meant for stuffy art performances, reasserting his mischievous side that gives the finger to mainstream artistic properness even while he was one of the biggest household names around. Some of the magic from the previous special is lost, since the size of the stage doesn't allow Williams to do any crowd work, and his great improv sensibilities are a bit cut short because of the lack of intimacy provided by the setting, but his heartfelt and hilarious bits, mainly the ones about being a parent, makes this an essential special. 4.5/5
Live on Broadway: For reasons pointed out above, I have a personal attraction to Williams' return to stand-up after a 15-year absence. But that doesn't mean this comedy freight train of a special, where not even a second of airtime is wasted thanks to a tight synergy between written material and improv, is any less powerful. This special was broadcast live, so there's a crackling power that's added over the pre-taped specials. Williams' now classic bits about the inception of golf and a closing bit about cunnilingus, which takes full advantage of his famously hairy arms, are worth a watch alone. Extra points to Time Life for offering the full live set. The 2002 DVD release cuts out about 5 minutes of random lines and short bits. 5/5
Weapons of Self Destruction: In his introduction, comedian Lewis Black, who was also a close friend of Williams', describes this final special as Williams at his most comfortable and mellow. Well, as comfortable and mellow as Williams could possibly be. This 90-minute juggernaut was filmed in Washington DC and contains the most political comedy of any of the specials. Filmed after Williams' open-heart surgery, which he uses for a lot of material in this special, the way Richard Pryor honestly made fun of himself in his comedy after burning himself up, Williams comes across as calmer and more calculated, while also paying off on his trademark manic style. 4/5
Every disc begins with a disclaimer that although Time Life worked with the best available materials, the audio and video might not be perfect. This mostly relates to the extras, a lot of which come from Williams' personal VHS collection. But of course anyone expecting an HD look from these specials that are mostly shot on SD video of the time would be disappointed. That being said, the video is mostly the best you'll get from the material, complete with various video noise resulting from the tech of the time, especially when it comes to the 1978 special. One criticism relates to Weapons of Self Destruction, which was shot on HD video. Since it's encoded in SD and upconverted through an HD screen, we get a lot of video noise as a result, like aliasing and banding. Adding a Blu-ray of just this special could have helped, the way it was done with the George Carlin Commemorative Edition.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks, which are in mono for the first three specials, get the job done as far as balancing Williams' voice and the audience reaction. It's dynamic and clear enough for that. It's hard to ask for more, considering the age and original format of the material.
The Early Years: This is a loving featurette with interviews with Williams' manager and friends talking about his rise in the comedy scene.
The Second Annual HBO Young Comedians Show: Williams' first televised stand-up work is an invaluable entry on this set. A lot of the bits from Off The Wall are repeated, but it's his snappy wit when it comes to crowd work that shines here.
The Great American Laugh-off: Another very early performance with similar results.
Robin Meets Mr. Sinatra: Watching the smooth Frank Sinatra freak out over Williams' insane energy in this talk show clip is a blast.
The Dick Cavett Show: This might be the most valuable extra in this whole set. During the beginning of Williams' career, Cavett interviewed him over two nights. We get both full interviews here, which seamlessly switch between serious and frank discussions on the psyche of a comedian to Williams getting Cavett to join in some improv and crowd work. His unbounded energy is on full display here. This is a treat.
Interview with David Steinberg: Williams' manager openly talks about Williams' overall career.
Where it all Began: Williams' manager and friends talk about his love of San Francisco and how the city's experimental comedy scene nurtured his style.
Howard Storm Demo: In this VHS rip from Williams' personal collection, Williams riffs for fifteen minutes as he tries to put together a demo to promote his friend's directing work.
Comedy Celebration Day: We get footage of Williams riffing during San Francisco's Comedy Celebration Day, an outdoor comedy festival. We get bits from 1982 and 1990, and a very brief look at his appearance in 1985.
I Love Liberty: As a part of Norman Lear's patriotic 1982 special, Williams performs a heartfelt poem as he impersonates the US flag.
Catch a Rising Star's 10th Anniversary: In this clip from this special celebrating Catch a Rising Star, Williams and comedian Richard Belzer improv with the props on stage.
The Comedy Store 11th Anniversary: We see Williams' short performance from this 1983 ensemble comedy special that celebrates the legendary Comedy Store.
The Comedy Store 15th Year Class Reunion: Similar to the 11th Anniversary, but larger in scale.
Robin Remembers The Comedy Store: In this 2001 interview, Williams talks frankly and lovingly about his experiences coming up as a young comic at The Comedy Store.
HBO Press Interview: An interview with Williams before he shot Live at The Met.
Promo Taping: A behind-the-scenes look as Williams keeps riffing to find some comedy bits to promote Live at the Met.
Beverly Hills Blues: In this charming clip, Williams joins Bobby McFerrin to improv an acapella jazz tune.
The Young Comedians All-Star Reunion: This set usually just shows Williams' bits in these specials, but we get the whole hour-long special here. Previous Young Comedians from the 1970s, which includes Williams if you scroll back up to disc one extras, do quick bits and then introduce the new young comics, one of which include Ellen DeGeneres. Williams' bit is about ten minutes, but comedy gold he digs out from just one audience member's hat is the best part of the whole special.
Superstars and Their Moms: In this clip from a bizarre 80s TV show where celebrities interview their moms, Williams and his mother share a heartfelt moment that also shows where he got his sense of humor.
Interview With David Steinberg: Steinberg talks about the various details on how he booked The Met for Williams' 1986 special.
Interview With Lewis Black: Black pays loving and respectful tribute to his friend as he chronicles his decades of friendship with him.
Interview with Robin and Marty Callner: Williams and the director of his Live on Broadway special talk about how the special got together and the challenges of broadcasting it live.
Noises and Explicit Language: These supercuts of Williams cursing and making funny noises were easter eggs on the original Live on Broadway DVD. They're offered as regular extras here for those who can't bother with exploring the DVD menu.
HBO Promos, Rough Cuts, and Promo Riff: We get the full promos for Live on Broadway, as well as a whopping 25 minutes of Williams riffing. There are some great jokes here that didn't make it to the special.
E! Press Room: Williams' quick interview after winning Best Spoken Album Grammy in 2002.
A Backstage Pass: This mellow fly-on-the-wall piece shows Williams' immense respect and love for his fans as he interacts with them backstage.
A View From The Director's Chair: Director Marty Callner quickly discusses his tech plan to shoot the special.
Local Highlights: This is a series of local jokes Williams made during his 2009 tour, none of which made it to the Weapons of Self Destruction special since they wouldn't make sense in Washington DC.
Mrs. Doubtfire Toasts Richard Pryor: Williams, in full Mrs. Doubtfire make-up and voice, spews out a series of profanities in this video meant to celebrate his friend and ultimate comedy genius Richard Pryor's birthday.
People's Choice Awards: Williams accepts the awards for Best Actor and Best Comedy Movie for Mrs. Doubtfire and does some press work afterwards.
Shakespeare The Animated Tales Promos: We get all of the whimsical promos Williams did for HBO's animated adaptations of Shakespeare's work, which premiered in 1995.
This set is a must-have for any fan of Williams' stand-up comedy and intrinsic talents for just being naturally funny and charming. Hell, it's a must-have for any fan of comedy, period. The amount and quality of the extras alone is worth the price.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com