By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2014)
If there’s a comedy heaven, its headliner finally showed. But he won’t shut the fuck up.
In the introduction to my review of Where the Wild Things Are a few years ago, I wrote:
Why is “childish” such a dirty word, anyway? To paraphrase Robin Williams, what is wrong with retaining a bit of the “mondo bozo” to help keep your perspective? Wavy Gravy once gave similar advice: “Laughter is the valve on the pressure cooker of life. Either you laugh and suffer, or you got your beans or brains on the ceiling.” Basically (in the parlance of psycho-babble)…“stay in touch with your Inner Child”.
Earlier today, as I am sure you’ve heard, Robin Williams lost touch with his inner child. As Smokey sang, “…there’s some sad things known to man/But ain’t too much sadder than/ The tears of a clown/When there’s no one around.” As someone who used to work in stand-up comedy, I can attest that there’s something to that. A lot of comics are sad people. Humor is a self-defense mechanism for depressives. I can’t explain why, it just is.
There was a certainly lot of that manic quality on display in Williams’ stand-up work…in fact, we came to expect it from him; he was loved, lauded and lavished with lucre for acting out in public like an absolute fucking loon. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. It was his genius. It’s just that we rarely stop to think that some of these comic prodigies (like Williams’ idol Jonathan Winters) really do have a screw loose sometimes. For those like Jonathan and Robin, it may be their curse…but they made it our blessing.
But back to the funny “ha-ha” part of this whole thing…the legacy. Can you imagine, if you added up all the people who ever fell out of their chairs watching him perform on stage, from the tiniest little comedy holes like The Holy City Zoo in San Francisco (where it sticks in my craw to this day that I would somehow keep “missing” him when I lived there in the early 80s… “Oh, man, you left at 10:30 last night? Shit, man, Robin dropped by and did a surprise set at 11!”) to the prestigious concert halls, and then throw in all the people who sat in their living rooms laughing their asses off at Mork and Mindy (and still do, in syndication), and then top it off with the millions who flocked to his movies (good or bad)…how much endorphin release would that add up to in megatons?
We’ll let the psychologists worry about why he did what he ended up doing to himself (if that is indeed the case; the whys and the wherefores are not definitive as of this writing). A close friend emailed me about it this evening, and he offered an insightful corollary with another cultural icon of note, beginning with this classic Hunter S. Thompson quote:
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back…
He went on to point out that “…that high that made (Robin and Hunter) feel that anything was possible has since rolled back…and the sad reality of our corporate controlled existence almost demands them stepping off…leaving the future to another generation to resolve.” (h/t to JBF). And they were both in their 60s. Jesus, I think I just got even more depressed. Let’s get back to the work. I will leave you with my favorite Williams scene. It’s from Terry Gilliam’s film, The Fisher King. It’s a perfect 4 minute showcase of everything Robin excelled at as an actor and comic. RIP.