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I don't remember the first time I saw Mork & Mindy, but I know I was young. My parents were TV people and I'd be willing to bet they were watching the show during its initial run in the late '70s, which means I would have been five or six years old the first time I saw him perform. As a young child, I would mimic his peculiar habit of sitting upside down as a very young child and saying "Shazbot" and "Nanu Nanu." (See, TV does warp impressionable young minds.) I remember watching reruns for years, into my early teens, and loving the show's off-kilter humor (all Williams, of course) and goofy take on sci-fi tropes.
Looking back, I realize that Mork & Mindy was a seminal work for my tastes, since it impressed upon me very early on that science fiction could be silly, fun and goofy just as easily as it could be serious or scary. Sure, I probably would have embraced the humor of later space sitcom favorites like Red Dwarf or even Mystery Science Theater 3000 were it not for Mork & Mindy -- but maybe not. In any case, the fact is the show did break me in at an age when I simply accepted that anything put in front of me was the "normal" way of doing things, and that paved the way for all that spaceship silliness to come.
This is nearly all thanks to Williams, of course. Not to knock his supporting cast, but the show was clearly made for him and couldn't have worked for anyone else. Watching it today, the premises are tired, the cliches are everywhere and the whole thing is honestly a bit lackluster. Well, except for Williams, of course. Watching him perform, improvising his way through insane bits and throwing himself into the role with total abandon, is still eye-opening, still inspirational and even still funny in its best moments.
He portrayed the consummate outsider -- a man who desperately wanted to fit in, but never could. And he did it with a sensitivity and pathos that escaped the conscious notice of a pre-teen me, but no doubt managed to sink in on some level. Mork, for all his silliness and his awkwardness and naivete, was a character of great intelligence and empathy, saddened by the hurtful things he saw humans do to one another. Given how Williams died, it's easy to see where that came from. It wasn't acting so much as honesty.
When I want to watch some of Williams's work, which I am sure I will, I doubt it will be Mork & Mindy that I go back to. But when I remember Williams, it's always Mork that I think of -- sensitive and silly, full of observations about human nature both wry and wacky, never afraid to tweak his boss or say some smartass thing that will get him in trouble. If I'm honest, I think that's the person I aspire to be, and I doubt that's a coincidence, even though I no longer ever sit on my head.
Williams has done better work, from his stand-up to his dramatic roles, but in my mind none that personifies the man himself so well, and that's why he'll always be Mork to me.
Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.