(Pictured: Gene Simmons, Robert Klein, Robin Williams, and Ace Frehley, at a taping of Klein’s radio show in 1979.)
(Couple of late edits below.)
Many of us get breaking news now by reading our Twitter timelines in reverse-chronological order—and when a celebrity’s name appears out of the blue a couple of times, we immediately start fearing the worst. So it was when Robin Williams’ death was announced the other night. Because I am old enough to remember when the comedy album was a thing, it didn’t take me long to start thinking about Williams’ work as it was heard on flat black pieces of plastic.
When The Mrs. and I merged our record collections, Williams’ 1979 album Reality . . . What a Concept was one of hers. At the time it was recorded (at live shows in New York and San Francisco), Williams was best known as the star of Mork and Mindy. If you’ve seen his 1978 HBO On Location special, some of the material will be familiar. On the album, as in the special, Williams bounces off the walls of the theater—he’s clearly got a structured performance in mind, but he ad-libs wildly before, during, and after each bit. It’s frequently hilarious, but sometimes it’s as exhausting to watch as it must have been to perform. (The fact that Williams was coked to the eyeballs contributed to the mania.) You can hear the whole Reality . . . What a Concept album here, although if you’d like a smaller bite, click here for “Come Inside My Mind,” in which Williams explains the workings of the brain of an actor who’s bombing on stage. The album was a remarkably big hit for a spoken-word/comedy recording, reaching #10 on the Billboard 200 in a 22-week run that began in July 1979. At the same time, Williams’ label, Casablanca, released a radio-only sampler called 44 Lines. My guess is that it’s just what the title implies: 44 lines from Reality . . . What a Concept that DJs could drop into their shows.
Williams won the Best Comedy Recording Grammy in 1980, but it would be three years before he made another full album. In the interim, he would continue to star in Mork and Mindy as well as in the movies Popeye (1980; a couple of flop singles were released featuring songs from the soundtrack) and The World According to Garp (1982; still my favorite performance of his). He did a second HBO special, An Evening With Robin Williams, recorded in San Francisco and representing the apex of his coke-fueled standup era. Several performances from that period ended up on his 1983 album Throbbing Python of Love. Casablanca also released a seven-inch sampler from the album to radio stations. (I’ve got a copy.) It includes “Elmer Fudd Sings Bruce Springsteen” and Williams’ impersonation of Jack Nicholson doing Hamlet (“To be or not to goddamn be . . . whether ’tis nobler to take the ca-ca or sling it right back at ‘em”). Throbbing Python of Love made the Billboard album chart, reaching #119 in a nine-week run beginning in April 1983. It also received a Grammy nomination, but didn’t win.
From that point on, Williams had more success at the Grammy awards than on the album chart. Live at the Met (1988) and Live 2002 (2003) both won for Best Comedy Recording. (Williams also won a comedy Grammy for his work in Good Morning Vietnam.) In 2009, the soundtrack from another HBO special, Weapons of Self Destruction, was released as a DVD and CD.
It became the only Williams album not nominated for a Grammy. (Late edit: wrong. It got nominated too.) According to his discography at Allmusic.com, Williams also narrated a couple of kids’ albums, Pecos Bill (1988, with music by Ry Cooder; late edit: also a Grammy winner, for Best Children’s Recording) and The Fool and the Flying Ship (1991). The latter was from a PBS children’s series that featured a number of prominent actors narrating animated folktales.
I am not a person who believes in heaven. I believe that this life is all there is, and when we’re dead, we’re done. Nevertheless, I like to imagine Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, reunited after her death just yesterday, having to move to a different table in the bar because Williams, Richard Pryor (who gave Williams one of his first breaks in showbiz), and George Carlin are laughing too loud at the next table.