As a Gen-X/millennial crossover, I was fortunate enough to first meet Robin Williams as Mork from Ork on the sitcom Mork and Mindy. A comedic powerhouse, Mork’s colorful wardrobe and loud laugh were the first things I imitated as a child. As I grew up, I would look back and realize the many character lessons I learned at home were reinforced by a supremely acted alien outsider with a predilection for sitting on his head. In virtually every role he played, Robin Williams taught his audience a life lesson. As a young kid there was no one more fun to hang around with and learn from on TV than Mork from Ork.
10. Old people rule.
Mork marvels at the way the elderly are ignored and maligned on earth. On Ork, old folks are revered as the wise, experienced ones to learn from. “The Elder” is called on to remind Mork of his Orkishness. His was an early lesson in the importance of respect and reverence for the elders in your life and how very important all people are, no matter and, perhaps, especially because of their age.
9. Responsibility matters.
When Mindy gets ripped off on a car repair, Mork transmits a valuable lesson about responsibility and work ethic to Orson. Shoddy workmanship, Mork notes, is the result of apathy, lack of pride and greed. “I’ve learned that most earthlings think of a job as just a way to make money,” he remarks, “…but nothing speaks as eloquently as a job well done.” This was a seed that came to fruit when I entered the working world. Even though every job you land may not be your dream career, it is still a job worth doing right. Your work ethic will be the testimony of character you give to those around you and yourself. So, whether you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a sanitation engineer, it is always important to do — and be — your best.
8. Feminism really is rooted in biology.
Mork is the most feminist alien on television. He arrives in an egg and when it comes time for him and Mindy to have children, he’s the one who carries and gives birth, leaving Mindy free to pursue her career. What’s more, from the very first episode Mork has a keen understanding of the interrelationship between human biology and emotion. Just feeling a woman’s hand on his skin drives him so wild that he can’t resist touching her earlobes in response. Mork may be Orkan, but he’s all man when it comes to Mindy. Biology matters: One partner in the relationship has to give birth and care for children, and sex really is meant to drive you physically and emotionally wild. Men and women aren’t alike, nor should they be, as each gender has their own unique role to play in the relationship.
7. Intelligence is cool…
Mork is a comical version of Spock, an alien from a planet that gave up emotions as illogical in their pursuit of advanced intelligence. Orkans long ago deemed violence humiliating, therefore Mork’s greatest weapon is his wit. In the pilot episode he defends himself against charges of incompetency, only to unwittingly reveal the insane love triangle in the court room. When Mindy is sexually harassed by a bunch of goons, Mork’s quick-wittedness gets the two of them out of a sticky situation. Long before Sheldon Cooper, there was Mork from Ork, the original cool nerd.
6. …and it’s even better when paired with imagination.
It is one of the funniest sequences in Mork and Mindy‘s pilot episode. Mork attempts to free his fellow Orkans from the eggs in Mindy’s refrigerator. Robin Williams, alongside Jim Henson, Mister Rogers, and so many others, emphasized the importance of imagination on television in the ’70s and ’80s. But, be warned: Imagination is the gateway drug that leads to a lifetime addiction to creativity and independent thinking.
5. Emotions balance out logic.
Mork’s Spock-like experiment taught him that emotions are essential elements for a healthy and happy lifestyle. Without logic, our emotional self would go mad. At the same time, the illogical in life needs emotional support. In the end, emotions are what made Earthlings superior to the cold-hearted logicians of Ork.
4. Never underestimate the power of observation.
In an era overwhelmed by screen media, the axiom “learning is observing” is a powerful lesson about how we grow successfully as human beings. Robin Williams’s greatest influence was Jonathan Winters, the incredibly talented television actor who had a recurring role on Mork and Mindy, along with many other television shows of the time. Both Winters and Williams were known for their improvisational humor that relied heavily on imitation, a comedic skill that no doubt helped Williams land his gig as Mork, the alien assigned to observe earthling life.
3. Life is a matter of perception…
In the show’s pilot episode, Mork must defend himself against accusations of incompetency. Having watched hours of Perry Mason, he imitates the courtroom lawyer as he cross-examines the doctor who has declared him insane. After testifying that Mork successfully attempted to put a square peg in a round hole, the doctor shouts, “Do you see how he’s cleverly twisting my words?” Mork replies, “Clever — that’s another word for intelligent, isn’t it?” In the end, Mork is declared perfectly competent, proving that how you view and live life is a matter of perception.
2. …in which everyone speaks their own language.
Just as everyone thinks differently, everyone communicates in their own language. Everyone knew what Shazbat meant the minute Mork uttered the Orkan phrase. But, Mork didn’t just introduce us to a foreign language. With his word play he illustrated precisely how far out the English language can be. J.R.R. Tolkien is praised as a genius for his ability to create new languages, yet how many arguments do we get into with one another over simple miscommunications in the same tongue?
1. There are no such things as aliens.
At the end of the pilot episode, Orson questions why Earthlings embrace individuality, as it makes for difficult communication and governance. Mork praises individuality just as he praises the emotions that make us unique. The comical alien with the wacky wardrobe and quick wit set an example for every kid out there to, in the words of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “let their freak flag fly.” We all perceive life differently. We all speak our own language. Mork’s ultimate lesson was Robin Williams’s greatest gift: The willingness to be loud, proud and unique in a genuinely loving, kind and humorous way. We’re all different, no two of us — even identical twins — are exactly alike, and that really is what makes us wonderful.
And Robin Williams’s own brand of uniqueness is what we already miss so terribly.