In this new series, I look at some of the most revered and/or notorious comedy specials of all time to see how they hold up today. Some I’ve seen and will be rewatching; others will be new to me. But they have to have survived to become classics.
This week I’m focusing on Robin Williams’s 1986 special An Evening At The Met. Williams died seven years ago this month, and his absence is still felt—throughout the entertainment industry and also by generations of fans. Just imagine his material about the pandemic.
While I’d seen later Williams specials—his Live On Broadway is a favourite—I decided to watch this one because he was clearly at a turning point in his life and career. He had recently became a father, and had stopped his cocaine habit—both of which are touched on beautifully in the show. And he was about to tackle some different acting challenges.
Recent Williams biographer Dave Itzkoff named this special his favourite, so I figured I needed to watch it. And I’m very glad I did. It’s got one of the best endings I’ve ever seen—one in which you’ll be simultaneously laughing and crying. Which is an appropriate reaction for this comic who understood the depths of despair.
Robin Williams: An Evening At The Met, in which the comic genius takes to the massive stage of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera in 1986 and hits all his high notes while occasionally recreating being high. It’s unavailable on any streaming site, but sections of it appear on YouTube.
Best known for
His rant about '80s politics, his merciless look at doing drugs and alcohol, his frank examination of sex, and his extended story about becoming a father.
In 1986, Williams was already a bonafide star—one of his first jokes in the special is “How do you get to the Met? Money.” He had done Mork and Mindy and Moscow On The Hudson and ensembles like Club Paradise. But a year later he would take on Good Morning, Vietnam, which was perfectly tailored to his talents, and eventually more serious works like Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, and The Fisher King. Ten years after this special he would win an Oscar for Good Will Hunting.
A CD of selections from this special was released the same year (Live At The Met), and went on to win a Grammy. It’s hard to imagine any working comic not being affected and influenced by his manic wit, his brutally honest stock-taking about his substance abuse and his clear-eyed understanding of the human condition.
The prestigious venue elicits some fine material from Williams, from his opening joke (“I wonder if Pavarotti is down at the Improv going, ‘Two Jews walk into a bar…’?”) to his encore, a rap about opera in which he wields a helmet that looks like it’s from Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
What holds up well today
Many stand-ups have chronicled their experiences with drugs and alcohol—Richard Pryor’s disastrous free-basing sequence is the gold standard. Williams’s approach to his history of substance abuse is pure genius—and ironically so fast-paced that you almost have to be on cocaine to get every joke.
One minute he’s got a bit about the connection between baseball and coke—the white line, the signals from the third base coach, and, most brilliantly, a recreation of old footage of Babe Ruth—while the next he’s comparing addiction to marathon running.
His extended routine about the sexual-mating dance is so universal it would kill on a stage today. And his conversation with his penis—at one point he interrogates it, as if in court—is sharp, insightful, and beautifully physicalized.
All of that leads to the special’s best routine, about becoming a father. It’s here that his comedy rises to a new level, as he adds heart and soul to his act. Like the best artists, Williams makes you see the world around you in a whole new way: the characters at Disneyland, childhood toys.
When he says about life, in the special’s final moments, “Maybe along the way you take my hand, tell a few jokes, and have some fun”, it adds up to a perfect distillation of his spirit and legacy.
What doesn’t hold up well today
There’s an awful lot of '80s political humour in the special, with special attention to then president Ronald Reagan, whom he compares to an animatronic puppet invented by Walt Disney or manipulated by Jim Henson.
You can see the seeds of his “Fosse! Fosse! Fosse! Martha Graham! Martha Graham! Martha Graham!” routine from The Birdcage (1996) in a quick bit about a choreographer working with pro football players. But the routine is done with affection, and the joke arises from the prestigious venue.
There are a few racial and cultural stereotypes—Asian drivers, non-white hospital attendants, white Southern cops—but they don’t take up much time, and again, they’re not done in a mean-spirited way. More fascinating are the prescient bits—about one day voting for a female president (lots of applause), and the inevitable effects of pollution on the earth.
If you ever need to be reminded of Williams’s brilliance, watch this special. It’s like he’s devoured all of pop culture and synthesized it in one, jam-packed hour.