LEGACY

08.13.14

The Political Passion of Robin Williams, From Reagan-Bashing to AIDS Prevention

Though much of his political comedy was mediocre, the beloved entertainer lent his celebrity to numerous worthwhile causes throughout his lifetime.

Odds are that if you’re a famous comedian, you are a distinctly political person. Bill Hicks raged against the CIA and the Reaganites. Janeane Garofalo bashed President George W. Bush so much over the invasion of Iraq that it likely cost her her own ABC sitcom. And Bill Maher, John Oliver, and Jon Stewart all host politics-driven comedy shows on cable TV.

The late, great Robin Williams wasn’t a radical like Hicks or Lenny Bruce (the namesake of Williams’ dog, in fact), nor was he a hardcore partisan activist like Garofalo. He was, however, reliably political—as well as reliably liberal—in a fair amount of his stand-up comedy. As Slate’s Dave Weigel notes, Williams donated tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates over the years, and often engaged in unremarkable, red-meat-ish commentary. “George W. Bush was stupid; John Ashcroft lost to a dead man; etc,” Weigel writes. “There are good reasons why these routines are not making it into the tributes to Williams.”

This is true. Political humor was never Williams’ forte (stuff like this was), and there’s nothing wrong with that. There was a laziness to much of how he weighed in on the big political topics of the day: Wall Street traders are “junkies” in power suits. Impeaching Clinton over a blow job was silly, and so on. Here he is on a Real Time with Bill Maher panel in 2005 inserting funny voices and gay-sex jokes in between serious points made by Joe Biden and Tommy Thompson:

So Robin Williams was no great political thinker. But who ever wanted him to be? He wasn’t anything like the Jon Stewart-esque fake president he played in Man of the Year or the real one he portrayed in The Butler, and we’re all better for it. So much of his comedy, political and otherwise, was done in the service of promoting charitable causes and awareness, not pushing ideology.

His work with organizations such as the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and Comic Relief is well known. In the late 1980s—at a time when he was touring the country and slamming Ronald Reagan as “the world’s largest Muppet”—Williams was in huge demand on the benefit-concert circuit, in particular in the areas of AIDS prevention and helping the homeless.

“New York looks like Bombay,” Williams told the Associated Press in 1989. “People are stepping over other people. Two people froze to death last night. You go to Grand Central Station and people are stacked like cord wood…For me, the most horrifying thing is that there are children. You can’t not be moved when you see a child in these shelters, when they’re living in these big, open dorms.”

“It’s an understatement to say he’s the Bob Hope of our generation,” retired Adm. Frank Thorp said.

In that same interview, Williams discussed the horror of watching his friends and artists he admired fall victim to HIV/AIDS—and how proud he was of a Saturday Night Live segment he did that taught kids a lesson on safe sex.

“I was trying to reach people other than people who know about [condoms], trying to reach 14-year-olds: ‘It’s a balloon. I know, it’s difficult,’” he said. “‘Use it. Inflate it. Put it on. It’s a bathing cap of love. Don’t be afraid.’ ‘Uh, well, I’ll lose my sensitivity.’ ‘Yeah, you’re real sensitive. SLAP! Wake up! Wise up, Sparkie!’”

In later years, Williams began devoting his time to another cause that transcended party lines: Making our men and women in uniform laugh. He traveled to 13 countries as part of six USO tours. In his 12 years of volunteering, he performed for over 89,400 service men and women. “It’s an understatement to say he’s the Bob Hope of our generation,” retired Adm. Frank Thorp said. Here’s footage of him on-stage in Baghdad in 2010:

“The entire Department of Defense community mourns the loss of Robin Williams,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a statement Monday. “Robin was a gifted actor and comedian, but he was also a true friend and supporter of our troops. From entertaining thousands of service men and women in war zones, to his philanthropy that helped veterans struggling with hidden wounds of war, he was a loyal and compassionate advocate for all who serve this nation in uniform.”

Williams explained decades ago how he came to be more selective and careful of the causes he supported and helped raise money for.

“The problem is you don’t want to end up being like someone who would go to the opening of an envelope,” he said. “You diminish your power; you also diminish your ability to help the cause if you start doing every cause.”

And that’s the thing about Robin Williams: He cared deeply about people, not politics, and his activism reflected that.