A conversation between Ed Norton & Robin Williams

Originally published in April 2002 | Interview Magazine | written by Glen Wilson

Edward Norton: Hey, boss.

Robin Williams: Hey, daddy. What's up, baby?

EN: Just on a lunch break on the set of my new movie, Red Dragon.

RW: Oh, yay. A four o'clock lunch break.

EN: All right. I thought given the nature of our film, an interesting topic might be to ask you a few questions about youthful influences. For people who don't know, in our new movie Death to Smoochy, we play characters who are children's show hosts. Robin plays Rainbow Randolph and I play Smoochy the Rhino, and it got me thinking about what a huge impact children's television and the shows we watched when we were kids can have on our lives.

RW: I didn't watch much children's television, I was always watching The Twentieth Century with Walter Cronkite. [both laugh] So those are my childhood memories--The Twentieth Century.

EN: Yeah, but nobody's going to believe that you were that serious as a kid, Robin, so--

RW: --I know it's frightening, but that's the truth! [laughs]

EN: But there must have been something. Come on, cartoons or anything?

RW: Oh! Warner Brothers cartoons. God, I loved them. I still do.

EN: Bugs and Road Runner?

RW: Bugs and Elmer [laughs] The classic struggle. You know, on the set of Smoochy we talked about them. And we watched "What's Opera, Doc?"

EN: That's right, we looked at it as inspiration for Smoochy's ice show.

RW: Oh, yes. I think those cartoons, if anything, were an influence.

EN: The thing that's amazing about those cartoons is that they are a huge part of the youth of three different generations.

RW: Yeah, because they've been played again and again and again and they still work. Like that frog, Michigan J. Frog, you know?

EN: the one who keeps getting buried in the foundation of the building and sings [In an old-fashioned, lively voice] Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal.

RW: Right! The Jolson frog that keeps coming back and every time the guy wants to have the big show the frog won't do shit. [laughs]

EN: I loved Foghorn Leghorn, too. And, of course, there was the Road Runner, which was its own kind of humor. We have some of that slapstick, physical humor.

RW: I think I'm the equivalent of Wile E. Coyote in this movie.

EN: There's a shot that I saw where you fly across the room and hit the wall, and slide down the wall really slowly... [laughs]

RW: Yeah, that's basically a Wile E. Coyote.

EN: Have you met [animator] Chuck Jones?

RW: He did the animation for Mrs. Doubtfire [1993].

EN: Oh, you're kidding!

RW: No, he's always wonderful to talk to. Think of all the classic cartoons they cranked out, the combination of Chuck Jones directing and Mel Blanc doing all those voices. You know, most are characters Chuck knew from life. That's why you got a rabbit with a tie, saying "What's up, Doc?"

EN: [laughs] I think a lot of performers are informed by those characters from our youth.

RW: Oh, yeah.

EN: You carry it with you, you know? And then it informs the work you do later.

RW: Oh, I think for me, Elmer Fund has always been the classic. He is almost Shakespearean. How about you?

EN: Well, Bugs Bunny was very much on my mind when I played Worm in Rounders [1998]. But when I was growing up it was Sesame Street, The Electric Company... that whole Children's Television Workshop, which I think was arguably the great age of education-oriented children's programming.

RW: You know, I did two episodes of Sesame Street. I got letters from that for years. One of them was a thing where I talked about what qualifies something as alive, and I said, "Well, if it eats," and I had a pair of shoes and at one point I put a banana in a shoe and mushed it around [laughs], and we got all these letters from mothers saying, "Thank you, that was very informative, but my kid ruined his shoes." [laughs] More people had seen that than pretty much anything I'd ever done.

EN: Maybe I'm just getting older and reminiscing about how it was when I was a kid, but I do feel that back then children's cartoons and children's shows were all just brilliant in their own right and now there's an enormous amount of more commercial-minded cartoons that are specifically made to sell a product.

RW: Here's a very strange reference; you know who Faith Hubley was?

EN: No.

RW: She was a great animator, a wonderful artistic animator. [Williams' son] Cody grew up watching her cartoons. He used to have choices of watching all the Disney classics, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, but he would love to watch the Faith Hubley cartoons. They were basically like Miro animated, because she hand-drew them and they were all about art and different cultures and different things. It was amazing to see him watch these hour-and-a-half long things that talked about the history of man. They were kind of dark and weird, and he loved them. They were almost like the outsider art you and I collect.

EN: Yeah, that's right. Speaking of which, we're going to do a benefit screening of Death to Smoochy for the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.

RW: Cool!

EN: Well, that brings up an interesting point which is that this movie, though it's about children's characters, is obviously not a children's movie at all.

RW: Not at all.

EN: It's a very R-rated movie and apart from it being hilarious, was there anything in particular that drew you into it?

RW: Well, having done television and having known the other side of the business--the backstabbing--it's full of sociopaths, who try to kill their rivals, like Randolph.

EN: [laughs] Have you ever had a Rainbow Randolph figure in your life?

RW: Oh God, yeah.

EN: When you were first coming up and doing Mork & Mindy and that show was just starting to hit?

RW: Yeah, I ran into a whole bunch of those types.

EN: I'm sure some people must have been looking at you like Randolph looking at Smoochy, saying, "Oh my God, look at the idiot with his silly show," and things like that.

RW: These executives would come to the show and the audiences were going nuts, and you could see them not knowing when to laugh or how to laugh, but kind of laughing in response to other people laughing. But when they cancelled Mork & Mindy, which was basically like a kid's show--

EN: --How did they cancel that one?

RW: I read about it in the trades.

EN: No, come on!

RW: I'm serious. They didn't call. I was doing this thing, The Tale of the Frog Prince, with Eric Idle, and Bingo! The trades basically said, "Mork & Mindy cancelled." I was so angry and hurt, and I was dressed as a frog. [both laugh] It hit me hard. So I have experienced that, I have lived that part.

EN: Cancellation?

RW: Ugh. It was rough, man.

EN: Death to Smoochy deals with a lot of that. You can say "Oh, it's a parody" but it's not all that far off from what really goes on.

RW: No, I think you're right. I mean, there's nothing you could do now that would be too outrageous a parody.

EN: When you started doing stand-up, a lot of people commented that the pace of it was so different from what other people were doing.

RW: It was only because I just kept moving. Because in the clubs I was playing, if you slowed down you'd get buried alive by hecklers. So I would just keep going fast--Mork & Mindy was just an extension of that--just speaking really fast.

EN: Until they laughed at something?

RW: Yeah, it was a scattergun effect. [In Mork voice] You keep going until something will hit.

EN: Yeah, but one of the things that struck me working with you is that although it was such a funny script, I thought, I wonder whether Robin will stick with it, or kind of turn on the faucet and go. But you were extremely restrained. I felt like you always found the right gaps to open up the faucets and go wild. And when the script was really strong, you were right on it, almost to the comma.

RW: Yeah, you have to be, because when something works you don't need to plaster over it.

EN: It was illuminating because it gave me a theory about you. You do so much free association, but when we were doing scenes and we were riffing around, it was interesting to me that you would find the riff, but then you wouldn't just flip to another--you would really hone in on a good one until it was right.

RW: Yeah, and once you realize you have something, you just dial it and dial it and dial it.

EN: Until it's really sharp. And now you're getting ready to do your first major stand-up tour in a number of years, and you've told me you're hitting the small clubs to get ready. I figure that hitting the clubs for a while is equivalent to doing a bunch of takes.

RW: Oh, very much. I've been playing a club here, you know, 500 seats, so I could get out and just kick it. At first you've got to get enough material so as to find an hour, an hour-and-a-half. At one point, it was three hours, and then you hone back. You just trim away. Some of what I had was good and some was OK--it would work for the night, but not necessarily beyond that. You get enough stuff to mold, and you find more. Like the stuff that's been happening in the past week, Enron and all this shit that's been going down--it's been extraordinary.

EN: When we were doing our bits in the movie you minded me of that old Mark Twain line: "The best extemporaneous speech is the one that's most meticulously rehearsed."

RW: Yeah, it is that, very much. It's like jazz, too, because you lay down this really strong base and the you can just go off. But if you don't have that base it could be really dangerous because then it could be just wandering.

EN: So what comedy really influenced you when you were younger?

RW: The Goon Show. That was one of the best. But for me, the best comedy albums were Firesign Theatre. Nothing was as layered or as funny as their stuff.

EN: I've never even heard of those.

RW: Never!? They're the best. They're coming back, too.

EN: I don't think people my age know much of that stuff.

RW: Oh, they're hysterical. I'll get you some.

EN: Can you get them on records?

RW: Yeah, they're on CDs and records, and they're just so layered with weird references, and they were the first people to do that multiple tracking on comedy albums--where you hear background noises--and their albums all connect to the next, to the next, to the next. Where one album ends the other begins.

EN: Oh, wow.

RW: But the best live comedy performance is Richard Pryor Live in Concert. Madness! That's pain and joy together incarnate. That's the one. That's da bomb, the big spliff lit in the night.

EN: [laughs] How about those great old Dudley Moore/Peter Cook sketches?

RW: I became aware of them in mid-college. They were on [the 1960s stage and TV show] Beyond the Fringe.

EN: You know, I think that you never remember bits as well as you do from that period of youth, or college. I mean, I'll see people now and I don't really remember their bits, but I remember Eddie Murphy's first live record, and you live at the Met.

RW: Oh yeah, it's ingrained. I mean, I can remember Jose Jimenez. And I can remember Jonathan Winters. I never got hold of a Lenny Bruce record till later, but Jonathan's records, oh, they were great. And Peter Sellers.

EN: [laughs] If you weren't around, and this film had been done 20 years earlier, Sellers would have been a good Rainbow Randolph.

RW: Oh, he would have been amazing. You know, I guess he was, in real life, a frighteningly scary man, but brilliantly funny. To women, he was the most misogynistic, nasty guy, and to everybody else just hysterical.

EN: Well, that's kind of Rainbow Randolph in a nutshell.

RW: Yeah, I think that'd be it, then. My idol.

EN: Actually, bizarrely, Smoochy reminded me of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Wahington [1939].

RW: That's true. Jimmy Stewart plays Barney.

EN: Because he's the rube. The rube that was plucked by the Machine to come fill in a spot for them, and then as he begins to realize he's being used as a patsy for them, he put his fist in the air and says, "No!" But Rainbow Randolph's more a classic showman.

RW: Oh, yeah, he's old time Broadway, kind of a song and dance, sell-it-with-a-song guy.

EN: Yeah, and Smoochy's been more influenced, I think, by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, a brotherhood of man kind of vibe. Actually [Death to Smoochy's director] Danny [DeVito] let me get in that one line, "You know, I was born on November 11, 1969. You know what that day was? That was the first air date of Sesame Street." That was because we were trying to make it that Smoochy grew up, just like I did, in the golden age of children's television.

RW: Of course, Danny's era was Pinky Lee.

EN: I can't remember what else Danny said was specifically an influence on him, but--

RW: --Where did Danny grow up? In New York? Right?

EN: Asbury Park [New Jersey]. He had the whole carnival atmosphere of the boardwalks and everything, and he was a big Sunday matineegoer, you know. He told me he loved all the Sunday cliffhangers and adventures.

RW: Where you'd come back every week to pick up the next one?

EN: Yeah.

RW: Oh God, man. And maybe Catherine Keener [who plays a network programming executive] is like Tallulah Bankhead.

EN: No, you know who Keener reminds me a lot of? Barbara Stanwyck.

RW: Oh, fuck yeah!

EN: She has the real tough, brassy--

RW: [In a Stanwyck voice] "Get out of here, you big lug."

EN: Yeah, remember that one with Henry Fonda, The Lady Eve [1941]? Where he's the sap and she's the tough girl and she kind of ends up falling for him?

RW: Yeah, you're right. She is like that.

EN: I even think she looks like her. There are very few people who sincerely have that quotient. That Stanwyck-Jean Arthur smarter-than-everyone-else-but-can-melt-you-also quotient.

RW: Lauren Bacall.

EN: Yeah, Bacall. She kind of reminds me of her, too.

RW: It was so good to have people that you could bounce off of, like you, Catherine and Danny.

EN: Yeah, I thought that Danny created a great environment. He throws the net out for you and says, "Jump anywhere you want." And Jon Stewart [who plays a network president], he's really funny.

RW: Fuck. He's good stuff. Do you remember that time we were at the ice rink in Canada and he took the microphone and said, "Hello, Canada. I'm a Jew. If you want, later on, you could come talk to me. I love this country, it was so nice of you to take the frozen part."

EN: Yeah, he was great. So what have you been doing since we finished?

RW: Well, I dislocated my shoulder and I had surgery. I had them sew the ligaments back so it would never hurt again.

EN: How do you feel?

RW: I'm OK. I'm just chillin' in the crib.

EN: Well, this was fun, and Smoochy was fun.

RW: Oh, it was a blast.

EN: Yeah, that was one of the best times I've had in a while.

RW: Me, too.

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