In 1978, Robin Williams was a wildly anarchic improv comic. Then came Mork and Mindy. The show made Williams a star, and having just finished rewatching the first season, it’s easy to see why.
The concept — alien visitor tries to make sense of life on Earth with the help of Mindy (Pam Dawber) sounded like a rehash of My Favorite Martian, which had Ray Walston as the ET moving in with reporter Bill Bixby. Williams made Mork much much more. His manic, hyper-energetic delivery (I’m not surprised to read he was a heavy cocaine user around this time) makes even mildly weird lines sound bizarre. And many of his antics are several times weirder: falling in love with a mannequin or going around the bend when Mindy’s frenemy Susan (Morgan Fairchild) tries to seduce him. The episode where he lets go of his repressed emotions and becomes an impulsive whirlwind has to be seen to be believed. Not that all the episodes were that crazy: one where Mork and Bickley (Tom Poston) go to a singles bar could have been done on almost any show with two single male characters.
Dawber is competent as Mindy, but suffers from being straight man to Williams’ scene stealing. They do work well together, though, giving Mork a warmth he might not otherwise have. The supporting cast includes Mindy’s long-suffering father (Conrad Janis) and Exidor (Robert Donner), a street-corner prophet who makes Mork look almost normal. In one episode, Mork adopts a caterpillar as a pet; Exidor declares it’s the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln (“Does that look like a face that would tolerate slavery?”).
It may be significant that where Walston’s Martin seems like a nice, avuncular guy to hang with, Mork would be a lot harder to endure for long. Alf, the 1980s’ contribution to this kind of sitcom, was even more annoying and the My Favorite Martian movie made Martin as irritating as Mork, without any of the warmth.
The show ended the first season as a solid hit, but the producers then tampered with success, changing the supporting cast and (I’m going by critical reviews here, as I missed most of that season) making Mork increasingly mundane. Third season attempted to fix this, first by acknowledging the problem: by the first episode of S3, Mork has completely assimilated and become mundane. It takes an “eggorcism” (eggs play a big role on Mork’s home planet, Ork) to restore him to his goofy self. Fourth season, they tried to keep things going with that old reliable, a wedding: Mork and Mindy finally marry, then they have a baby. But as Orkans start out physically adult and age backwards (that way kids get some respect and everyone thinks seniors are cute) the baby — Mork gets pregnant and delivers Jonathan Winters as the baby. This produced some fun episodes, but it didn’t save the series. Though obviously Williams’ career didn’t suffer any.
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