By now the world is just waking up to the reality that comedian, actor and humanitarian Robin Williams has passed away. This one is going to be a sad one. This feels almost unspeakable. Continued shock… and more sadness. A real mind blower. Smack dab in the middle of all this mess, he decides to leave us? Now? We Americans are going to take it the worst. He was one of us, one of our own, one of our finest exports to the world. He started out as a rough and tumble comedian, trash talking a mile a minute, a big mass of hair and sweat. He was by all accounts a mess. But we loved him for it. Yes indeed he was raunchy in his early days, as some people have pointed out; in fact, truth be told, when we were kids we weren’t “allowed” to watch Robin Williams when he came on TV by our parents. So unlike many of my peers I don’t have a recollection of Mork and Mindy, and certainly not Happy Days…. Our puritanical Christian upbringing and all. But on the occasion when our parents were out, we would sneak a peak at him up there on the stage, doing stand up, acting all wild and crazy, cracking himself up, going a million miles an hour, a real coke hound obviously; even as kids we could tell that this guy was on something, that there was something just not right there, but he was sooooo freaking funny.
He’d get going and not be able to stop himself, even when he was supposed to, even when he wanted to; he couldn’t help it. Something else would pop into his brain and pop out of his mouth. Again and again and again. Those late 70s, early 80s stand up routines of his… nothing like them. He invented that style. That manic hyper coked up genius routine was his. He invented it. Yeah sure a ton of other characters soon came on the New York comedy scene doing a similar schtick, but everyone knew who started it. Robin Williams. He went to the outermost edges, had you pissing yourself, and then he went beyond, and then beyond again, creating a routine and a style that was so singular and extreme that he enabled cats like Richard Belzer and Stephen Wright to invent a completely different style just by leaning to the opposite side. That was just one of the hallmarks of his genius. But that put a lot of pressure on Robin. You could see it in his eyes when he would be up there, especially with Billy and Whoopy. The pressure to be that good, to be HIM. Sure, they were his peers, supposed stars in their own right…. But everyone knew, everyone just accepted that Robin was special; he wasn’t just a star; he was a constellation, he was fireworks. He was a magician, a spitfire, a sherman tank, a civil war.
And then something miraculous happened. Somebody got the craziest idea: cast Robin Williams in a Hollywood movie. But not a comedy. Throw him in a drama. Something sad and tragic and heartbreaking. Because we all know that comedians, real comedians at least, are just manic depressives playing out their manic side. So they know tragedy better than anyone. That’s what makes them so damn funny. They’re not just cracking jokes. They’re on some kind of an unnatural neurological bender in the moment, ready to crack at any second; but for God’s sake get it on camera man! They’re attempting to do battle with the dragon of despair that haunts us all, but they’re doing it in real time, in the public eye, unabashedly brazenly brave and stupid at the same time. They’re fighting for their very sanity in those moments, for their survival. If you can control them long enough to get them to act in a movie of some kind, a good movie… forget about it. They’re going to blow you away. Because no one understands sadness and loss better than a comic. And blow us away Robin Williams did. From his first to his last, Moscow on the Hudson to The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, Robin Williams epitomized the everyday man fighting against the tragedy of truth and humanity. Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, Good Morning Vietnam. This is all off the top of my head mind you. No googling necessary. Because THAT’s how good the man was. If Robin Williams was in a movie, you knew it was going to be not just good, but that it had the potential to be fucking great. He was one of the few actors of his generation who could give you a guarantee like that.
But why? How? Because Robin Williams wasn’t acting. Anyone who worked with him will tell you that; it’s the same thing over and over. He wasn’t reading lines. He could get underneath the skin of and inside the bones of just about any human (or not so human) character and embody them. Because he truly understood the bare naked truth of it all: that at our essence we are all the same inside. That was another aspect of his gift. He was madness and mayhem personified, sure; but he was also one hell of a perceptive philosopher and observer of humanity who just happened to be able to disguise it well beneath all those jokes.
He understood that madness and mayhem of the human condition, because let’s face it: life on earth is a terribly complex and perplexing ball of dichotomy and confusion; it’s a fucked up scene on the verge of exploding into total chaos at any minute where everyone is on their best behavior pretending to be cool about that. It’s one giant anomalous contradiction where everyone pretends to believe they know what’s going on even though deep inside they’re just as panicked as the next guy when they allow themselves for a moment to realize that they have no freaking clue what’s really going on. But see… only certain people see and know this. A lot of people don’t even recognize this about life; they do their best to just get along and that’s that. But other people, they see through all the pretense and bullshit. They’ve faced the devil of uncertainty that comes from knowing too much and ends at “we have no idea what’s really going on do we?” and they’ve survived. And to a certain degree, that’s their curse. Hell, we openly call it “the curse”. It’s an inside joke. It’s also a deep source of unbearable pain to many, because the joke is on us: for whatever reason, no matter how far we push it, no matter how far off the deep end we travel, tempt fate or tease God, we stay alive for some reason. God in his mysterious and humorous style keeps us alive. At least for a while. Long enough to go bonkers and bananas a few dozen times. In the process some of us produce some incredible works, as Robin did. So when his wife exclaims “I hope we take this time to just reflect on his amazing life and talent…” that’s really the thing, his life and work. The how and why of his death is going to be history long before we are finished discussing his amazing body of work.
But yeah we knew, we saw this coming for years, decades; we knew it cost him a lot, to reach that kind of a manic place, day after day and night after night… God knows it both does come easy and doesn’t necessarily come naturally “all the time”… that kind of manic hyperspeeding style of thought and expression that he brought. So the news is not surprising…. It’s sad. As with Philip Seymour Hoffman before, we are deeply saddened by the news, but not surprised. We knew he was battling, for years, had been battling for a long time… part of me really felt like he had kicked it this time, found some kind of inner peace, with his returning to TV and everything… He could be closer to home more often… Or so we told ourselves. We heard about the rehabs and the clinics… Lord knows we’ve all been there ourselves, time and time again…. Sanctuaries for the “insane who are too sane”.
That kind of knowing is hard; that kind of unity with the human spirit. I have a friend right now who’s all over social media posting all this stuff about “addicts” — in reference to Robin’s death. That’s amazingly sad and pathetic. You can tell he really wants to summarize the whole kit and caboodle of this man’s life through that tiny lens. But what he doesn’t realize — or perhaps does realize and just refuses to accept — is that this kind of thing has nothing to do with a person being “an addict” or not. It’s the other way around. The addiction is the symptom of the problem, ONE of the symptoms, but it’s not the problem. People “use” because there’s something messed up in there; something not quite right. Hell, it’s the spark that makes people laugh and cry and be so moved by their work in the first place. Who else acts like that? Except the insane? What most don’t realize is that it’s also a source of great suffering for the person doing the entertaining. WE know it; WE talk about it amongst ourselves; WE confide and cry in the confines of the loving arms of our spouses or the offices of our rabbis and pastors and psychiatrists; and we even try to tell other people about it. About “how hard it is in there”. And drugs do seem to make it better. They really do. Trust me when I say that it’s no coincidence, this drug thing. It’s not like we were all born the same year and grew up in the same small town…. If you get my meaning…. We have absolutely NOTHING in common…. and yet, there’s this something else that we do seem to have in common there that has nothing to do with where we were born or who raised us or anything like that. It’s something deeper, much closer and more primal. It’s a life or death thing. It’s a secretly putting on your underwear backwards when no one’s looking thing.
The depression, the knowing, the drama and trauma of it all, the unenviable burden of being more connected than usual, more than one should be, more than is healthy, is the source of the whole drug thing for 99% of us. Every now and then you’ll find someone who “just likes to have a good time” and that’s why they got into drugs. But they’re not the norm. They’re the exception. Most of the time, for most of those who are doing battle with that particular demon, drugs were a very early add-on in life, a survival tool, a natural inclination to reach for something, a coping mechanism, a means to an end, the cure that no one believes you deserve. And living without drugs can sometimes feel like hell on earth. Never quite normal. And no, there’s no way one can convince another of what it’s like if they don’t have that experience themselves. They just don’t get it. Though some do try and God bless them for that. For whatever reason — and we don’t know yet — Robin either gave up on or lost the battle. Drugs or no drugs. Only time and more data will tell. But he left us too soon. 63 is far too young for a star that bright to burn out.
Yes? And yet maybe not yes. Hell, he probably gave us twice as much as he thought he was ever going to. And that brings a smile to my face. Thinking of him making it for that long…. People like that NEVER expect to live that long. And only those of us who know this can really know this. I never say these words out loud now anymore, because I said it once and the thought was so shocking and sad to my wife that she burst into tears in disbelief, and yet she knew…. she could tell… but she didn’t want to know…. she didn’t want it to be true…. but there are those moments when a look gets by on your face…. and you can see that she sees…. I could just tell that it was better for me not to ever utter it again. Instead we just pretend that all is normal. And I suspect that Robin and his family were doing the same.
The one solace we can take in this passing away of Robin Williams so suddenly, on a fucking Monday no less — talk about a prankster! — is that at least his battle is thru, the ups and downs, the back and forths, the pretending to be happy when you’re clean but you’re really aching inside… trying yet again to “take it one day at a time”. I don’t think anyone can say “oh well he’s in a better place now”, but what we can say is at least he’s not suffering anymore. That part is over. And we…. we were lucky enough to get 35 years out of the man and his amazing talent. That’s something. It was a gift to the entire world that was lucky enough to experience him in one way or another.
Here’s to hoping that his soul really is now resting in peace. Or better yet, perhaps he’s right this very minute making the Creator crack up and bend over howling with laughter. We of course have no way of knowing. But we do know that he was one hell of a talent. Way more talented than a mere comic and ten times more talented than 99% of the people who call themselves “actors”. He was the real thing. He had it all. And we loved him for it. This one is going to be a sad one.