Robin Williams Was His Own Harshest Critic In Good Morning, Vietnam

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If there was anything that separated Robin Williams from the rest of his comic peers, it was energy. When that man was on stage, he had a boundless mania that was like the human embodiment of the Tasmanian Devil from "Looney Tunes." His mind and mouth would run a mile a minute, and a lot of the time, he was making up whatever he was doing on the spot. When he maneuvered over to television, he found the perfect outlet for that in Mork, the alien on Earth who started off on "Happy Days" and eventually his own sitcom "Mork & Mindy." Not only did him being an alien allow Williams to completely let loose, he was playing to a live studio audience. For a comic, laughter is currency, and Robin Williams knew how to rake it in under those conditions.

On film, things are a little bit different. You don't have an audience to play to, and for comedy, that means no one is there to laugh at your jokes. And the people who are there cannot laugh because the sound would ruin the take. In some ways, it is a rather unnatural outlet to perform comedy in, and judging whether or not you have nailed a successful joke can be enormously tricky.

For Robin Williams, this became a major problem during the making of "Good Morning, Vietnam," the movie that transformed him from a TV actor trying to make it in the big leagues to a full-fledged movie star. The seminal comedic moments of that film feature Williams as a radio DJ for the Armed Forces letting all his energy out on the microphone to entertain his fellow soldiers. However, Williams had trouble determining if anything he was doing in those DJ sessions was funny to anyone.

Always looking to please

Being a radio DJ is so isolating. You're in a soundproof room alone, speaking to an audience who cannot respond. While many have thrived in that position, I cannot imagine the uncertainty of doing that job. I've done podcasts in my life, but I couldn't do one where I was solely speaking into a microphone. I especially couldn't do it if my main objective was to be funny. Even otherworldly funnyman Robin Williams felt that pressure while filming these scenes for "Good Morning, Vietnam." According to the film's director Barry Levinson, as recounted in the book "Robin" by Dave Itzkoff, Williams never knew if what he was doing was working at all:

"He's doing all this free-form spontaneity but he doesn't have an audience ... It's not like you're doing a scene and there's humor to it. Here, he's doing one-liners and characters and no one can laugh. And that was a little difficult."

It didn't help that most of the crew were British or Thai, as the film was shot in Thailand. Much of Williams' ad-libbing would be specific to the American soldiers he was trying to entertain, filled with references that would go over the crew's heads. Levinson even tried bringing in a remote audience to laugh, but that only works on the first take. Producer Mark Johnson said of Williams that he "so wanted to please and for everything to work" and would ask if he personally could fund reshoots for the scenes to try and make them better.

Despite Williams' frustrations, the final product resulted in him becoming one of the biggest movie stars in the world. You want to be able to say, "You're Robin Williams! Of course you're funny!" But the inner-critic is nigh impossible to silence. Even for Robin.