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Humor Is Life: RIP Robin Williams, 1951–2014

Press Play By Max Winter | Press Play August 12, 2014 at 5:39AM

The mixture of feelings I had when I read of Robin Williams’s suicide was dramatic. Grief, of course. Shock. Anger. Confusion. These were all at the front of my mind, blaring, inescapable. But above and beyond all of these, was, oddly enough, fear, whose source I could not immediately identify. But then it came to me.
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Anyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with me knows this: I consider humor very important. It can be a great social balm, a means of communicating with others—but beyond that, it is one of the most complex ways I can think of, besides poetry, to make sense out of the peculiarity of waking up, functioning, and being in the world. For me, those who through whatever gift are able to make humor their livelihood, and sustain that livelihood over a lifetime, become like prophets, speaking the highest sort of truth—but truth, ironically enough, that could either make your eyes water and your nose run or make you wet your pants. So the mixture of feelings I had when I read of Robin Williams’s suicide was dramatic. Grief, of course. Shock. Anger. Confusion. These were all at the front of my mind, blaring, inescapable. But above and beyond all of these, was, oddly enough, fear, whose source I could not immediately identify. Then it came to me.

I remember being amazed, as a twelve-year-old, that Williams could act seriously. When I learned that he had been cast in The World According to Garp, I was baffled. But he’s Mork, I thought. Mork from Ork. What’s he doing in a film of this stature? After all, the film was based on a novel by John Irving. A close friend of the time, Steve Ingham, was nuts about Irving, and he had me nuts about him, too. And so the idea that such a movie might be coming out assumed gigantic importance for me. The fact that Robin Williams would star in it was both wonderful and terrible: wonderful because I, like most people my age, worshipped Williams, but terrible because I simply couldn’t imagine him being serious. As it was, he gave a memorable performance as young human tabula rasa T.S. Garp, up against formidable talents such as Glenn Close and John Lithgow—though the film would not necessarily loom large amongst others, due to its personal, small scope, I would always remember that as one of his best performances. And, when thinking about the range of films he made over the course of his career, it’s the serious roles that stand out most. He learned, gradually, how to take control of the serious parts he was given, and to do so in a way that seemed natural to him. Movies such as Dead Poets Society, or Awakenings, while certainly moving, offered lesser performances than Good Will Hunting, or The Fisher King, or Insomnia—where you were actually able to forget, for a moment, that you were watching someone who, in another context, could be continuously funny, for fifteen solid minutes, who might reduce you to the point of pathetic laughter—and then would keep on, as if he didn’t care if you were in pain, lying in your bed or on your sofa, in the dark, late at night, clutching your stomach. It’s that feeling I’ll remember most about him, in fact, the feeling you would get when watching him on stage, without props: that of watching someone supremely in control of himself, of his voice, of his posture, of his physical movements, but also, in a sense, anarchic within himself, unable to sit still when appearing on a talk show, sometimes seeming as if he were moving around a room when he was still seated, so animated, so wise. And the irreverence: the fact that he could use a voice whose baseline was a slightly worshipful tone to be wildly, brashly, politically incorrect, to make fun of, frankly, anything he felt like making fun of. What inspiring, beautiful freedom.

There’s really no explaining this death. Nothing works. He was depressed. His comic gifts masked a deep darkness. We never knew the real man. Substance abuse took its toll. These are all statements he probably would have made fun of. All we really know is that yesterday, he felt bad enough, or desperate enough, or frustrated enough, to put an end to his own life. All any one individual can speak of with any accuracy is the effect of an event like this on that individual’s life. This event will probably haunt me for a long time. I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about my own life, about its scope and span, and it occurred to me that Williams’ public visibility began in the late 70s, just when I would have first been able to laugh at his jokes, to recognize what it meant to witness someone who was truly, indelibly funny. And he’s stayed present in my life through almost four decades, as long as I’ve been on this planet. A presence like this becomes a cultural cornerstone, a foundation, someone upon whom you rely for a service, or a specific function. I knew that if I saw him appear in his natural element, which was to say tossing his hilarious sagacity into space and seeing where it landed, he could be relied upon to make me laugh, regardless of whatever had happened before I watched him, regardless of whatever feelings I had at the time. And so the fear I felt when I learned that he died was fear of what his absence meant. And what is that? The best way of saying it is this. It’s like cosmic slapstick: I lean against a wall, but someone’s taken it away when I wasn't looking, because it turned out to be a false wall, and so I'm stumbling, semi-comically, semi-tragically, slowly stumbling into darkness.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

This article is related to: Max Winter, Robin Williams


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