When the laughter stops



I was as surprised as you were.

And I wasn’t, really.

Robin Williams’ manic humor was just that—manic. Wild. Crazy. Beware the clown, the buffoon, the harlequin. They’re always the saddest ones.

Many comedians become comedians—are drawn to comedy—because they use humor to deal with reality. This is the power the jesters had over their kings—they alone could say what they thought, up to and including insult, so long as it was done in fun.  But as Shakespeare rightly observed, behind every jest is truth. Sometimes lots of it.

I don’t know exactly what Robin Williams’ issues were. I do know he had them. Struggles in the past—emotional struggles, struggles with drugs, with depression—have been well-documented. But I know that the sad and pathetic comic, from Pagliacci to  Zero Mostel, is a mainstay in the arts. A number of the (Monty) Pythons have had serious downward spirals over the years; the satirical humor they used for years to stave off the insanity of the real world may not have been enough at some point. Who knows?

One thing I do know: Robin Williams was an idealist. He never lost touch with humanity after he became rich and famous. He did charity work for the homeless and the downtrodden. A lot of his humor revolved around fighting against all that was unfair in life. Considering the state of the world, his plate must have been pretty full.

Sadly, in the end, laughter may not have been enough. The Donald Trumps and Dick Cheneys of the world—cold, calculating and unfeeling—will live to comfortable, ripe old ages untroubled by the ills around them. Add to them the narcissists—the celebrities who publish thick books of selfies. Those who can really feel for others, who’ve learned to see the importance of the bigger picture, sadly, often check out early.

Though they’re not his most well-known or financially successful movies, when it comes to epitomizing Robin Williams my two picks would have to be Moscow on the Hudson and The Fisher King. Both show his pathos and the darkness within his humor more than anything else I can think of. They’re unique not just for him, but for anybody.

Hudson would have risked being a banal film if anyone else had played the role of the low-key Vladimir Ivanoff; with Williams the character was deeply soulful and layered. Though he won the Oscar for Good Will Hunting, it was in Hudson and Fisher King where he, in my opinion, showed what he could really do, why he was unique. There is no “Robin William type.” There was only Robin Williams.

Art is powerful. At the same time, it only goes so far. It may have gone as far as it could for Robin Williams. Or perhaps my speculation is totally wrong. Time may tell, if his family decides to reveal more about his demons. (And if they choose not to, good for them.) All I can say, as I already did, is that I was surprised at the news. And I wasn’t.


One response

  1. A really well-done and heartfelt piece, John. I know you hate cheerleading, but there it is.

    There were clues for me, too. An art book I read years ago contained photographs of sculptures of famous people (busts, actually) made by an artist I can’t remember, but Robin Williams was one of them. The artist had written about the people she had immortalized (or maybe there was an interview, I can’t remember) but her impression of Robin Williams at the premiere of her work was that he was deeply lonely. He had come alone to the premiere and left alone and in-between the coming and going had looked lost.

    Around the same time, again years ago, I met Robin Williams in a Blockbuster Video, of all places, in Asheville, NC. I lived in Asheville at the time and he was there filming a movie, maybe Patch Adams. He was a lovely man, and I, too, was struck by an element of loneliness about him. Or maybe it was shyness or a need to protect himself from the world. Whatever it was, it made an impression.

    I think he had probably lasted as long as he could.


    August 12, 2014 at 11:48 am

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