All right, interview time. You’ve been doing interviews in advance of the publication of Happy Talk, your new novel out this month from Red Lemonade, but nothing quite like this. A self-interview is, I believe, a first for you. Let’s start by asking if there is anything you’d rather not get asked.
I’d like not to talk about my failed Robin Williams impression.
Let’s start there then with why, why teach yourself a Robin Williams impression? I mean, why not Chevy Chase?
I thought it would be funny to be able to leave voicemail messages as Robin Williams or maybe do a podcast. I don’t know any other novelists doing that right now. I used to do a Bill Cosby and Dan Aykroyd and thought a Robin Williams impression would catapult me to a whole ‘nother level. Alas, there’s a chance I don’t have the right vocal apparatus to ever do a Robin Williams, as I always end up sounding more like Big Bird. I might switch gears and try out an Albert Brooks.
When did you start working on your Robin Williams?
‘Twas 2007. I spent the summer with some old Robin Williams comedy albums. I listened to them so often that they stopped being funny and started making my head spin. I thought after a while, the records would seep into my subconscious, and that Robin Williams’ speech pattern would come on naturally. I’m still waiting for that to happen. My wife was none too pleased with my diligence that summer, as I never managed to take my impression beyond a few exclamatory noises that sound more like our hard-working carpenter friend Paul Smith than Robin Williams, and just to be clear, our hard-working carpenter friend Paul Smith sounds nothing like Robin Williams.
You’re not still working on this, are you?
Yes, but in secret. Usually, it’s early in the morning when everyone in the house is still asleep, and I’m pretending that I’m writing. That’s the best time for my nano-nano.
That transitions us nicely into my next question: Have your attempts at a Robin Williams had anything to do with your novels?
It goes back to that Jack Kerouac line in On the Road, “…the only people for me are the mad ones,” and my own credo that novels are never better than when they have many of the mad qualities of, say, a Robin Williams. When Robin Williams does standup, it’s like he’s wearing his nerves on the outside of his skin. He can talk faster than my ear can hear, and he volleys emotional states back and forth at such a velocity that it would leave most people with serious whiplash. When he’s onstage, you get a heavy sense of his self-loathing and inadequacy but also his childlike glee when he hears laughter and applause. As far as comedians go, he’s so-gosh-darn impressive though just as often a disappointment, he’s as extraordinary as he is ordinary, and he’s hysterically funny though sometimes it’s an embarrassed, squirmy laughter he evokes. He’s the most alienating, likeable comedian I’ve ever seen, always playing the extremes and taking big-time risks. I may sound critical, but when it comes to Robin Williams, I have nothing but admiration.
But are you saying your close study of Robin Williams has influenced your writing?
You don’t see that as a bit, um, problematic?
It’s very problematic. So much of Robin Williams’ comedy and charm are less grounded in writing and wit than his delivery and spontaneity. Novel dialogue flourishes when speakers get to their point quickly, and that’s not what you get from Robin Williams. He also breaks into accents, voices, and song and dance routines without warning — which is also complicated for a novelist to mimic. Another of my writing credos is always to seek out good novel stuff — the type of narrative material ideally suited for longform prose. Robin Williams is not made from good novel stuff. In my mind, Robin Williams may just be plain, old unwriteable. Love the guy, can’t write the guy.
So you’re saying Robin Williams doesn’t influence your writing?
I’m not saying that at all. There are writing elements I’ve taken straight from Robin Williams. For example, in my novel Happy Talk, I gave the dialogue a spontaneous, improvised quality, as if the characters had no idea what they were going to say until the words were flying out their mouths. There are things my characters say they immediately wish they could have back. There are other moments when characters are really proud after having said something they didn’t know they had in them.
To close, is there anything you learned from your failed attempt at a Robin Williams impression that you’d like to share with the more talented and dedicated mimics in our reading audience?
A Robin Williams impression is tough partly because he doesn’t have a bunch of recognizable catch phrases (like Steve Martin’s “Excuuuuuuuuuuuse me!”) unless you want to go back all the way to Mork or Popeye days. He does have some verbal tics, like “Goddamn,” but they aren’t exactly specific to him, and the way he says it sounds more like “Guddemme” with a hurried and exaggerated accent on the second syllable. Robin Williams’ normal speaking voice sounds otherworldly, and for whatever reason I just can’t get the accents and cadence right. It’s further complicated in that he breaks into several other regional accents (for example, his Russian guy or evangelist preacher), so performing a comprehensive Robin Williams imitation would take learning five or six different ambiguous accents and voices. On the bright side, Robin Williams’ own impressions sound alike, so if you can teach yourself to do his Jack Nicolson, then you’ve also taught yourself his Mister Rogers, which is good. My last piece of advice to aspiring Robin Williamses would be to take a few random Robin Williams phrases (for example, “Now is not the time, my child” or “Thank you, thank you, let’s get down and funky”) and working those over until you get it right, and more power to ya!
RICHARD MELO [1968- ] landed in Portland, OR after fleeing San Francisco in the early 1990s. California was too costly for someone like Melo with such complete lack of ambition for anything other than the novels galloping along inside his head. While other young people flourished in San Francisco’s dot com boom (producing remarkable achievements like pets.com), Melo ran movie projectors and did AmeriCorps in Portland while scribbling away at his first novel. He has now lived in the beautiful Pacific Northwest long enough to have been caricatured on Portlandia (the episode titled ‘Grover’), a pleasure all the city’s residents will have had by the time the show reaches the mid-point of its fourth season. He has also published two novels.