Mork and Mindy- comic genius meets corporate incompetence
Updated: Jan 19, 2022
Robin Williams, who tragically passed away in 2014 was a true comedy legend. I read an amazing biography about him that came out in 2018 (Robin: The Definitive Biography of Robin Williams by David Itzkoff), and highly recommend it to his fans. He stumbled upon the role of Mork from Ork through a bizarre request from Gary Marshall's son, who had just seen the first Star Wars movie- put an alien on Happy Days- Marshall's 1950's flashback family comedy. Williams walked onto the show with the Fonz and Richie Cunningham and knocked it out of the park.
Robin had amazing wit, intelligence, energy, and charisma, and had mostly been doing stand-up at that point. No one knew who he was. Thanks to the Happy Days stint, Mork from Ork was given his own spin-off situation comedy, set in 1970's Boulder, Colorado. Mork and Mindy starred perky actress Pam Dawber along with Robin Williams, and it quickly climbed to the top of the TV ratings in its first year. A genius comedian with a well known plot device of a fish out of water- what could go wrong?
Unfortunately a lot could go wrong, and it's clear from Williams behavior that he resented how quickly the show went into the toilet by the second year as network executives kept changing the cast, broadcast times, and coming up with weaker plots that failed to let Williams fully utilize his strengths. While Happy Days lasted 11 seasons and its other spin-off Laverne and Shirley lasted 8, Mork and Mindy would quietly be cancelled after season 4, with ratings near the bottom.
I recently watched all four seasons of Mork and Mindy, most episodes of which are unavailable either on streaming services or regular TV. The show's current invisibility may have something to do with Robin Williams' tragic suicide death following a debilitating brain disease, or it could just be because nobody remembers the series that much 40 years after its demise. After Mork went off the air, Williams moved on to become a major film star, with a large and varied list of movies ranging from obscure dramas to popular comedies like Mrs. Doubtfire.
The first season worked because it showcased Williams' manic silliness against the sensibility of Mindy McConnell and her family. The producers added a few extra characters to give Mork more people to play off of- the lunatic Exidor to coax him to crazytown, and the grumpy Mr. Bickley to contrast to his manic energy. Mindy had a dad and grandma who gave her solid roots, and the show seemed to work as a showcase for Robin Williams often improvised riffs on the oddities of human culture. And then at the end he would report back to Orson, his supervisor back on Ork about what he learned that week. It was funny, sweet, and far superior to previous attempts to insert aliens into modern society (Alf, My Favorite Martian, 3rd Rock from the Sun.)
For the second season, producers decided to go for a younger audience and got rid of all the older characters and introduced younger ones. They changed the time slot, which back in those days was a huge deal because streaming and on-demand viewing were unheard of. If you missed the show, you gave up on it. And then the focus shifted from Mork's fish-out-of water antics to more of a romance between Mindy and Mork. Ratings dropped from 3rd to 27th.
By the third season Mork was working in a daycare center and yet more new characters were being added. Attempts to bring back some of the energy of the first season failed and the show dropped to 49th in the ratings. In the fourth season, out of ideas, they resorted to a sitcom chemistry killer- they married off the two leads, and quickly saddled them with a fully-grown son played by Jonathan Winters (explaining that Orkans are born old and age backwards). They ended the show with a bizarre three-parter that blew up Mindy's apartment, put Mork and Mindy on the run from a hostile alien, and threw them into a time warp from which they would never return, because the show got cancelled on a cliffhanger. (The show ended at #60 in the ratings and Williams went on to be a movie star).
The lesson from all of this is that Hollywood and TV networks often have no idea what they're doing. Robin Williams signed a contract but had little control over the show or its writing. He did his schtick and collected his paycheck. Once in a while it was great, but too often it was mediocre. The producers of Mork and Mindy didn't really understand what they had, while the producers of shows like The Simpsons, The Office, and Saturday Night Live made lasting impacts by both understanding their audience and their creative team. It's a delicate dance, but when it works, it's magical.
Even with all of this mismanagement of one of the world's great talents, watching the show is still a joy. Some of Robin Williams' later film roles were very, very dark, and to see him at his funniest and most joyful, even with bad scripts, is worth the trouble. From reading his biography, these years of 1978-1982 were years of increasing fame and also increasing drug use, and his friendship with John Belushi blew up while filming season 4 when Belushi died of a drug overdose, devastating Williams. In season 3 there is an episode where Mork meets Robin Williams, and you get to see some of the pain and confusion that Williams was experiencing back then as he tries to explain the life of a celebrity to his naive alter-ego.
I recommend re-visiting this long lost TV series if you can, as well as reading
David Itzkoff's biography. If you can get audio of his original stand-up routines, that is the best insight into Williams improvisational comic genius, and many are still available on streaming services. Besides being a comic genius, Williams was a kind and generous man, and the stories about him helping homeless people, fellow actors, total strangers, and more are out there if you want to read something inspiring. He called Steven Spielberg regularly during the filming of Schindler's List to pick him up during the grim story that was unfolding. He visited hospital wards, did telethons, started a foundation, and performed many personal acts of kindness. Read about some of them here. From what I've read, most Hollywood actors are not nearly as nice as this in person. Here's one excerpt to showcase this beautiful, complicated man:
"Robin Williams was the nicest person I've ever met in the course of the celebrities I've encountered. He was at an event I attended as a guest — on the fly, he agreed to get up and do a half-hour set of stand-up for nothing in return. After his performance, he was trying to get some water outside — it was probably close to 100 degrees, and he got stopped at least 40 times. He stayed all evening, spoke to every single person who wanted to chat with him, and was the perfect celebrity guest — he took pictures, smiled, and signed autographs for every single person there."
Below is one of my favorite scenes from Mork and Mindy, showing the power and energy of Williams that was apparent in his stand-up routines and occasionally on this show. Enjoy.