Yesterday, Robin Williams killed himself.
I’m sick and angry and sad.
This happens too often to comedians. I think of Belushi and Farley. Farley makes me think of Hartman six months later. Hedberg is another tragedy. The list goes on. There’s something extremely unsettling about seeing comic actors die prematurely. Better that they get old and fade from memory before they go. It’s just wrong when they’re still vibrant and productive and they suddenly vanish.
When I was in kindergarten, I was the only kid in my class to have a Mork & Mindy lunchbox. As I grew up, I found myself perplexed and delighted by Robin Williams’ films. Dead Poets Society is genius. Toys is outright garbage. I loved his “beard” films – Awakenings and Good Will Hunting. I marveled at his standup routines. He’d be so sharp one minute, then trot out a bad ethnic stereotype the next. He was like a gatling gun, firing spaghetti against the wall to see whether it would stick.
Robin Williams was friends with John Belushi. They snorted cocaine together hours before Belushi’s death in 1982. And after Belushi died, Williams got clean. He didn’t want to end up like that. But he did. I just took 32 years.
I have a theory about comics. There’s something upside down inside most of them. While “normal” people would hate to be laughed at, the comedian seeks laughter at his own expense. Why take up public speaking – something millions of people fear – and hope to be laughed at – something almost universally feared?
Depression runs rampant among comedians. Most learned to be funny as a defense against pain. Baring those raw emotions on stage will bring you laughs and applause. Observe Richard Pryor talking about setting himself on fire. Say that to your friend in confidence, and you’ll get tears. Say it on stage with some detachment and you get laughter. Funny how that works.
Comedians are generally fragile people. It’s a shame they’re in such a brutal profession where rejection is constant. The loudest and brashest comics are
often trying frantically to distract you from their true selves. Maybe that’s the deal with Robin. When he’d stop the wild nonsense, grow a beard and act sad in a movie, you felt the real pain there.
Depression is very real and very scary. Pharmaceuticals and therapy can only put distance between you and the demon. It never kills the thing. Creating something to share with the world is made exponentially harder when you have to fight your way past a bully to get your art into the world. The fact that Robin Williams created so much while facing an enemy so persistent is incredible.
It’s fine to do bits with your fellow performers off the stage. Just remember to take a breather and be real once in a while. Check in with your friends. Let them vent. Tell them you love them. Tell them you appreciate them. Confide in them. Keep an eye on them. If you see them isolating or drinking or smoking too much, say something. All of us have a stake in the fight against mental illness, even if we are not mentally ill.
Just as Belushi’s death prompted Williams to change his course, I hope Williams’ death changes our futures for the better. Do not end up like him. Get help. Talk to a friend or a therapist or clergy. Rage against your demon and share the fight through your art. You cannot give up. Your demons sure as hell won’t.
Death is coming for all of us in time. Let’s not make it easy on that black-cloaked bastard. We’ve been robbed of all the work Robin had yet to give. Plese, please, please don’t follow him.