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.
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
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.
|With Pam Dawber|
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?
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:
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.