I grew up thinking I’d see plenty of actors like Robin Williams, but then I didn’t.
On his comedy, Jeet Heer says: “Robin Williams (like David Foster Wallace) had alien minds: he thought quicker than we did and could make us share in his alien perspective. Williams had a hyper-link mind before hyper-link was invented. He could free-associate faster than you can google. Williams was perhaps the only person in history who snorted cocaine in order to slow down the speed of his mind…Just as Joyce wasn’t just a novelist but really all novelists rolled into one, Williams was all stand-up comedians in one body…As a meta-comedian perhaps Williams’s biggest influence was the TV remote control: he replicated the ever-shifting screen.” (more: https://twitter.com/heerjeet) A commenter responded to this: “This is why, to me looking back, some of his most memorable film work was in ‘Aladdin’. Because he could flash through all these influences/characters without a body slowing him down.”
I find the comparison to a remote control astute. I recall multiple references to channel-surfing in my childhood; the unfocused jumping from one world to another, with dozens or even hundreds (satellite!) of choices, must have been a huge conceptual change to adults of the time. Not only was Williams preternaturally talented; he also met a need of audiences of the time for an artist who could personify the dizzying pace of the new era for people.
And yet before today it had been a long time since I’d seen a Williams performance or heard anyone talk about him, to be honest, but I think a big reason for that which no one has mentioned yet is the culture changed to become more like him, making him seem less unique. “Family Guy” is an obvious example of a show with the same irreverence and free association; on an interpersonal level we’re doing Williams-style free-association constantly through memes and GIFs; conversely, on a personal level we don’t have the same appetite for the media rush and instead find ways to control or channel it.
Comedy aside, Williams’s pathos also clearly had a huge effect on people, and not just because he played Dad so often. Reviews of his sentimental movies are mixed, to be kind, but their emotional core, Williams’s heart seeming to burst out of his body and his face displaying how overcome he was by how MUCH life was, was genuine. Today’s news makes clear to me what I heard him saying in those scenes: that life is overwhelming both for better and for worse, and we can either get away from it by withdrawing or handle it together through kindness.