Tears of a Clown

Originally published on September 19, 1999 | Winnipeg Sun | written by Winnipeg Sun Staff

TORONTO--Robin Williams has lost his edge.

If that was just a critical consensus, Williams probably wouldn't mind. He's an actor who separates the critical community from his loyal public.

But even his public has noticed that Williams--a screaming comic force of nature in his standup heyday--has mellowed in the past few years. Have you seen him lately? Did you see his last flat-out comedy, the ill-conceived Fathers' Day? Probably not. It bombed. Have you seen him tragically die and go to heaven in What Dreams May Come? Have you seen him do a tragedy-afflicted physician who heals through humour in Patch Adams?

Then there's his latest role: A Polish Jew attempting to keep hope alive in a Nazi-occupied ghetto in Jakob The Liar. Don't expect to fall out of your seat laughing.

So, yes, he's the first to admit he's lost a bit of his edge.

"I hope to get it back when I start doing standup in about a month," he says. "I thought it would be time to get in a club and (do) work that's immediate, where you know if you have an edge or you don't."

Williams is the last person you'd expect to have a problem with humour. In interviews, he can make the most hardcase entertainment reporter giggle like a schoolgirl with his lightning-quick zingers.

But humour can miss the mark, as he learned from Fathers' Day. And it can be dangerous, as he learned when he attempted to get Jakob The Liar made. The studio, he says, was very afraid of the film's occasional dark humour, as when Williams' character trades barbs with a barber (Bob Balaban) while trying to convince him not to commit suicide.

"When we tried to get this made three years ago, before Life Is Beautiful, they weren't exactly anxious to do it," he says. "That's why we had to waive fees and (film) it in Poland.

"It was because of the humour, they were very afraid of that. They were very worried about the response to it. Basically, Americans have never had a sense of that black humour.

"When we had the first screenings... you had other people who said, 'You can't have humour about this'--usually Gentiles."

Williams didn't give much credence to the focus groups; there was a more important audience to impress.

"We had screenings with (Holocaust) survivors, and they said it was exactly right," he says. "I met a man named Samuel, who was a survivor of the Piotrkow ghetto (where the movie was filmed), and he said, 'You did it exactly right. That's what happened.'

"It was like a documentary (for him) because he was one of five people who survived that ghetto where we shot. So if there was anybody where I was worried about the feedback, it would be him."

As in Patch Adams, the movie touches on the redemptive power of humour, an idea that hits Williams where he works, if not where he lives.

"Humour can get you through anything. I've seen it get people through horrible times," he says. "I've seen it help people, specifically with friends like Chris Reeve. I know it has a certain power."

But Williams is past the point where he's going to simply go for the laugh. He attributes part of the change to his children.

"When you start having children, you think maybe I should do something 'for the good,'" he says, adding he may never be able to go back to his old style of hammering at America's funnybone.

"The ideal thing for me now is not to just go for the laugh but talk about something at the same time," he says.

"It's time to go back and do something where you're not trying to be redemptive but still doing comedy, with maybe a little philosophy thrown in.

"I've got to talk about something other than my penis."

Wall of Tributes >