Remembering Robin Williams

For reasons that will never be known to living humans, Robin Williams has died of an apparent suicide. He was 63.

It happens that I’ve been reading Live From New York–Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s massive yet compulsively readable oral history of Saturday Night Live–and there are some snippets of dialogue from Williams. Yesterday morning, I read a bit of Williams recalling the death of another legendary clown, John Belushi. Belushi also killed himself, albeit by accident. But does anyone who self-medicates the way Belushi did (and the way Williams did around the same time, for that matter) really want to live anyway? The difficulty of maintaining your identity as a private person while living as a clown in public can be crushing, I suppose. The irony is that the comedy that’s designed to distract us from that ugly side of life is so often manufactured by people who live inside that ugliness much more than we’d like to know about. You self-medicate so that the pain is pushed to the periphery, leaving room for jokes at the cost of equilibrium. Maybe Williams thought it was better to get the hell out than to lie to himself with substances. That’s not exactly a justifiable thought, but misery forces us into a weird mindspace sometimes.

I can’t pretend that I’m a huge fan of Williams, but that’s not to say I disliked his work. Like most people I enjoyed his classic performances: the free-associative genius of his Genie in Aladdin; his dramatic turns in Good Will Hunting and What Dreams May Come; his exasperated nightclub owner in The Birdcage, which I think is quietly brilliant. But when I heard of his death, I thought of something that rock critic Steven Hyden wrote about Tom Petty: “Tom Petty’s music doesn’t necessarily demand a value judgment. It’s like having an opinion on tap water or concrete….Tom Petty has existed since the beginning of time, and will continue to exist until time is extinguished.” That’s Robin Williams too, I think. Williams was less a person than a fact, or at least it seemed that way. He didn’t have many hits after the ’90s, but it didn’t matter because you knew that Robin Williams was around, ready to do his thing whenever it was needed. That’s not to say that he wasn’t appreciated, only that he was so good that he became reliable.

It’s sad that he didn’t value himself the way the rest of the world did. It sucks for him and it sucks for the world.

The best thing I ever saw Robin Williams do was his episode of Inside The Actors Studio. The normally tepid program was transformed by Williams into part performance, part improv clinic, part fireside chat. He seemed incapable of stopping his body and his wits.

He was a human embodiment of nonstop talent. I hope he knows that, wherever he is.

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