My makeup is dry and it clags on my chin
I’m drowning my sorrows in whisky and gin.
— The Kinks, “Death of a Clown”
When news of Robin Williams’ death hit the Internet, social media hemorrhaged expressions of shock and sorrow.
That was nothing new. When celebrities die, Facebook and Twitter typically become mourning walls for fans, especially when the death is unexpected. And there have been plenty of such losses over the past year or so: James Gandolfini, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lou Reed, Maya Angelou.
However, this time it felt different. Reaction to Williams’ death felt deeper and more widespread. When sports network ESPN covers the death of an actor and comedian, the story transcends entertainment news.
The sense of loss was deepened by the cause of death: suicide. He was only 63, but Williams had been part of some people’s lives for almost 40 years as an award-winning actor in TV and film and as a standup comic.
I was a college freshman when he first appeared as Mork on “Happy Days.” Sixteen years later, I was a father of two when I first saw him on video in one of my favorite Williams roles, as the genie in “Aladdin.” Between those years, there were plenty of other encounters: “Popeye,” “The World According to Garp,” “Club Paradise,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.”
Williams was part of more than 80 films, including several to be released posthumously, playing a variety of characters. Some were comical, some were dramatic, some were dark and creepy. He was uncommonly versatile and could be profoundly convincing.
But Williams will be remembered most for being funny, for being a comedian, a joyous, manic jester with a rapier wit and a whip-smart sense of improvisation.
My first exposure to his standup routine was in “An Evening With Robin Williams,” one of his stellar comedy specials, released in 1982. I remember the day after: My face muscles were tight, and my stomach was sore from laughing so hard for so long. He could be that funny — make you laugh till your eyes gushed tears, and your lungs begged for air.
As a standup comedian, Williams could do it all: political and social satire, role-playing and character acting, observational humor, improvisational humor. But he did it all in a manner like no other: kinetic and manic, volcanic and unpredictable, raw and earnest.
“His brain was always thinking 10 steps ahead of what he was saying,” Jimmy Fallon said Tuesday night in his “Tonight Show” tribute to Williams. “He was like the Muhammad Ali of comedy.”
The best comedy casts a spell upon its audience. It distills truths and perceptions into observations that challenge and puncture conventional wisdom. It shares personal experiences that make life’s pains and tribulations humorous and, thus, more universal and tolerable.
The best comedians let us inside their hearts and minds. They plumb their psyches, extract pains and sorrows and disappointments and spin them into intimate stories and routines that relieve our own tribulations and sorrows by making us laugh about them.
It’s no coincidence that many of our greatest comedians were tormented and prone to excesses and substance abuse, from whiskey and gin to heroin. Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, John Belushi, Sam Kinison, Mitch Hedberg, Greg Giraldo, Chris Farley: all battled addictions; some died of them.
In an essay about Williams’ death written for the Guardian, Russell Brand, a fellow comedian and actor, wrote: “We sort of accept that the price for that free-flowing, fast-paced, inexplicable comic genius is a counterweight of solitary misery, that there is an invisible inner economy that demands a high price for breathtaking talent.”
And in an essay at Time.com, comedian Jim Norton, a friend of Williams, wrote: “The funniest people I know seem to be the ones surrounded by darkness. And that’s probably why they’re the funniest. The deeper the pit, the more humor you need to dig yourself out of it.”
Had he died in an accident or of an illness, Williams’ death would be easier to withstand. But we know now that he died because he couldn’t conquer that solitary misery, because he was as fragile as he was funny, because he could no longer mask his pain. His genius sprung from that darkness Norton wrote of, a darkness we didn’t see and from which he could not emerge. Turns out he needed rescue and remedy as much as all of us.
None of that jibes with our outward perceptions of a guy who so easily made so many laugh. And because he made us laugh so much and so often, his departure deprives us of what used to be a remedy for our own miseries: his rampant sense of humor. Or as Brand put it, “Robin Williams is part of the sad narrative that we used to turn to him to disrupt.”
The deaths of celebrities conjure a peculiar grief. How do you mourn someone you never knew? Our connection to them may feel deep, but it’s remote, rooted in two-dimensional encounters on a TV or movie screen. Yet the sense of loss is real. Through their art and performances, we identified with them, admitted them to our own hearts and minds, leaned on them for support. In Williams’ case, the payoff was twofold: a connection to him and a bounty of laughter.
Lots of his fans have soothed their sorrow by watching Williams’ standup routines or his many movies. The affection remains but, at least for now, it’s hard to watch him from the same perspective. The makeup is off, the mask has been removed, the spell has been broken.