Robin Williams, or Laughter & Tears
My heart broke tonight. I’m devastated. One of my heroes is gone.
About quarter past seven, I quickly went onto Facebook and the third status update read: Not Robin Williams. The next two were news stories.
Dead, said the first.
Dead, apparent suicide, said the other. I stopped then.
“Oh no,” I said, voice cracking.
“What? What’s wrong?” Pamela asked.
I told her. And then I cried.
There have been few celebrity deaths that have made me cry just from the news. Sometimes reading or hearing about those they left behind–family, children especially, friends–and usually after the fact. I cried when Clarence Clemons died. I’d seen him twice on stage, rocking with Springsteen. I knew it meant a fundamental difference in the music, and I knew that it’d mean a lot to the members of the E Street Band, because the band has been together for around 40 years. I may have cried when John Ritter died 11 years ago this September. He was a childhood idol and one of my favorite actors. And he was so young, in his early fifties.
Tonight, the loss of Robin Williams hits me so goddamn hard.
I know I’m not the only one. I’ve glimpsed, briefly, at Facebook, and have seen similar feelings from those better than me. I think of his friends and family, his children, and I feel for them.
Tonight I lost a hero. And he did it to himself.
Look, I’m not trying to be melodramatic. I’m not crying as I type this. But Williams was a ball of lightning on stage. In film, he was excellent. My favorite roles of his were the serious ones. Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, One Hour Photo, Good Will Hunting, and even such cameos as in Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again. I had my first date to Mrs. Doubtfire. I owned action figures and dolls of Mork from Ork.
I have equated my teaching style to my mentor, mixed with Robin Williams. I don’t mean Dead Poets Williams, either, I mean stage Williams. Going from one side of the stage to the other, breaking into voices, grabbing whatever is around to riff off of or to make his point. I mentioned Springsteen before and I recently compared him and Williams. Both come out on stage to a crazed audience and within five minutes, they have huge sweat circles under their arms, and within fifteen minutes, they’re soaked in sweat.
When Williams was on stage, everything was on the table. If it was in his head, he used it. Word is, he would often send checks to other stand-up comics for accidentally using their material in shows. Not because he was stealing it (Dane Cook, right?) but because it was something he’d heard once somewhere and it just came out in his machine gun-like delivery.
He was the stereotypical clown who was sad on the inside. His admitted drug use in the past, recent bouts with alcohol and drugs were obviously him self-medicating. I keep seeing the term comedic genius written about him. I don’t think he was a comedic genius, so much as a genius. He got things, he understood them, and he made it so you could understand them and laugh. There’s a moment in 2002’s comedy special Robin Williams Live on Broadway when he sips from a bottle of water (there were easily two or three dozen on a table) between jokes and he lifts the bottle near his face and says, “Liquid gold. In twenty years, you’re all going to fighting for this stuff.” I believe he goes on a short riff about it. I thought of that off-hand joke in recent weeks with the news that one of the heads of Nestlé has stated that water shouldn’t be a right for everyone, and that the company is maintaining their water bottling plants in places hit by horrible droughts around the United States. Robin Williams knew, man! He knew because he’s a fucking genius.
Was a fucking genius.
He was a fan of science fiction, too. Probably of all fiction, but during his brief show, Robin Williams @ Audible.com, Williams interviewed Harlan Ellison, and the knowledge he had of the field was amazing. If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you know how Harlan is one of my heroes*. He and Robin Williams were friends. Good friends, from what I can tell. Williams did a Sci Fi Channel special about Harlan Ellison (you can see him with his groovy Patch Adams hairdo). He also appeared in the documentary about Harlan, Dreams With Sharp Teeth. By the way, if you can find Robin Williams @ Audible.com anyway, listen to it. He had some great interviews with some interesting people. Anyway, they mention a benefit that was held for Ellison for something and Isaac Asimov was there, and this one, and that one, and you could hear the awe in Williams’s voice, all those years later (the show was done around 2000 or so). It wasn’t a shock to me when Williams made the film adaptation of Asimov’s story The Bicentennial Man.
Oh! One of the interviews on the Audible.com show was with John Irving, writer of the novel The World According to Garp, whose the film adaptation was one of Williams’s first serious film roles.
They say when you’re feeling something deeply, to write it down. That’s what I’ve done here tonight. A status update or 140-character Tweet couldn’t get my emotions through.
I’ll be looking out for his comedy specials, sure to be aired in coming days. I’ll find my own copy of Live From Broadway and watch it. I know I’ll cry as I laugh, just as I cried the first time I heard the three-minute sax solo in “Jungleland.” I’ll finally get around to watching World’s Greatest Dad and Death to Smoochie, and Popeye, which I haven’t seen since I was a kid.
Perhaps the demons that made Robin Williams kill himself are the same demons that made him a genius. Maybe it was his genius that fed the demons. Either way, Robin Williams was not a perfect man, he was troubled and caused trouble in his own life, but he also brought light to people. Friends, family, and us, his audience.
Thank you, Mr. Williams. I wish we could’ve helped you as you helped us.
* I’m throwing around the word hero, I know that I am. Influence doesn’t sound right, diggit? To say Robin Williams or Harlan Ellison, or Springsteen or Stephen King are influences is 100% accurate, but it doesn’t read as well as I’d like it to. Not right now. So I’m going with hero.