The Ostensible Jewishness of Robin Williams' Mork

The late actor and comedian appeared to have an affinity for Jews, seen in the Jewish roles he played, the Jews he worked with, and the Jewish jokes in his stand-up act.

AP

Actor and comedian Robin Williams, who died on Monday, appeared to have an affinity for Jews, and many in the community regarded him as an "honorary" member of the faith. The roots of Williams' ostensible Jewishness could lie in the Jewish roles he played ("Jakob the Liar" and "The Birdcage"); the Jewish actors, directors and screenwriters he worked with (Peter Kassovitz, Barry Levinson, Woody Allen, Mike Nichols); or even the Yiddishisms and Jewish jokes in his stand-up act.

But there's good reason to believe that it all began when, at the very start of his career, he embodied the ultimate Jewish outsider: Mork, in the classic American sitcom "Mork & Mindy," which ran from 1978-1982.

On the surface, Mork was not Jewish. He was an alien from the planet Ork, whose propensity for humor in a humorless world made him an annoyance on his home planet and led to his being effectively exiled to Earth. But in Williams' hands, the character was quintessentially Jewish – one might argue, Williams' greatest Jewish role.

Mork was the stereotypical wandering Jew (although he denies he’s a “wanderer” but an “explorer” instead). An alien outsider stranded on Earth, he embodied the Jewish diaspora experience, trying his hardest to fit in, but never quite making it. There was always something different about him, such as the way he wore his clothes backwards and substituted "KO" for "OK" when speaking English. In one episode, Mindy (Pam Dawber) attempts to instruct him on “how to pass for one of us” by speaking correctly.

He lacked the required etiquette and civility. He blurts out to Mindy’s father that they’re living together. When asked to sit down he would sit on his face with his behind in the air. When told “it’s not nice to sit on your face,” his response was to answer with a question: “Then why did God put it there?”

The theme he pioneered in "Mork & Mindy" – a character hiding his identity and trying to pass himself off as someone else – returned regularly throughout his career. It was at the heart of his portrayal of the Scottish nanny in "Mrs. Doubtfire" (Chris Columbus, 1993) and of the explicitly Jewish and gay nightclub owner trying, but ultimately failing miserably, to pass as Christian and straight in "The Birdcage" (Mike Nichols, 1996).

Williams' Mork bore a superficial resemblance to Superman. But where Clark Kent was a Jewish creation of a goyische superhero – albeit modelled on Moses – Mork was the goyische creation of a Jew-like alien. He was a lot more zany and humorous than the staid and straight Clark Kent, which came naturally to a stand-up comedian who sprinkled his routines with Jewish jokes.

“And some people say Jesus wasn’t Jewish," went one of his jokes. "Of COURSE he was Jewish! 30 years old, single, lives with his parents, come on! He works in his father’s business, his mom thought he was God’s gift, he’s Jewish! Give it up!”

Mork even had a hand gesture similar to that of Dr. Spock in "Star Trek," itself based on the priestly blessing. (Of course, Leonard Nimoy modelled his character on the ancient Hebrews and the invocation of the priestly sign was deliberate.) Mork’s greeting of “Nanu, Nanu” does not sound unlike the Yiddish/Hebrew word “nu.” His exclamation “Shazbot” sounds similar to “Shabbat.” And Mork was from the planet of Ork, the “m” in his name therefore suggesting the Hebrew word for “from.”