Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Robin Williams With Tears


This has almost been too depressing to even contemplate. I laugh easily, but it's difficult to make me really crack up. Robin Williams could make me howl. All I can tell you is that, as a lifelong connoisseur of comedy in general - and comedians in particular - his sudden, stunning death is indeed a milestone event. It's right up there with Christmas Day 1977, when Charlie Chaplin passed into eternity.

A few months ago I wrote a small tribute to Sid Caesar who died on February 12. I ended it by saying that he was the last of the great comedians of the twentieth century; that they're all gone now. A reader gently took issue with that statement. In a private email he told me: "You're wrong on that point, Tom", he asserted, "We still have Robin Williams!" I stood corrected.

Many years ago I read a book by Steve Allen called, "Funny People". Each chapter was an appreciation of a different comedian. At the end of the segment on Peter Sellers (who had only recently passed away), Allen said something that has always stayed with me. He wrote (and I am paraphrasing - it was over thirty years ago that I read this book): His talent as a comic actor was so unique that other comedians can only admire him. They cannot possibly emulate him.

The only other comic that ever walked this earth for whom that assessment would be true is Robin Williams. 

With Pam Dawber
Like everyone else over forty, my first exposure to the genius of Robin Williams was through the medium of television. I always refer to the nineteen-seventies as "the dark ages of American comedy". Mork and Mindy, like ninety-five percent of the sitcoms of that overrated decade, was a dreadful program - with a bad premise, awful writing, terrible acting - take your pick. The only thing that set that show apart and made it watchable, and the only reason I viewed it whenever I had the chance (I didn't always have access to a TV in those days) was because of the cosmic lunacy of Robin Williams. He would toss the awful script onto the sound stage's scrap heap, and let his imagination roar into the stratosphere. You could see at times his fellow cast members (Pam Dawber in particular) struggling to keep their faces straight while Robin let loose with a verbal meteor storm. It truly was something to behold. There had never been anyone like him before. 

Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Williams was to comedy what Billie Holiday was to song. Lady Day had the unique gift to be able to take the most mediocre of material and turn it into a thing of beauty. So it was with Robin Williams.

His career in motion pictures was an evolution with few precedents in the history of that medium. His first film, a send-up on "Popeye", was a dismal flop. Within a few years, however, he would receive an Academy Award for his role in the film Good Will Hunting. The last time a "non-actor" won that coveted prize was when Bing Crosby received it for Going My Way in 1944. And let there be no doubt: Robin Williams will be remembered as one of the best actors of his era.

A lot of ink is being wasted this morning in a vain attempt to analyze why so gifted and beloved a performer would take his own life. Predictably, columnists and taking heads are discussing "the tears of a clown" theory. Let's call it "Pagliacci Syndrome":

Although I laugh and I act like a clown
Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown

John Lennon

I would venture to guess that the reasons behind Robin Williams' final, desperate act are a bit more complicated that that. Suicide is usually a lot more complicated than that - as is mental illness.  

There are times when something as awful as this may seem the anticlimax of a tortured life. Other times it may be a thunderous crash on what had been an otherwise blissful day. Whatever the circumstances, it leaves the survivors in torment and wondering: Why? Why? Why? We desperately seek answers we may never have to questions that are almost as elusive. 

Most people can whistle the M*A*S*H theme song. Very few of us know the lyrics. The title of that tune is, "Suicide is Painless". Don't you believe it for a second. Just ask any survivor.

Lenny Bruce
The sad fact of the matter is that the funniest people in the history of the human race were possessed of a darkness that, in many instances, destroyed their careers and prematurely ended their lives. The list is impressive: W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, Max Linder, Charley Chase, Lenny Bruce, John Belushi - brilliant clowns whose God-given talent for making the rest of the world laugh was scalded by an inexplicable thirst for self-destruction. In fact, of the aforementioned comedic geniuses, only Keaton's life had a happy ending. George Carlin and Richard Pryor spent decades trying to overcome their problems with substance abuse; Jackie Gleason's chronic alcoholism was well known to most of us while he was still living; Both Peter Sellers and Jonathon Winters suffered periods of mental illness throughout their lives. Even Charlie Chaplin was subject to episodes of severe depression and melancholy.

The only two comedians I've ever known of who were fully secure in their beings seem to have been Laurel and Hardy. But then again, the definitive biographies of either of those two gentlemen have yet to be written. It wouldn't surprise me if we were to discover tomorrow that Stan and Ollie were also beaten down by the very act of living.

Robin Williams may have been in very good company, but it was tragic company to be in nonetheless. Maybe we should commission a reputable theologian to compose a "Comedian's Prayer". I believe they could use one.

We may never know why Robin Williams decided that the world would be better off without his presence in it (For the record: IT IS NOT). That he was a gifted, complex, and tortured man is well known. Perhaps it is the people who perceive life's comic absurdity most keenly are the ones most sensitive to humanity's tragedy and despair. That would seem to me to be the most logical explanation. The truth of the matter is, I just don't know. I wish I did. In the last eight months I've been seeking the elusive answers to some of these questions in my own life as well.

Robin Williams was part of our international consciousness for thirty-seven years. And while we were lucky to have him in our lives for as long as we did, the matter in which he died is just so difficult to accept. That's always the case when someone you love takes their own life, you know? It matters not if the victim is sixteen or sixty-three.

He was a true American original. One-hundred years from now they will still be talking about and appreciating the artistry of Robin Williams much in the same way we pay homage to Chaplin and Keaton today. His like won't be passing this way again. He's gone and he's not coming back. This is just so sad. Isn't that funny?

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY


Here's Robin Williams on the Tonight Show in 1991 with Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon. This is as good as it gets:

He was a hoot.


Here is the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:

1-800-273-TALK (8255)

If you have ever felt the urge, keep that number handy. Your friends and loved ones would miss you. Don't you know that you are loved? You are, you know!


For a more complete listing of some recent pieces on this site, please go to the link below:

"The Rant" by Tom Degan  

A splendid time is guaranteed for all.


At 10:53 AM, Blogger Yellowstone said...

Tom - I agree with you. Tragedy and comedy are nearly the same (comedy mime faces). Just different faces. But I go even earlier; into the 50s.

You have commented before on the funnyman Ernie Kovacs. I'd like to mention, too, Don Knotts, Tom Poston, and Louie Nye as some of the most hysterical people I've watched.

Someone that has disappeared with hardly a notice was Jonathon Winters; who I think brought out the charm and wit of Robin. Jonathon was an outrageous comedian that was mimicked - but never duplicated. I miss him!

All met a natural and timely death - and what a tremendous loss to us all. I wonder if there ever be another . . .

At 5:09 PM, Blogger Mozart1220 said...

I remember being in an acting class in high school around 1979. The teacher asked us to name out favorite actor, and I said "Robin Williams". The other kids laughed abecause at that time Mork and Mindy was all we had of Robin Williams.

THank you Robin for showing them how good you really were.

Another of my favorite comedians, Richard Jeni, took his own life as well.

Then there was the great Freddy Prinz.

R.I.P all of you.

At 6:20 PM, Blogger Cirze said...

Beautifully written, Tom.

Kudos to your sensibility.

Jonathan Winters was one of Robin's comedic mentors and I thought of this fact often when I first heard the unbelievable, horrific news.

Again, thanks for your tribute.

I've been too affected personally to write much about someone who meant so much in my life.

Funny, isn't it?

Once you saw/heard him he ceased to be a stranger.

And I saw him on Carson (as a tyke).

Perhaps it is the people who perceive life's comic absurdity most keenly (who) are the ones most sensitive to the despair of humanity's eternal tragedy.

At 8:44 PM, Blogger Patricia said...

Tom, I am without words, thankfully, you gifted Robin with a brilliant send off. I did hear that his beloved dog was named, Lenny for Lenny Bruce. Thanks for this, I hated that you had to write it. However, you helped us all understand so much. He was an Iconclast, if ever there was one. RIP Robin.

At 4:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robin Williams lived a life of both happiness and setbacks. It wasn't totally a negative experience for him.
Unfortunately he suffered, literally, from both clinical depression and bipolar disorder. The lows of a bipolar depression are unfathomable to those not familiar with them. Substance use/abuse is used as an attempt to regulate those emotions and are never successful in the long run. They simply exacerbate the wild swings and devastating depressive experiences.
Once someone reaches that precipice between life and death they are not "choosing death". They are trying to escape an unimaginable pain and despair at having fought this pain for decades in the case of Robin Williams. Just one moment exists between being on the edge of that precipice and going over the edge. When someone or something intervenes at that ONE moment the person at risk can be held off for another chance at regaining stability. If no one or thing is there to intervene one can easily go over the edge.
Robin Williams was like lightning in a bottle. In addition to his ingenious yet manic riffs and powerful dramatic performances he was by all accounts a warm, kind, generous human being.
He'd fought this battle for decades. The public had no idea it was as deep and precarious as it evidently was.
Few could make me smile and laugh in amazement at the depth and breadth of his comic riffs particularly when they were improvised on the spot.
The discussion of the crushing depression as well as mental illness in general will last a week or so and then be forgotten until the last "public hurrah" at the next set of award shows. After that the topics of mental illness and life threatening depression will be put away again because those not touched by it in their own lives simply don't want to hear it.
I've been on the edge of the precipice a few times but still had the tools to be here today. The "illness" persists but I'm alive. We've buried one of my nephews due to suicide and dealt with the 8 attempts of his sister, my dear niece. One lives on some pins and needles each time the phone rings yet can only hope for the best outcome with treatment and patient compliance...much like any other chronic illness.
People around Robin's children must be watchful although I assume or hope they are aware of statistics that show children of those who've successfully suicided are at greatly higher risk to attempt such themselves. Although his children seem very sensitive and insightful that isn't an antidote to the nature/nurture effects of family mental illness and/or suicide.
Sorry to ramble. Robin Williams had both great joy and fulfillment in his life as well as intense internal struggles that got the best of him in that one last moment. I will miss his talent and presence on this earth.

At 5:19 AM, Blogger Lydia said...

This is a beautiful, brilliant quest of a piece, a most fitting tribute to Robin Williams and to others who have left us in this way. Your pondering life/death these last eight months has added a depth to your writing (not that it needed it to be great) and has made richer our pondering together the loss of a comedic and dramatic Captain. What a fine human being he was.

At 6:08 AM, Blogger Jill said...

Beautifully written, Tom. This one hurts, and hurts bad. I'm especially sensitive because I had a mother who attempted suicide (unsuccessfully), and aunt who was "successful" at it, and a spouse who battled depression for most of the last decade before his passing from a rare and previously undiagnosed congenital brain disorder, which may have been the reason for his depression. So it's not just the loss of someone who entertained us, it's pushing a lot of emotional buttons as well.

We get greedy about people like Robin Williams. No matter how much they give us, we want more, more more. I remember feeling this way when Belushi died; that feeling of "You can't leave! I want MORE!" No matter how much they give us, we always want more.

At 8:12 AM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

Good one, Jill.

I was thinking not too long ago about all that John Lennon would have accomplished in the thirty-four years that were denied him by some homicidal halfwit with a gun. True, he would have slowed down a bit at age seventy-four, but his best years were ahead of him on December 8, 1980.

He left the stage leaving us wanting more as well.

At 11:05 AM, Blogger Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Tom, it's been an awfully sad week for many of us, especially those from Robin's stomping grounds, the San Francisco Bay Area. Unfortunately, the sad circumstances of Robin's passing do not represent an isolated incident. Many of my favorite comics and comedy filmmakers going back to silent pictures and early talkies died young for the same reasons. Severe clinical depression kills.

At 8:56 PM, Blogger Harley A. said...

All good comedy begins with a brilliant mind. Williams did have that. And, he was so unpretentious...he knew how to not be overly political, yet include his politics subtly and appropriately and in a way that allowed you to laugh at yourself safely. Never caustic or mean-hearted.

He was a comedic genius... you were caught between wanting to roll over laughing and wanting to stare in awe.

At 4:43 PM, Blogger Bea said...

Thank you for this post! I hadn't expected to feel so utterly sad over Williams' death. The news of his passing hit me like a ton of bricks. I hadn't known that WC Fields also committed suicide. Freddie Prinze, if I'm not mistaken, was another comic who took his own life. -all very sad indeed.

At 4:57 PM, Anonymous Cheryl Anne said...

How did Tom's prophetic and profound, piece on an icon of our generation, a talent, a comedian, and actor, a man of generosity, to the homeless, and other charities turn into, a political forum for you , idiots, who, had nothing better to do, than hone into, making it benefit your ideals..Which by the way..after the first few words I skipped, it was not the place, or time..."JERRY" rip Mork, that was a character NOT, the essence of Robin..

And, to attack another human being " Mozart" for sticking up for,not only himself, but,Tom's time and piece, and sticking with the point..which is Robin Williams, Anonymous,you had a great amount of info, on Bi Polar and Depression, then State..Robins old news?!? Really....Tom is and amazing,Author, writer, politically savvy, and a great human being, we went to the same school together, know the same families..So, I do know what I'm stating..and, how could you bring up the Ferguson, situation??


Tom, what about Rodney Dangerfield, Chris Farley, Abbott and Costello..?

Robin Williams was 1 of a kind, it is not for us to understand, it was his decision, he stole laughter from our lives, a father from his children, a husband to his wife, but, it's not selfish, it was his life, he was tortured, and couldn't find his own laughter any longer..

And, I wrote in my piece about Robin, including Belushi and Farley and others...The Clown Syndrome, a lot of very funny are so, to hide their own inner pain..Jim Carey suffers from bouts of depression as, well..

Tom, your piece was heartfelt and sincere with no ulterior motivation, but, to pour your pain of the loss of a great personality in your life, as well as a lot of us, it brought my own demons to the top, once gain..

But, that's a private convo, not on a beautiful piece about a beautiful man..RIP Robin, you have left our Glasses HALF EMPTY...

Cheryl Anne

At 5:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everything the cult says is pure GOP doctrine. Period.

Is that the same period that followed Obama's ACA promises? Or do you care?

At 4:35 AM, Blogger Tom Degan said...


FOR THE RECORD, the cause of Bill Fields' death wasn't "suicide". He drank himself to death - which is almost the same thing.

Thanks for the comment!


At 1:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your comment, Perhaps it is the people who perceive life's comic absurdity most keenly are the ones most sensitive to humanity's tragedy and despair, has been shared and will continue to be shared. It's very perceptive and very accurate. Take it from someone with experience.

At 2:31 AM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

All of the idiotic political comments that had not a thing to do with Robin Williams (left AND right) have been deleted.

What is the matter with you people?


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