Requiem For A Comedian
(NOTE: This was originally posted August 12th, 2014. I think it speaks to the fragile balance between brilliance and madness).
The only lesson we need to learn from the the Robin Williams tragedy is that it isn't a tragedy at all. It's the simple and eternal economics of genius.
We all accept the theoretical fine line between madness and genius except when it plays out right in front of us. That isn't to say that Williams was always destined to take his own life, only that the odds were always stacked against him. He was yet another in the long line of unfathomably talents souls who felt too awkward to survive in this world.
There are those who will rationalize Williams' demise in some sort of “he had it all” equation, as if all the fame and fortune and talent in the world should somehow ultimately overcome his darkest side. What needs to be fully understood though, is that Robin Williams wasn't funny in spite of his demons, but rather because of them. What made him brilliant is what also made him tortured.
This was very evident in the way Williams carried out his patented comic routines. He would move in such a dramatic and deliberate fashion that you could almost see him literally leave one persona and enter into another. He would slide his arms over his torso and make a bold lateral step in a classic Shakespearean aside. It was how he cleared your brain of one character and allowed you – and him – to fully embrace another.
This wasn't just something that he did during his five minutes onstage to ebb seamlessly in his frenetic, stream-of-consciousness, free flowing comedy. It was how he lived his professional life and, one can likely assume, how he also lived in private.
In the most classic of ways Williams was burdened - perhaps haunted - by the proverbial tears of a clown and his outlet of choice, at least publicly, was portraying serious characters in very (at the time at least) un-Robin Williams roles. While we certainly can remember his best jokes we also begrudgingly saw how easily he embodied and inhabited the more sombre and serious characters he played. It was like he never missed a beat and, in all reality, he didn't.
Robin Williams shouldn't have been so good at being so serious we think but that, at its very core, is the very essence of funny. It's the part we could never comes to grips with and the basic misunderstanding most of us will grapple as the dust eventually settles on the life of this comic genius.
But, we need to know what comedy is to appreciate who Robin Williams was.
In the simplest of terms, comedy is tragedy over time. It's the fundamental comedic principle. While the sinking of The Titanic wasn't particularly hilarious in 1912, as the years rolled on it became easier and easier to laugh about it. It's what we humans do. It's how we learn to cope.
All comedians – the great ones at least – are tragedies over time. All of them. They were the fat kids; the unattractive; the undesirable; and the ultimate losers. Each came with their own tragic story with a laugh track eventually provided by Father Time. Beautiful people don't have funny stories to tell. They're not supposed to. That's why the funny people are the imperfect ones. That laughter comes at a cost.
Robin Williams certainly had his demons. Not demons he invented in his head or ones brought on by his drug addiction but ones that were true and present and very real – to him at least. To shrug them off as anything less would be a true injustice to his legacy. Again, what made him brilliant also made him tortured. His absolute synthesis with comedy was the direct result of his intimacy with pain. The higher he rose into one, the deeper he fell into the other. This isn't a romanticized rationale for a suicide, it's a primal understanding of the tenuous balancing act between genius and madness. Historically this road is littered with the countless souls of the vanquished. Robin Williams is but another one.
So now where does this leave us? What are we to make of his complicated life cut "too short”? First off: stop thinking like that. Robin Williams ultimately isn't a tragic character. His legacy is that of a funny man who left the world a much richer, and happier place than when he found it. He is a blessing to humanity and to taint his memory in any negative way is a serious insult to his legacy.
Add up the laughs he provided to you in one column and the sad or sorry feelings you have for him in another and you'll notice the list heavily weighted to the former. A sudden exit doesn't trump a brilliant role.
Robin Williams wasn't a perfect individual, nor was he ever professed to be. He suffered from all the burdens and foibles and yes, the demons we all have, but persevered long enough to leave us with much, much more. And all this from a person we ultimately never really knew, yet in some ways, we feel we did.
And therein lies the greatest gift of all: that feeling that we somehow really did know him. That's why the pain is so vivid for so many right now. Because he did touch you, and he did make you laugh. And that's a very good thing and that's precisely what he would have wanted. And, for the genius that was Robin Williams, that's all you need to remember.