His humor often touched on politics, and often it was quite biting. At a concert in 2009, he said of George W. Bush, who had just left office: “Yes, it is the end of the reign of George the Second. The reign of error is over. America is officially out of rehab.” On Johnny Carson’s second-to-last “Tonight Show” in 1992, Williams said of Dan Quayle: “He’s one taco short of the combination plate.” His 2009 “Weapons of Self Destruction” concert featured jokes about Sarah Palin’s intelligence, Joseph Biden’s gaffes and Bill Clinton’s womanizing.
Yet the frenetic, free-association of Williams’ performances mitigated any partisan sting. He was never recognized as a political comic in the nature of Bill Maher, Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, even if there was little doubt that his politics leaned left. He appeared at a Democratic salute to President Bill Clinton in 2000, and even testified on homelessness before a Senate committee chaired by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Instead, tributes that poured in focused on his impact on pop culture, whether from his breakthrough in “Mork & Mindy” or his Oscar-nominated performances in movies like the uplifting “Dead Poets Society.” His material for improvisation, whether politics or society, seemed to come out of thin air, and as the New York Times noted, he didn’t seem to offend anyone.
“Great comedian and actor who brought joy to so many,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), wrote on Twitter. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that “the world has lost a great genius and San Francisco has lost a loyal friend.”
Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), whose district includes Boulder, where “Mork & Mindy” was based, dressed in a Mork-like outfit and stood in front of the home exterior used in the show. “U Will Be Missed Mork” read a sign next to him. He posted the photo on Twitter.
“He arrived in our lives as an alien, but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit,” President Obama said in a statement.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said in a statement, “Robin, more than anyone I know, would have seen the tragic irony in this devastating day. That a man who made so many laugh, who made so many happy, who touched so many, who gave himself to others all through his life both publicly and privately, would succumb to a disease that left him feeling so alone, is just too sad to bear.”
Off screen and off stage, Williams’ biggest impact was perhaps in support of the troops, entertaining soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. In 2008, “Nobody had our back more than the great Robin Williams,” wrote Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America. In 2011, Williams appeared in a dramatic role on Broadway, in an adaption of “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” set during the American occupation of Iraq. Palin linked to a performance that Williams gave in Kuwait.
The U.S. Air Force tweeted out one of Williams’ signature lines, from “Good Morning Vietnam,” in which he played irreverent armed forces radio DJ Adrian Cronauer:
— U.S. Air Force (@usairforce) August 12, 2014