Robin Williams returns to HBO, a brand-new man

Originally published on November 30, 2009 | McClatchy Newspapers | written by Luaine Lee

PASADENA, Calif. - It will be a whole new Robin Williams cavorting on stage when the comedian returns to HBO on Sunday. You wouldn't think that tiny tinkering with his heart could make such a difference. But earlier this year Williams canceled several of his Weapons of Self Destruction comedy gigs to have his faulty aortic valve replaced by a cow's valve.

"That's a life-expanding experience," he says. "Walks on the beach with a defibrillator. Yeah, I think it really opens you up, literally. When I went on the Letterman show with him . . . him with a quintuple bypass trumps me big. But he said - at one point, he leaned over to me on the break, and he said, 'Do you find yourself getting emotional?' I went 'Oh, yeah.' "

Williams is also starring in the new Disney movie, Old Dogs, and since his recovery, he has been performing in small clubs, trying to find his topical mojo again, he says. "Before I had this surgery, I was doing a lot of stuff about the inauguration. I don't think that will play very well now. The Chinese Olympics? People go 'When was that? This was a long time ago.' "

It's been seven years since Williams graced HBO, though he was one of the first comics to be featured on the cable channel back in 1977. "It's wild to see stuff from 30 years ago," he says. "You go, 'Wow, that's so long ago,' and you realize, 'Yes, I'm not dead, but yet they're showing a clip reel.' "

Williams, 58, says one of his challenges is being hip to new technology. "It is interesting to see the effect of Twittering and seeing people texting each other. They are sitting this far away from each other going, 'Hi, I can't really talk to you, but I can send you a text message.' 'Hi.' 'Hi, how are you?' It does tend to isolate, but it's a weird combination of isolation and connection. And that's what I've got to try and work on. I've got to do the research on Facebook and Twitter. And, you know, there's another program called Stalker, which is great because you can find out where someone is at every moment of their life."

Williams says he can see the downside of all this technocracy. "It's like cyber coke. It's the idea, 'What are you doing?' 'I'm just basically getting a lot of hits and working over a period of time.' 'Have you seen your family?' 'I've got a virtual family now, man. It's this new Apple-iWife. I'm on Wife 2.0 right now, and it comes with virtual kids and you can download them and if they really don't work out, you can just trash them.' "

Williams is one comic who has been able to mix his antic hilarity with serious film roles. He's proud of those, he says. "On a professional level, the idea that I'm still working and the idea of doing movies like Dead Poets, Awakenings, Good Will Hunting, some of those movies that went beyond being movies for people, that for me has been a great thing. And doing stand-up, I'm very proud of that. The idea of having access to that tool has kept me going, too.. . . It's a long program. It's not a sprint."

Williams says he hopes his career will reflect both his serious and comic sides.

"I'd like my work to say I'm a human being with a slight intelligence, a functioning intelligence. To be funny is a conscious choice. I can turn it off or on according to need or according to inspiration. If somebody says something [amusing], it seems like a nice opportunity. Other times you realize, 'No, it's OK. We can talk straight if you like.' "

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