Jewish association with Robin Williams
After hearing of the apparent suicide of Robin Williams, I remembered laughing harder, and deeper than I ever had at a comedian when I first saw him perform at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles in 1977.
During his set at the Sunset Boulevard club—where newcomer, Jay Leno, also performed that evening--there were no tedious joke set-ups, or tired shtickiness to his approach to stand-up, just a flinging out of a blend of Shakespearian references, observations, plays on words and thoughts that Williams had spun together in the mad juicer that was his mind.
If the requirement of fiction is the suspension of disbelief, likewise that night, the audience found for a few brief moments, vastly dissimilar elements from their world somehow hanging together from the performer’s suspenders.
Unlike others in comedy who pushed the boundaries such as Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, or Woody Allen, Williams wasn’t Jewish--though he wasn’t beyond using a Jewish inflection, or gesture to make his point--but, thinking about it now, there was something Jewish about his way into the heads of his audience.
Soon after, when Williams caught the national TV eye by playing an alien from the planet Mork stuck in America in “Mork and Mindy,” some Jewish members of the show’s audience--myself included--saw an odd connection between the show’s premise and Jewish alienation. Mork didn’t really want to assimilate, and neither did we.
Yet, that did not explain why his free flying associative form of humor, memorably captured in the Disney animated feature “Aladdin,” stuck in a familiar place in my mind as well as that of other Jews.
As a teenager, I had attended a Shabbat afternoon study session where I was introduced to the Torah commentary of the French medieval Torah scholar Rashi (Rabbi ShlomoItzhaki). To get at the meaning of a particular verse, Rashi, I discovered, took a very non-linear route.
Packing into his terse commentary on a particular verse, bits of history, science, human nature, and a comparison of the usage of a particular word, often in vastly different places in the text, he would expand its meaning.
It was a type of associative learning which was new to me and very unlike the step by step approach of the sciences, or the ‘by wrote’ memorization of facts, that I had been taught to study history.
Rashi was an all-inclusive method of study that opened the door to everything, even humor. A few years later, sitting in a comedy club, separated by centuries, but connected by approach, to at least one Jewish set of ears, a comedian was using an associative approach to comment on his times.
“The rabbis believed that the Torah was meant to be associative with everything having the possibility to connect to everything else,” wrote Joel Lurie Grishaver, a Jewish educator and author, whose words about the connecting power of association strike me as a fitting way to describe the appeal of Robin Williams.
New connections will be missed, but his old ones remain unbroken.
When appearing on the TV show, Inside the Actors Studio, Robin Williams was asked by host James Lipton: “If Heaven exists what would you like to hear God say at the Pearly Gates?”
Williams responded, “There’s seating in the front. The concert begins at five. There will be Mozart, Elvis, and one of your choosing. Or just as nice, if heaven exists, to know there is laughter. That would be a good thing, oh yeah. Just to hear God [go] “Two Jews walk into a bar...”
Edmon J. Rodman writes for several publications and news services from his home in Los Angeles, including the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, the Forward, JTA and JNS , he is also a “guide for the Jewplexed” at http://www.virtualjerusalem.com.