On 11 August 2014, superstar comedian and actor Robin Williams committed suicide at his home in Paradise Cay, California at the age of sixty three. An artist who continually struggled with drug and alcohol dependency (going in and out of rehabilitation centres throughout the years) as well as someone who wrestled with mental illness and depression, Williams would shoot to stardom from working the stand-up comedy circuit before landing a guest role as erratic and nutsy alien Mork from Ork on the Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan” (a play on the classic sixties sitcom My Favorite Martian (1963–1966)). This would ultimately act as a backseat pilot for the character who would soon receive his own sitcom Mork & Mindy (1978–1982) – a successful and beloved show that ran on the coattails of Williams’s impressive improvisational skills and masterful handling of broad physical comedy. Of course the series would also counter Williams’s irreverent insanity and playfulness with sturdy situation comedy writing that would be anchored primarily by the lovely and talented Pam Dawber as the titular Mindy McConnell – a compassionate and understanding young woman who teaches Mork what it “means to be human”.
With a magnetic chemistry set in place, Williams and Dawber would bounce off one another in a sitcom devoted to understanding American culture and institutions through the eyes of the ultimate outsider – a thematic arc that would resurface in sitcoms such as Small Wonder (1985–1989)and Perfect Strangers (1986–1993). This lesson learning would lend a lot of opportunity for many moving and heart wrenching maudlin moments throughout Mork & Mindy’s run – and with Robin Williams being a comic who most definitely enjoyed (and was very good at) tipping into the realm of heartbreak and watery eyed dramatics, Mork & Mindy would quite often shift its focus from highly energised frantic gag-a-minute craziness to solemn, introspective, quiet snippets of delicate sentimentality.
However, referring back to the preface of this piece in addressing the suicide of Robin Williams, one episode sticks out like a sore thumb in its eerie foreshadowing of future events to come. Amidst the shock of Williams’s death, global conversation would spark scrutinising the concerns born from the role of celebrity and the perils that come with living in the limelight – thirty three years before this Hollywood legend ended it all, an episode of Mork & Mindy would detail the frailty of stardom and the desperate agony of never being allowed to have one moment alone. “Mork Meets Robin Williams” is a chilling example of life imitating art and brings the topic of public responsibility to the foreground with the very reasonable highly articulated notion that “sometimes stars need some time out” as the formative backbone to the core issue at hand.
The episode opens with a keen focus on Mindy’s newfound career as a local reporter which is a detail that is essential not only for the plot of the episode, but something that feeds her character as a young working class girl finally achieving aspects of success that she has worked hard for. Mindy is on the telephone to her boss with the intention of getting an interview with “a famous comedian” and her drive and ambition propels the story forward. When Robin Williams enters the scene as Mork, he gets a massive applause from the studio audience, and coming into shot ready to interact with his co-star Dawber, we understand his appeal and popularity outside the trappings of the sitcom itself. Even to the naked virginal Mork & Mindy eye, the common belief here would be that this frizzy haired, impish and hyperactive joker is a massive star, loved by millions.
With bouncy back and forths delivered from straight (wo)man Dawber and crazed clown Williams, such as:
MINDY: Don’t forget to hold in your stomach!
MORK: Don’t forget to hold in your thighs!
The episode throws itself into semi-meta material where Mork is “introduced” to the idea and religion of celebrity via the existence of a comedian that is incredibly successful. When Mindy tells him that she will hopefully be interviewing Robin Williams, Mork responds with “Who?” He also makes fun of his name and explains to Mindy that “Robin” means something vulgar back on his home planet of Ork. When he whispers the Orkian meaning of “Robin” in Mindy’s ear, she pulls an offended face, exclaiming “Oh that’s disgusting!”
The concept of celebrity as something meaningless to an alien being who can only hear profanity is a profound statement here in this episode of Mork & Mindy, in that the finely tuned balance between darting to and fro from performer and artistry to conceptual reflexive knowledge and personal analysis is a mesmerizing and complicated nuanced examination of not only character and vocation, but the self-worth of a baggy pants clown.
Mork is perplexed as to why Mindy is so desperate to interview this Robin Williams person, so she explains: “A lot of people on earth are real interested in what celebrities have to say”. Mindy also tells Mork that she thinks he looks a lot like Robin Williams (a physical linkage is established) but Mork insists on criticising the comic – he mocks the record cover sporting Williams’s face etc – and in doing this, Mork trivializes the seemingly important role of Robin Williams in the world of entertainment. What is happening here is more than surface laugh inducing gags with a meta-edge, instead, we have the mask of the character of Mork permitted a moment on mass commercial television to comment on his “real life” counterpart – and in many regards, the real tragedy here is that the “mask” has a concerning disdain and flippant disrespect for the tortured clown behind Mork. This aspect of “character” commenting on and passing judgement on “performer” can be a confronting dichotomy, and the intricate and delicate equilibrium between reality and fantasy and comfort and disorder is a controversial insight into mental and emotional stability. Magically, what could be unnerving in an off putting sense is manipulated beautifully by the incredibly emotionally aware Robin Williams both as Mork and later in the episode, as himself. Williams has a sturdy control on his emotional availability and much like performers such as Danny Kaye and Gene Wilder before him, he could turn on the flamboyance and the comedy, but just as easily bring his audience to tears with a simple gesture or expression.
“Mork Meets Robin Williams” taps into the cult of celebrity and examines the influence of fandom over grounded earthy friendship. The mere presence of this popular comic starts to infiltrate and influence personal connections throughout the episode. When Mindy finds out that Robin Williams had visited Da Vinci’s (a restaurant her friends, siblings Jeannie (Gina Hecht) and Remo (Jay Thomas) own), her friendship with them is tested because they had forgotten to let her know. And with the rumour that Robin Williams would return to Da Vinci’s, the usually subdued Boulder Italian eatery is buzzing with excitement, loaded with people ready to catch a glimpse of their favorite comedy star. WASP friend/foil Nelson (Jim Staahl) even insults Mindy by calling her “Some kind of groupie!” This all culminates when Mork enters Da Vinci’s, and people (believing him to be Robin Williams) crowd him and swamp him, chasing him out of the restaurant and onto the streets. Technically, this is a strange scene and somewhat cinematic in its depiction of mass crowds chasing after Mork/Robin Williams. It aesthetically lives outside of the television studio format and with that comes a sense of pseudo-realism in its depiction of actual fans getting a piece of this damaged comedian.
The frenzy of celebrity chasing also leads to the normally honest and good Mindy lying as she pretends to be leading media figure Barbara Walters in order to land an interview, while Mindy’s boss comes to represent the everyday Joe who seems to be trapped by the perils of overbearing responsibility. He drinks to handle stress and this is a correlative thematic nerve that connects substance abuse to handling high demands – the difference here is that he is to suffer in silence, while even a star’s personal vices are up for the world to see.
With the public thinking that Mork is Robin Williams (he returns to Mindy’s house with his clothes ripped to shreds and in a state of panic), the dark side of never getting a moment’s peace come crashing into the heart of the piece, delivering the fear it instils in the usually happy go lucky Mork. With Mindy as his emotional anchor, Mork tries to understand fandom and the hazards that come with show business and stardom, and although during the early moments of the episode these themes are given a comic injection, things suddenly turn rather grim and meditative as the show progresses. This second wave begins when Mork and Mindy are mobbed outside the stage door – once again, fans waiting to meet Robin Williams mistake the alien as the famous comedian – and they are rushed inside by a concerned security guard. Here again, this sequence looks vividly different from the studio audience set-up, it reads in filmic terms and breathes with a celluloid pulse: the mobbing of Mork/Robin Williams is possibly a real account of fandom. When Mork and Mindy are allowed in Robin Williams’s dressing room, the show turns dark and morphs into sitcom therapy with Mork undermining the role of stars, while his meta-counter Robin Williams gets a huge applause from the studio audience (a bizarre bookend to Mork’s first appearance on the episode).
With use of Hayley Mills/The Parent Trap (1961) gag to keep Robin Williams and Mork in the same shot (and the use of some not-so-convincing stand in performers), the sequence unravels with Robin Williams granting Mindy her interview. During the course of the chit chat, Mindy is saddened by Williams’s loss of identity, struggle with personal space, addiction to his work, inability to “switch off” and his endless servitude to his public. She coins a weighty sentiment with: “The comedian who can’t say no.” Robin Williams’s desperation for people to like him (stemming from childhood) is discussed and thoughtfully plotted under the microscopic lens, and this tortured and tragic alienated clown is given a moment of counsel and deeply philosophical introspection. Mindy suggests “If you learnt to say “no” you’ll have more time for yourself”, and following this without a moment’s pause is Robin Williams’s response: “Maybe that’s the last thing I want.” This quiet and deeply sombre confessionary summarises the artist who just cannot disconnect from their work and if they are forced to “deal with themselves” they would implode. The hit therapy musical A Chorus Line (originally performed in 1975) would be influential in sitcoms such as Mork & Mindy (the episode “Reflections and Regrets” would use the format of personal exorcism as its fundamental root), and in that Pulitzer Prize winning success story about dancers auditioning for a new Broadway show, one of them confesses: “Give me lines to read, just don’t get me to talk. I can’t do that.” In “Mork Meets Robin Williams” this is exactly the same sentiment – that performers purely on earth to entertain are there for their audience, and seldom there for themselves.
When Mork attempts to break the seriousness of the episode (“You’re breaking her perky little heart”), Mindy sacrifices her burgeoning career as a journalist and wishes to give Robin Williams space. She refuses to interview him and wishes to allow him a sense of personal freedom. Williams however grants her something even better – an on-camera interview before leaving to tour (once again, the artist who doesn’t stop). In this seldom discussed Very Special Episode, the frightening aspects of stardom are simmered when Robin Williams talks about the characters that he created as a child that could speak for him and do things for him; the mask he created (Mork from Mork & Mindy being just another one) to cope. As Mindy and Mork follow Robin Williams out to watch him perform, they remark “hear that applause!” and Mork turns around to take one more look at the dressing room and mouths a triumphant “Yeah!” – when fame brings so many people so much joy, somehow the loneliness, isolation, addiction, questioning of self-worth and denial of privacy seems all worthwhile (but with a heavy price).
When Mork reports back to his leader Orson (voiced by Ralph James) from Ork, he discusses the personal sacrifices celebrities endure in order to serve the public and their art. Orson remains confused by the notion of humans taking issue in being success stories (“Isn’t being famous a good thing?”), but Mork teaches his godly superior that fame can be personally damaging and also fatal. He lists stars that died in their prime; wither from drug overdoses such as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Lenny Bruce or by suicide such as comic legend Freddie Prinze and finally John Lennon, who was killed by deranged Beatles fan Mark David Chapman only less than two months before the episode aired. The incredibly sombre coda to the show, with a teary eyed Mork/Robin Williams talking about stars from film, music and comedy who had died is a creepy forewarning and revelation into his own personal demise.
Lee Gambin’s two volume book Tonight, On a Very Special Episode: When TV Sitcoms Sometimes Got Serious is available through Amazon, Goodreads and other outlets. Published by BearManor Press.