Robin Williams runs for office in Man of the Year.
For Man of the Year, Robin Williams’ third collaboration with writer-director Barry Levinson (Good Morning Vietnam, Toys), the multi-talented 55-year-old actor steps into a realm about which he is most passionate: American politics. Williams plays a late-night political talk show host named Tom Dobbs, loosely based on Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who decides on a whim to run for President.
When Williams held court at a recent Los Angeles press day, he quickly turned the discussion into his own State of the Union address. And although he delivered it with the panache that one would expect from “The Man of a Thousand Voices”, it was also apparent that in this election year, Williams is dead serious about the topic of the movie.
Q: There are moments in your new film where Tom Dobbs is really outspoken and frank with reporters. Do you wish that our real politicians were the same way?
A: I long for someone who would speak so directly. I’ve been around a lot of politicians and done benefits for them. You see them before they make a speech and they’re funny; after the speech, you go, “Oh, where’s that [other] guy?” One night I saw [Al] Gore and he was just astonishingly funny. And then the next night, I was going, “Where’d he go?”
If polls determine who you vote for - because the [media] is always suggesting, “How’s the candidate doing in the polls?”- then you’re not going to get interesting people. Interesting people somehow will not test well, because right off the bat, they’re different. As people get to know them, they’ll test well. If a guy all of a sudden spoke his mind, it would be different.
Right now, both parties are in this kind of soundbite, short-attention- span politics mode. I think Barry said it: when he made Wag the Dog , those were optimistic times when things were going fairly well. I think we live in a time where things are not going well; it’s a very cynical time. And in a weird way, Man of the Year is still optimistic, hoping that somewhere out there, there is integrity.
Q: How much ad-libbing are you really doing?
A: I am riffing as Tom Dobbs. You have to keep the comedy easy, versus “going off” the way I would normally go off and really get so energized that people would go, “Oh, a little too much there.” Barry and I also wanted to address issues that were general enough that they would be [relevant] within a certain time frame…things that have been going on constantly for the last ten years, and will probably go on for another ten years, if not addressed.
Q: Did you feel constricted by this?
A: No. I felt free, [as] Barry kept saying, “just keep it relaxed”, as we [kept in mind] the idea that people get afraid whenever they see a candidate get too “out there.” I’ve seen guys do that and all of a sudden you get very excited. But then the spin-doctors come in. They tell the candidates, “in the debate, be nice to your opponent. Treat him as if he’s damaged, as he doesn’t speak too well, so don’t talk about that part.” And you wonder, when is there going to be a guy who gets passionate and angry?
If you watch the live feed from Congress, half the time, it’s empty. They’ll be voting on major bills – we talked about this in the movie – and the Congressmen are gone. They’re in their offices, or they’re running for office again. Most of the time, they’re campaigning. You’re in office for two years, then you have to spend the next two years campaigning. You have to raise lots of money in order to run for office. Why? Because you have to pay for TV time. If you TV time out of the equation, you might have an interesting thing where the [candidates] would be people who didn’t have a lot of money behind them.
Q: If those poor candidates could run for office, do you think the public would pay attention?
A: Well, maybe you would get to know them through the debates, or they [could] only get a certain amount of free TV time to use. There was a thing in The New York Times recently about all these ads, which are basically dueling character assassinations. “He slept with a chicken. He was with a goat.” All this stuff going back and forth about each other, and in the meantime, what is his record? Even then, they will say, “He voted NO. He said mothers should not be allowed to breast feed, EVER! And, ‘I said YES – I even breast fed a child!’ ‘But you can’t, you’re a man!’ ‘Yes, but I tried...’”
Q: Would you ever consider running for political office?
A: No, I can’t run for office - ever. And I don’t want to. I’ve had friends who are talking about it. Dennis Miller at one point wanted to run for office, and still might. Interesting idea, because he’s a bright man, and very opinionated. But also, as he believes, he’s hardcore. And Al Franken, I think he is, or was, thinking of running for office in Minnesota. And after Jesse Ventura, why not? C’mon now, you’ve had a wrestler. Now a comic. And after that, a porn star. The Italians did it. La Cicciolina (Ilona Staller). You don’t have a sex scandal, because she’s had sex with everybody.
Q: You recently took a break. Where did you go, and how are you feeling?
A: Where was I? I was at camp – “Camp Dryout.” And I feel great. I feel dry. I got lucky. Mel [Gibson] did his thing the same day I went into rehab, so [his event received] "a lot more focus," as we say. I’m back, and I feel great. [I’ve heard] from the Enquirer, but I haven’t heard from Mel yet, but I have Jewish agents, so I may not be getting the mail. [But seriously,] I’m feeling good, and I thank all the people who sent love and kindness.
Q: What political comedy or comedians makes you laugh?
A: The funniest thing I’ve seen recently was Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents dinner. That was the bravest, wildest comedy. It’s bravery in the face of attitude. My favorite line was when he said, “A lot of people complain that this administration is like the Titanic. No. This administration is like the Hindenburg. It soars!” There wasn’t much coverage of it, except online. But the fact that it’s still out there is a testimony to the Web, where interesting things survive.
Q: Are you a history buff?
A: Huge. Big-time as a child - wars mostly. I had a great history teacher who said most of human history is hysterically funny, except for the death and the carnage and all that. But you realize the sheer absurdity of what’s been going on has been pretty constant for many thousands of years. That’s what’s fascinating to me.
In Night at the Museum [an upcoming fantasy/comedy, opening December 22, starring Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Ricky Gervais], I play a wax figure of Teddy Roosevelt [who comes to life]. And I realized how amazing it was that he got into office. They put him into the Vice Presidency thinking “That’s it - he’ll never have any real power.” Then all of a sudden, McKinley dies – and boom, he’s President. And [Teddy Roosevelt] starts enacting stuff that the people who put him into power – major industrialists – were going, “What’s he doing?” He stood up for consumer rights, individual rights, rights for children and actually founded what would turn out to be the National Parks system.
[I love] that idea of a courageous man who came along at an amazing time. That’s what I’m looking for now. I don’t care what party you’re from. Someone who’s willing to make some hardcore changes, deal with very unpopular ideas and provide hope.
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