When a high-profile celebrity or public figure dies — or even when a family member dies — people tend to turn the event inward, to focus on what that individual meant to them specifically. I’m not going to pretend this isn’t a totally selfish and self-serving blog post, but I finally wanted to put my thoughts down concerning the late, great Robin Williams, who died on Monday. But I’m going to keep it short and to the point. The simple fact is that the world has lost perhaps its greatest comic voice. There may be arguments about whether individuals found his particular style of comedy to their liking, but there can be no doubt that he was easily one of the best comedians the world has ever seen — and I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic. He did it all, and he did it with love and compassion and sensitivity and humanity and empathy and boundless joy.
He was undoubtedly a genius. His mind, despite the years of substance abuse and admitted depression, was razor-sharp and he didn’t wait for us to catch up with him — he knew his audience could keep up, even though we’d always be a few steps behind. He was a personal trainer for comedians, comedy fans, and anyone who wanted to work a little for their laughter. Take this episode of Louie, for example.
I knew him best from two films that seemed to be on a constant loop through our VCR: Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire. Others knew him from his early work such as Mork and Mindy or his Live at the Met comedy special; still others remember Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting or even Popeye or Patch Adams.
For me it was his role as the Genie that did it… an iconic and generation-defining role if there ever was one. I remember, even at nine years old (I saw Aladdin on my ninth birthday, before going to lunch at Red Robin, where I’m sure I bothered my friends and family by immediately, and inevitably, endlessly quoting the movie), realizing that the film had not just made me laugh, but it had made me care in a way most kid-friendly pop culture hadn’t at that point. The Genie, having asked for his freedom, knows that he won’t likely receive it… but he does, the music swells, and then comes the sudden realization from both Aladdin and the Genie: his freedom also means saying goodbye. It’s painfully bittersweet.
We had the soundtrack, which I used to listen to on cassette before I fell asleep at night. I remember being filled with that sort of joyous melancholy during that musical crescendo — and it was due almost entirely to Williams’ performance. Joy. Love. Empathy. These were his gifts, but even more, he taught us that we could laugh even as we experienced that twinge of sadness. It was a rare gift, and for those of us who grew up with his humor, I believe he taught us a great deal about what it means to care for others, and to make a sacrifice to help others smile.
Everyone has a Robin Williams role or film that has been important to them for some reason or another. I have yet to hear of someone who has been unaffected or unmoved by his death. He touched us all. He brought us joy, laughter, and a sense of wonder, even as he struggled with disease and addiction. It’s often been said that comedians are some of the most troubled individuals — many take their own suffering and turn it into humor in order to cope with their own demons and illnesses. Williams’ manic energy and chaotic transformative comic sensibility no doubt protected him from himself. I remember discussions during high school and college, when he would come up in conversation, that this was his ego on full display — and many (myself included at times) suggested this was a negative characteristic. Now I realize that his energy was probably a completely vanity-free call to say, “Please, I want you to like me!” And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. He made himself the center of attention because he wanted that attention. It was not ego or pride, but the complete opposite of that: a vulnerability, an honesty about his anxieties and insecurities, an unabashed, uncensored desire to be loved and to make others laugh. This is I think what drew us to him; we recognized our own vulnerabilities and fears, and he made us comfortable with that sort of raw openness through laughter and humor. His comic vision was entirely selfless — he wanted to connect to others and to create connections, and laughter was the conduit for these connections.
He’s had so many different roles, but there is one thing that I think runs throughout them all (even his villainous or “creepy” roles: One Hour Photo, Insomnia, World’s Greatest Dad, etc.). Whenever a film needed a bit of heart, of empathy, of genuine openness and humanity, it seems he was able to bring that sensibility. And his creativity, talent, and mental acuity allowed him to create that humanity in so many different ways, asking, “how do we smile when faced with this crisis?”
Comedy is dangerous. It demands you be perceptive, empathetic, understanding, open, listening, engaging with the world. Imagine stripping away those layers of you that you have placed, subconsciously or consciously, as barriers to the world. Layers that protect and insulate, that keep you safe and help deflect sadness, anger, uncertainty, fear, anxiety. The greatest comedians must often peel those protective layers away in order to reach that raw, tender, vulnerable state that allows them to create comedy that will touch us deeply and resonate beyond our immediate laughter. The trade off is, of course, that with this gift, comes potential for pain and sadness. I think of spiritual healers who personally absorb others’ negativity, sins, pain, and suffering, in order to help their patients reach peace and tranquility. Robin Williams was this sort of spiritual healer, but his tools were empathy and love, coupled with boundless energy and enthusiasm for life’s chaos. Perhaps he absorbed too much, his heart became too heavy. I won’t speculate, I can only assume that his gifts to the world must have come at a heavy price.
You were our spark, Mr. Williams. And the world will be a little dimmer without your light.