All right, this one’s gonna be a little hard…Robin Williams is the first celebrity whose death I actually cried over.
The weirdest thing, is that I was just earlier thinking back to a conversation I had several years ago. I was telling someone about how the comedy community can be a worrisome place sometimes; honestly, if you woke up one morning and found out that virtually any comic you know – pick any one – passed away, you wouldn’t be completely shocked (even the ones who are mostly emotionally stable…after all, this is a career that can involve exhausting schedules and long car rides too).
He related, to an extent, as he’s a motorsports enthusiast who does his own racing – so the idea of anyone dying at any time wasn’t unfamiliar to him, because, look what they put themselves through every time they step foot (wheel?) onto a track. While that’s certainly a valid point, something seemed off about the comparison.
Some time later, I noticed that the difference here is that, when a driver is in that racecar, that time spent in the car is the only time others spend on high-alert for the person. When a comic’s on a stage, that’s pretty much the only time I’m NOT on high-alert for the person.
That conversation started reeling back to me Sunday night – right after I read the news about the Tony Stewart/Kevin Ward, Jr. debacle – and then I got the news about Robin Williams not 24 hours later and that conversation hit a full circle in my world. It’s the perfect example of everything I was pretty sure I knew.
So there’s that oddly coincidental anecdote, but really there’s so much more to this that I – and dareisay, we the comedy community – find so extremely discomforting about Williams’ passing.
First off is the idea that many, many, many of us have been to a dark place. Some have been closer to the edge than others, but most of us have at least made it out to the proverbial cliff – if only to just park the car and take a look around from inside it (I swear my jokes are better than my analogies). And to know that someone – who most of us see as probably a more brilliant, talented figure than we may ever become, and who most of us respect immensely – made it to a darker place that any of us have ever come to understand…is incomprehensible. It’s sickening. It’s taking my worst moment in life and multiplying it by at least 20, and…holy shit. That’s the kind of torture that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, and here it is happening to someone who had a few promising decades ahead of him to continue bringing his brand of happiness to the world.
Now, while it’s true that mental health issues are obviously not exclusive to comedians, here’s the thing that sticks it in and snaps it off for me: people were genuinely surprised about the news.
One of the perceptions about comedians that severely irks me is this notion that we’re always making you happy, therefore we’re always happy. House burns down and half your family dies? No bother for the comedian – that’s gonna be GREAT material one day! I even overheard someone who once hurt me, very deeply, rationalize his guilt for doing so by going “Well she’ll be fine…she’ll write a few jokes about it and move on.”
In my experience – and trust me, I know I’ve got a lot to learn, so don’t consider this the exhaustive list – a lot of stand-up material comes from one of two places. Much of it is a coping mechanism against the very things that have haunted the comic – think jokes about illness, divorce, death of loved ones, addiction.
Now you may think, “Well that comic I saw last year told a lot of jokes about his pet ferret – that can’t be causing him so much grief, can it?” Good thinking, that brings me to my second point. In many cases, it’s hard to come up with jokes about the deep stuff in your life. It could be because you’re still in the middle of dealing with it – or take my case, where I refrained for years from talking on stage about my dad’s passing, simply out of fear of looking like a charity case in the event the jokes failed. The nice thing about comedy is that you can find it in both the heavy and light stuff in life alike – so if you really don’t wanna shoot for the therapy-session-style bits, you can distract yourself from what you’re going through for a little bit, by finding humor in the lighter stuff and using it. If you’re funny, you’re funny – it won’t matter much which route you take.
So at any rate, no, we’re not “happy all the time.” Just like we’re not sad all the time either…we’re human beings, we are who we are when we are, just like everyone else. But some of us are just on the fragile side, which is why we’re here.
I figured I’d keep on writing in hopes of reaching some bright sunshiny ending, much like I (like to think I) did when we lost Otto, but I don’t think I’m going to get to one this time. One of the best things we can do, as a community of comedians, is to just continue keeping laughter alive…it may not help everyone, and certainly no one can be helped by laughter alone, but it’s what we can do well…and you know it’s still helping a few people in their dark moments to keep hanging in there. We gotta keep it going.
Rest in peace, Robin Williams. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us – may you now find the gift of your own peace that you couldn’t find on this planet.