The recent death of comedian Robin Williams caused me to rethink what is and isn’t funny. In the process I realized that twenty-first century society really doesn’t know what’s funny.
Williams, on the other hand, had a sixth sense about it. He innately knew what would make people laugh, and he fed us a constant diet of truly funny stuff.
Just what was it that made Robin Williams different from other entertainers whose comedic efforts sometimes hit the mark but often fall flat?
Was it Robin’s ability to see humor in everyday situations and ordinary people? Yes, but other comics do that sometimes. Was it his ability to improvise at a moment’s notice? Yes, but there have been others, like Tim Conway and Harvey Korman, who could do that too, though maybe not as consistently.
Was it the characters Robin created, like Mork from Ork, the frenetic Genie in Alladin, and Mrs. Doubtfire? Yes, but other comedians, like Red Skelton, Milton Burl and Sid Ceasar, all did that too, though perhaps not with the same manic energy as Williams.
Still, it was more than that. What set Robin Williams apart from the rest of today’s comics was his ability to be hilariously funny without resorting to dirty jokes. The art of good, clean humor was his genius. And he consistently delivered.
Recently, John and I have been watching “The Last Comic Standing” on television. There were a few truly funny routines. But almost 100 percent of the comedians resorted to outright nasty subject matter. They just don’t seem to know any other way to be funny. They assume that 21st century audiences are too urbane to be entertained by anything but the edgiest of topics. I think they’re wrong.
Apparently, the current generation has never learned what Robin innately knew — that funny is an everyday thing. Real life, real people, and ordinary situations are truly funny, but only to those few gifted souls who see the humor and have developed the ability to make us see it too.
So why can’t today’s entertainers do that? Is it because the comic geniuses of the past didn’t pass on their craft? Did Bob Hope and Billy Crystal not teach, or did today’s comics just not learn? Or…are they just lazy?
Let’s face it; anyone can get a laugh by telling a dirty joke. But it takes a real comedian to recreate a comic situation that draws its humor from everyday life. It takes a student of comedy who has done his or her homework, studying the techniques developed into an art form by geniuses like Charley Chaplin, Buster Keeton, Lucille Ball, Jonathan Winters, and Buddy Hackett. They invited us to see the world through their comic lens.
Where are those few aspiring 21st century comics with the dedication to their art that Robin Williams demonstrated? Who is willing to invest the plain old blood, sweat, and rejection necessary to develop his or her comic abilities into true genius?
The comedian who can step into the void left by Robin Williams is almost guaranteed fame and fortune. But that’s not how it works, is it? True comic geniuses are those who are born to be funny and absolutely driven to do it. They are the ones who keep at it till they succeed.
So, where are you, funnyman? We’re tired of the smutty stuff. We’ve heard it all and, frankly, we’re just plain bored with it.
Today’s world is not a funny place — all the more reason that America sure could use a good, clean laugh about now.