We watched Robin Williams laugh himself to death. Or at least we watched as he laughed about the demons that tormented him during his life. He could giggle and gibe about being an alcoholic and a drug addict, as he did to good effect in his 2010 comedy special Weapons of Self Destruction, while nevertheless continuing to struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction.
After Williams died and the requisite outpouring of grief had swept social media, a handful of my contrarian friends chided the rest of us for concerning ourselves with the plight of a rich white man. (This week, Henry Rollins also criticized Williams’s actions.) Although I understood their point, my sadness at Williams’ passing had nothing to do with his socioeconomic status. It was something else entirely: yet another person, benumbed by years of self-deprecating laughter, had shuffled off this mortal coil.
I laughed about my childhood because I couldn’t do anything else. I couldn’t change it, I couldn’t redeem it. I could merely take solace in the fact that life was a joke.
When I realized this, it almost broke my heart. Almost. “Buried another one,” my 75-year-old father joked to me during a phone conversation that occurred shortly after Williams’ passing. I laughed weakly when he said this, because that was the only bond the two of us had left: Morbid chuckles at some other unfortunate soul’s expense.
Biting absurdist comedy has always resonated with me. I cut my teeth on Kids in the Hall, came of age with Mr. Show, and have lately enjoyed the wealth of sketch talent these troupes had wrought (Tim & Eric, The Whitest Kids U Know, et al.). For this refined sensibility I can thank my father, since he had spent much of my youth stripping me bare, removing whatever traces of innocence he found. After that ordeal had concluded, I could look back on it and laugh.
I laughed about it because I couldn’t do anything else. I couldn’t change it, I couldn’t redeem it, I couldn’t justify it. I could merely take solace in the fact that life was a joke. A somewhat funny joke, even if it was at my expense.
To be honest: I never thought that Williams was a great comedian. Good, certainly, but his manic antics had a forced and somewhat artificial quality lacking in contemporaries (and fellow troubled souls) Andy Kaufman and Richard Pryor. Williams far exceeded them as an actor, however—most notably when he was given an open-ended role in which to lose himself, as was the case in The Fisher King and The World According to Garp.
Spread across several decades, jokes-at-your-own-expense will exact a heavy toll.
In that regard, his jackhammer-subtle humor proved an impediment, a barrier between him and the audience that disappeared when he was allowed to discover himself underneath Popeye prosthetics or a world-weary therapist’s beard. The jokes in his comedy specials are delivered in a staccato manner that alienates even as it amuses, which is precisely the point: he was hiding behind laughter because he had nowhere else to go.
I can’t speculate about why Williams was sad or why he felt impelled to be funny. His youth, at least in summary, was a bed of roses compared to the lives of many others. But how can we measure pain, besides knowing it when we see it? And when I caught glimpses of him in recent years, I saw a proud man who was gradually shriveling up and fading away. His physique, once wrestler-solid, looked worn and small in his recent appearance on the FX sitcom Louie.
Spread across several decades, those jokes-at-your-own-expense will exact a heavy toll. Part of my own healing process has consisted of recognizing that not everything is a laughing matter; many aspects of life are sacred, or nearly so. This is where the blogosphere, which frequently erupts at seemingly minor offenses, sometimes has it right and the Daily Show, which sanitizes the terrors of modernity by incessantly satirizing them, often gets it wrong.
In those moments when Robin Williams was acting—the Juilliard prodigy in his element—he showed us who he really was. The rest of the time, he kept us distracted, kept the guffaws rolling in like so many waves against the seashore. I know how easy and comforting that is: I did the same thing, albeit to far less acclaim, throughout most of my life. If the people around me never discovered who I was, I thought, maybe I wouldn’t have to look too deeply at myself, either.
I wish Robin Williams the brilliant actor could’ve won for himself the recognition today heaped on the likes of Joaquin Phoenix and Daniel Day-Lewis. When you see someone doing what they’re supposed to do, it’s a miraculous thing. But much of the time, we remain determined to hide from who we are, with humor serving as the perfect camouflage. Now Williams the reluctant comedian is gone, and that’s a deadly serious loss.
(Top photo: Williams in The World According to Garp, 1982)