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Robin Williams: A History in 15 Jokes

From a pre-Mork set to a drop-in appearance on ‘Set List’ last year, here’s a stem-to-stern sampling of what this comedian did best: crack people up.

Robin Williams

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After the outpouring of grief and sadness over Robin Williamsdeath by suicide in 2014, it’s been incredibly easy to forget the white-hot spark of life that endeared this performer to audiences to begin with.

This collection of bits — big and small, silly and poignant — touch on everything from his substance-enhanced blasts of the Seventies to measured performances for big crowds in the last several years. Taken as a whole, the one-liners and epic rants remind us of the guy who gave himself to the stage and the crowd, improvising furiously while sweating like a maniac and doing absolutely anything for a laugh.

Young Comedians Show (1977)
In his first HBO appearance, Williams comes off a bit coy and takes some time to get the crowd warm — but he revs them up with what will later become standard bits, including his improvised Shakespearean play: “Look, the moon, like a testicle, hangs low in the sky!”

Live at the Roxy (1978)
In a key moment of what might be the most vibrant and joyful of Williams’s specials, he loses the crowd. So the comic launches into a beautiful, pained dissection of what happens in a bombing comic’s mind — its near the 31:00 mark — that reveals his wonderfully human side. His venomous id caps off the whole dissembling whirlwind of songs, memories and jokes as he flips off the crowd and yells, “What the fuck do you want from me anyway!?” Applause break. The best line comes when he decides he’s going address a topical issue: “I guess I should talk for a moment about the very serious subject of schizophrenia.” “No, he doesn’t” “Shut up, let him talk!” 

Reality…What a Concept (1979)
The comedian could play smart when he wanted to — 10 minutes into this the album, Williams does William F. Buckley interpreting Goldilocks as a metaphor for imperialism in third-world countries. But there are also a bevy of one-liners including, “I wonder what chairs think about all day: “Oh, here comes another asshole.”

Robin’s First Appearance on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson (1981)
Williams wins Carson as they compare notes about cocaine and booze and chat about being a geek in high school, but Williams slips down the rabbit hole when he confesses that even his family expects him to be his TV personality. “‘Mom…?’ ‘Mork, is that you?’”

An Evening with Robin Williams (1982)
One long segment of this early special riffs on grabbing one’s package, masturbating, sperm, baby-making, having kids and finally, Williams getting in an imagined, drunken confrontation with his resentful son. It’s an impressive streak, but his claws come out in drunken, self-deprecating jabs at the 48:30 mark: “I don’t care. I clawed my way to the middle and I fucked my way down.”

At the Comic Strip (1983)
This short clip from gives a sense of the electricity Williams generated while he played smaller clubs. Using his own experience as a jumping-off point, he plays with the idea of going to high school prom on Acid: “No, Mr. Smith, I’ll have Becky back in this dimension real soon! Wings! We’ve got to get those snakes coming out of your eyes fixed!”

An Evening at the Met (1986)
This full-throttle production sums up his early parenthood, his feelings about Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon and a romp in which he personifies a penis for several minutes. As always, there are some zingers about alcohol and drugs: “If on your tax form it says $50,000 for snacks: Mayday. You’ve got yourself a cocaine problem.”

During another section of the same show, Williams addresses a universal question: “Do you think God gets stoned? I think so — look at a Platypus.”

And on gun control in the U.S.: “In England, if you commit a crime, the police don’t have a gun and you don’t have a gun. If you commit a crime, the police will say: ‘Stop, or I’ll say stop again.’”

Whose Line Is It Anyway? (2000)
Williams handles his own with the stalwarts of Whose Line during the show’s “Scenes from a Hat” game, including this quick hit in response to the question, “What is Robin Williams Thinking Right Now?”: “I have a career… what am I doing?”

Live on Broadway (2002)
One of the extended bits highlights Williams’ far-reaching mind while he unpacks his understanding of Biblical history: Joseph of Nazareth becomes Ralph Kramden, Jesus’s brother Jerry does his own miracles and the Last Supper becomes a Chinese buffet. Later, the comic pretends to be Caligula bemoaning the rise of vulgarity on TV: “Why don’t you just have Hannibal Lecter on Iron Chef and kick out the jams?”

Also, in regard to the status of America’s neighbors to the north: “Canada is like a loft apartment over a really great party.”

AFI Tribute to Al Pacino (2007)
This short roast underscores Williams’ knack for incisive jabs about drugs and his own sobriety: “A lot of people thought Scarface was over the top. Anyone who had done a pound of Peruvian blow knows that is documentary.”

Weapons of Self Destruction (2009)
Williams’ last HBO special from is a package of his polished, recent thoughts about politics, sex, a merciless appraisal of his alcoholism and an anecdote about appearing on German TV which shows he did not mind taking risks even as he aged. He is asked, “Why do you think there’s not so much comedy in Germany?” to which he replied, “Did you ever think you killed all the funny people?”

The Comedy Awards (2012)
In addition to the reverence on the faces of comic luminaries such as Louis CK and Amy Poehler, this clip of Williams accepting the Icon Award features worthy one-liners from Williams including, “I am one of the luckiest fucks in show business — with the possible exception of Ryan Seacrest.”

Set List (2013)
One of Williams’ drop-ins to the excellent, improvised Set List show more than proves he had chops later in his life. Among the bits are a complimentary stalker, a crucifixion after party and an introverted dictator reporting from a bunker: “I’ve been down here, just living my life, making insidious plans and telling no one.”

[Editor’s Note: A version of this story was originally published August 12th, 2014]