Behind the Camera: Mork & Mindy

These executives would come to the show and the audiences were going nuts, and you could see them not knowing when to laugh or how to laugh, but kind of laughing in response to other people laughing.
— Robin Williams, Interview (April 2002)

“Rich, rich, within my wildest dreams!” Robin Williams (Chris Diamantopoulos) is kidding, in the first minutes of Behind the Camera: Mork & Mindy. But you know better, because you’ve seen too many of these Behind the Camera pseudo-exposes. You know that the scene in the park, where antic Robin is entertaining passers-by for coins and encouraged by his lovely wife Val (Michelle Harrison), will soon be very, very rich, and that he will pay for his ambition and recklessness and especially, his betrayal of that wife.

Sort of. The other thing you know from enduring too much scandalicious tv is that the hero — here a comic genius and eventual Oscar winner — will be redeemed and that Val will bear the heaviest burden, even if she does so offscreen (as she suggests early on, his street performing seems symptomatic of a fear of achievement: “For you, success is selling out,” she offers, very nicely). This is Williams’ and so, Diamantopoulos’ show, and he puffs up to fill the frame just like Williams tends to do — in fact, he’s so good at imitating Williams that it makes Williams look a little less brilliant. If he’s so easy to copy, then what’s the big originality deal, anyway?

The formula (tired the moment it was applied to Charlie’s Angels and then again to Three’s Company) emulates Behind the Music: a rapid rise, tragic fall, and feeble/noble comeback, but without rock stars and with eager young actors made up to look vaguely like tv stars of yore. The story is well-known: Williams did a guest bit on Happy Days, spun off into Mork & Mindy, and enjoyed the excesses granted by fame for a few years, in the process cheating on his wife and leaving John Belushi to die one fateful night at the Chateau Marmont Hotel (reportedly, he wasn’t there for the overdose, just some rowdy behavior during the day).

Written by David Misch, who wrote for Mork & Mindy some 23 years ago, the movie sticks mainly to the sensational surface of the show’s brief run and Williams’ misbehaviors. The network executives are the villains (the embodiment never even has a face on camera, just a parrot on a stand and a program schedule board in front of him, where he controls the fates of casts and crews by moving colored note cards from one timeslot to another). The series per se appears a brainchild of producer Garry Marshall (Daniel Roebuck), inspired by his young son’s love of Star Wars to drop a Martian onto Fonzie’s turf. In the slapdash-seeming scene designed to introduce the Happy Days set, (and the adjoining Laverne & Shirley set, where Garry’s sister Penny [Stacy Fair] is contending with Cindy Williams’ [Kirsten Robek] ridiculous competition over “crappy lines” and dressing room size), the camera relentlessly circles central players Henry Winkler (David Josefsberg) and Ron Howard (Shaw Madson). The effect is dizzying, but the point is lost: they’re delirious with success? Menaced by impending trouble? enclosed by their mutual admiration? While it’s hard to say for sure, it’s even harder to care: the actors look uncomfortable in their imitative get-ups and besides, they’re only on board to introduce Mork.

Unsurprisingly, the “discovery” of Mork is rendered as if Marshall and producer Harvey Severson (David Richmond-Peck) are stumbling on liquid gold. Called in for the audition (following a performance with Richard Pryor, who advises, “You’ll do fine man, you’re cute and white, me, I’m scary and black”), Williams throws himself wide open without a script (“Don’t need one, I’m an alien”), and literally leaves his two-man audience with their mouths agape. “What was that?” moans Harvey once the whirlwind has left the room. “I don’t know,” chortles Marshall, “But I want it on my show!” Though Marshall later tries to temper Williams’ spastic energies on the Happy Days set (“Robin, maybe a little less caffeine”), everyone is thrilled with the star’s instant popularity (here called “buzz”). And so, he gets a show.

Apparently, there’s a joke here, that Marshall selected Pam Dawber (Erinn Hayes) based on a shampoo commercial he happened to see (I love my hair!”). Just so, she’s presented throughout the movie as a nice, naïve, wholly dull girl (one reporter observes, “Let’s face it, there’d be a big audience for a show called Mork & Furniture“). She puts up with Williams’ fights with the network censors, who are on set with notepads and scowls, and whom Williams dismisses with a one-liner case: “We’re doing black comedy, you’re turning it into gray comedy: it doesn’t work.” Such logic — this is a sitcom featuring a red-suited, hairy-chested manchild from Ork — seems unlikely to win over the nervous nellies who preceded the FCC, but the film spends precious little time on this most interesting of subjects.

Instead, it lurches ahead (because it can’t do more than one thing at a time) to the increasing bad behavior, arguments with writers and directors and partying off-set in blue-lit nightclubs. Though Val tries to keep up, she doesn’t use the same pick-me-ups as Robin, and so she soon abandons the effort, meaning that he’s out all night at Travolta’s or De Niro’s, then explaining his absence as the results of all the “pressure” he feels, working in the “sitcom mines.” (And to remind you how scary fans can be, the film includes a scene where a maniacal horde tries to knock over a phone booth containing your hero.)

The movie can’t seem to get its head around Williams’ criminal or just plain callous and selfish behavior, and so it makes allusions to “women” (mostly through Val’s sad face and one or two outbursts: “It’s like I’m your audience. You show up, do a set, then you’re off to the next club”) and uses easy bad-boy tragedy John Belushi (Tyler Labine) as its primary object lesson. Val leaves and returns a few times (the movie stops with the end of Mork, so the divorce and remarriage are missing, as are the career-effects of Popeye and Garp), Williams gets a bloody nose, and the show tanks, despite all efforts to revive it with “jiggle,” chief among these efforts being a guest spot for dominatrix Raquel Welch.

Granted, the Behind the Camera formula prohibits much excavation, and a tight focus on the years and material that have to do directly with the popular series under scrutiny. Still, this project’s utter vacuity is striking, as it looks not at Williams or Val’s or even Garry Marshall’s complexities, but rather, skates along the sensational symptoms. “You can’t spend your whole life like a kid in a candy store grabbing whatever’s in front of you,” warns Val, but Behind the Camera: Mork & Mindy does exactly that. No considerations of network politics, marketing devices, cultural contexts, audience expectations, Williams’ personal demons, or even alien sex. Instead, it delivers the laziest sort of tabloidish hubbub, cacophonous and bland.