TORONTO--A 12-pack of water sat waiting onstage for Robin Williams as he entered, clad in matching black linen shirt and track pants for the first of two shows at the Hummingbird Centre. Yes, it was hot out, but how dehydrated did he expect to get?
The truth became clear as the show unfolded yesterday. Williams, prince of manic free-association, has become a bit of a prop act in the 16 years since a standup comedy tour last brought him here. (He's been here since shooting movies).
Always prone to letting his hands wander netherward--absentmindedly or nervously--he marked his terrority with bottled water (in a bit about male cats and how that whole dynamic would work for humans), used it to illustrate the pitiful dribble of fiftysomethings at a urinal, and gushed all over the stage in a bit about the realities of sex on Viagra.
Viagra, of course, is one of those "hack" topics that other comics have beaten to flaccidity. But Robin Williams has been an equal opportunity premise-gun for his entire career, and he sells hackneyed topics and original, smart premises alike with every Oscar-winning bone in his body (while also constantly going for some kind of land speed record). He has a reputation as a gag thief on par with Milton Berle, but who can tell? It all happens so fast, the bits in question are mere thatches of straw in a bird's nest of comic free-association.
Having watched his standup for 20 years, on video and a handful of times live and impromptu at places like L.A.'s Comedy Store, I'm struck by how conventional it is underneath the scattershot incandescence. He follows certain rules and beats them senseless like Gallagher beats watermelons.
Like fr'instance, local references: Yes, there's the weather and the garbage strike. "Toronto, or as I like to call it, New York North. Now you have the heat and the garbage. Welcome to our f---ing world!" Easy enough, but a second later, he's an African guide showing Mel Lastman the way to the pot, and after that, he's deftly cutting up Jean Chretien for firing Paul Martin, "giving him more time to campaign against me... I'm not that bright."
Canada leads you to Cujo, then Olympic hockey... to the skating scandal... to the two-man luge ("I'm sayin' boys, get a room!") to snowboarding and the "performance-enhancing" effects of marijuana (again, it's been done, but not with an over-the-top, one-man sketch punctuating each observation), and before you know it, we've used up 27 seconds of a 90-minute set. He crunches standard bits like a supercomputer. The good thing about a Robin Williams performance is I can't ruin it by giving up lines or topics.
It's all in the delivery and goofy voices. But some lines and logic do hold up brilliantly. He was brutal with Dubya ("It doesn't bother me that he waved at Stevie Wonder. What bothers me is he almost died eating a f---ing pretzel"), Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft in a bit on the 9-11 aftermath. And he noted Congress "publicly approved the secret plot to kill (Saddam) Hussein. I wonder if he knows. If he's still working for the CIA, probably not."
From politics, it was religion, with attention to Catholics, Jews, Muslims (he followed a "martyr" to heaven where he discovered he had 71 guys named Virgil waiting for him, or 71 Virginians... and on it went), even finding time to dis' the Amish and Puritans, and proffering a hilarious bit about a drunken Scotsman inventing golf.
In movies when he lays it on this relentlessly, he's accused of pandering for an Oscar.
But it was everything you could hope for from a set of standup comedy.