There are comedians, and there is Robin Williams. There are jokes, and there is a universal humor based in the human experience that Williams became identified with, for better or worse.
Life is as much a cruel joke as it is a carefree pillow fight. Williams is the quick-witted master of its contradictions, offered as rapid-fire improvisations or sharp-tongued observations.
Over time, however, his empathetic Everyman quality caused him to get typecast in films like "Jumanji," "What Dreams May Come" and "Jack," films that exploited his feel-good credibility.
And during that time he abandoned the stand-up performing that was his forte.
Now Williams, 49, is back--not that a man who graduated from Juilliard, starred in a hit sitcom, acted in more than 35 films and won an Oscar for "Good Will Hunting" is in need of professional rehabilitation.
Yet much has happened in the years since he last performed stand-up--most of it over the past year--and he is chomping at the bit to comment.
He honed his new routine in a club called Bimbo's--get your mind out of the gutter; it's Italian for "baby"--in San Francisco, where he lives.
In a sold-out show Wednesday at the Riverside Theatre, he'll talk about "all the things we've been through" since Sept. 11, although he notes they "are hard to satirize when a guy tries to set his shoe on fire" on a plane, an incident that triggered one of Williams' infamous free-range rambles:
"A friend of mine was on a plane and said they would not give him any utensils, so it was like the Special Olympics flight. Pudding! In case of an emergency, a small bat will drop from the ceiling," he continued, mimicking a flight attendant. "Aim for the head, crotch and knees."
Like everything else, humor took a hit after the terrorist attacks, Williams said, but gradually, the audience and performers have together agreed on acceptable parameters.
"So you start to talk about" when government officials warn of terrorism "by saying, 'I don't know where, I don't know when, but something's going to happen. Good luck to all of you.' You wanted the psychic lady to come on, 'Oh, God,'" he continued in a Jamaican falsetto. "'Don't be goin' out. Don't be takin' no bridges. I see a man with a beard.' What is it (the CIA) called now? The Central Intuitive Agency?"
A change in roles If concert performances liberate him from the creative confines of Hollywood, the movie roles he is choosing are a radical departure. In the coming "Death to Smoochy," directed by Danny DeVito, he plays a children's show host who loses his job to a purple rhinoceros and seeks revenge.
He calls it "big-time nasty funny" in the tradition of "South Park."
He plays a murderer in "Insomnia," a remake of a Swedish film by "Memento" director Chris Nolan, opposite Al Pacino, who plays a cop. Williams calls the pairing "Mr. Method meets wild boy."
And in "One Hour Photo" he plays a loner turned stalker who develops an unhealthy attachment to a "perfect" family whose pictures he develops at a store in the mall.
That film had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Williams, who spent time on the slopes and was thrilled as a kid by free Olympic gear, recently spoke there.
"One Hour Photo," the feature debut of music video director Mark Romanek, will be released this fall. Williams said it is one of the roles of which he is most proud. The others: "Awakenings," "Dead Poets Society" and his voice work in Disney's animated "Aladdin."
He consulted with a psychiatrist to prepare for "One Hour Photo" and "watched some interviews with serial killers. 'Psychotics Through the Ages.' It's a collectible tape from Time-Life Books. But basically, it was using the material and extrapolating from there."
He found the character in himself "the moment they shaved my hair with that weed whacker and made it blond and (dressed him in) all those clothes that Target would throw out."
The result, Williams said, was "the first time I could watch a movie and not worry about how I looked because it's not about how I looked. Several people came up to me and said, 'I forgot it was you.' And I said, 'That's the game. You win. Thank you. Take anything off the top shelf.'"
Williams even found the economic realities of small-budget filmmaking refreshing.
"I've been on pictures where they throw money at you," he said. "But with this it was like, 'We've got a car, but we can only use it for a half-hour.' It's tight and it's fast, but the good news is that they're not under any boundaries and there's no interference."
Finding 'that perfect tone' And if the roles signal no more Mr. Nice Guy, Williams said, maybe "people won't ask for autographs now" because "I'm an evil bastard."
Williams has had a "wonderful career," said Romanek, but "he's an actor. Besides comedy, this is the craft that fulfills him. And like any creative person, he's looking to grow and looking for new challenges. He just (wanted) something that would turn him on."
Dramatic acting is hard, said Williams, but comedic acting is harder.
"You have to find that perfect tone and hold it," he said. "It's a real subtle, volatile thing, and you know when it works and when it doesn't. I used to know on 'Good Morning, Vietnam,' when things were funny because you saw the camera going"--he makes a bouncing motion--"because the guy was laughing and he couldn't control it."
With his career in top gear, Williams' life seems to be in perfect pitch. He continues to live in San Francisco, whose mellowness he compares to "living in Switzerland during a nuclear war."
Hollywood "is in the distance. I can make raids to Los Angeles but not be surrounded by it and constantly be worried about how I'm doing," Williams said. "And San Francisco has always had a bizarre collection of people," into which he blends nicely, often getting around town on his bicycle.
"I can go anywhere, and no one cares. I grew up there. They just go, 'Oh, it's you.'"