Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Weeping for Clowns


From Esquire Magazine


My whole life I’ve looked for exceptions to the “comedian who’s secretly in pain” rule.  I’ve always wanted to be the funniest guy. When Chris Farley lived, I delighted in his self-effacing style and his willingness to lean into his physicality, so to speak, and embrace that he was a big dude.. I appreciated that acknowledgement of the obvious. Yeah, I’m a big guy, and I can be funny, and THAT’S why people will like me. It’ll be funny when I fall or break a chair... When he died, even at age 15 or 16 I saw a little too much of myself in the fat guy who would do anything for a laugh, and I even got scared when my eyes were opened to the relentless abuse he inflicted upon himself through drugs and booze and all manner of things. He was clearly a guy who wasn’t as confident or happy with himself “Chris Farley the Funny Fat Guy” as I’d always wanted him to be. I’m sure another generation felt the same about John Belushi.

I probably didn’t think about Robin Williams all that much over the past 10 years, but when I heard about his death, from an apparent suicide, I was struck with sadness I couldn’t have predicted. I was saddened over his death, but especially so over the manner. And, if I’m honest, not entirely shocked.

It’s nothing I’d ever said to anyone. Mostly because I don’t think people sit around talking about the funny guys who are most likely to off themselves. I’m sure there’s someone somewhere who would have guessed drug overdose (Robin Williams’ struggles with addition were well known), but suicide always comes out of left field, even when you look back and say “All of the signs were there.”

There was something desperate about his comedy. Someone on Grantland said as much during one of the tributes, and they put it perfectly… he always seemed afraid of losing the audience, even as they were erupting with laughter over one of his bits. While many were brought to tears of laughter by his antics, I was always at least a little unsettled. There was something about the incredible, relentless drive of words and consciousness that always made me uneasy. I used to watch Letterman pretty regularly, and when Williams would come on, I’d watch the first couple of minutes in hopes that he’d tone down his spitfire stream, and usually would flip channels halfway through the interview. I just couldn’t ever get past the idea of how incredibly tiring he must have been being so ON all the time.

He was clearly the most talented guy in almost any room he was in, but there was never a moment he didn’t seem to be begging for everyone’s approval. It makes me unbearably sad to think that this man, who made millions of people laugh, and cry, and feel, and *seize the day*, was able to do those things so powerfully and magically for everyone around him, but couldn’t connect those reactions with the reality of how truly loved that made him.

It’s not uncommon for addicts to talk about how they lacked *something* or couldn’t get enough of *something* and the drugs were a surrogate for what they really needed… I have to wonder what it was that Robin Williams couldn’t get.

Of course, it never really matters how much other people love you if you can’t love yourself. What a trite and annoying cliché, but also perhaps tragically true. I just wish that every kid who fell immediately in love with the mania and genius that was Genie in ‘Aladdin’, or Peter in ‘Hook’ … every teenager who wished they’d had a teacher as dynamic as Mr. Keating in ‘Dead Poets Society’, or a nanny like Mrs. Doubtfire, or a therapist like Sean Maguire in ‘Good Will Hunting’ … I wish all of those people whose lives were so profoundly enriched by his talent and warmth and empathy and just… utter goddamned fire… were able to transfer just one pinch of that back to him, so he could truly feel it. So maybe that could have penetrated the inscrutable shell that is depression and isolation that he apparently felt through a lot of his life. Unfortunately my rudimentary understanding of that kind of depression tells me that the more you’re told how much you’re loved, the deeper your own hole can feel. “Why don’t I feel about myself  what other people say they feel about me?”
It makes me unbearably sad to think that this man, who made literally millions of people laugh, and cry, and feel, and *seize the day*,  was able to do those things so powerfully and magically for everyone around him, but couldn’t connect those reactions with the reality of how truly loved that made him.

Looking back you see it… He was always searching for that key to whatever riddle he believed he was, and all of his roles were just new attacks at his own personal Rubicks Cube. He never quite found that key, so he kept manically plugging away and plugging away and I guess he finally just decided to peel off the colors, and solve himself that way.

I sincerely hope that, if there’s an afterlife, he’s found the peace and fulfillment that eluded him in life. I’ll continue to find joy in his performances. To revel in the unbridled perfection of Genie. To well up at his warm, passionate, inspiring Mr. Keating. And I’ll wish he’d taken to heart the words of his own, Oscar Winning role in Good Will Hunting:

You'll have bad times, but it'll always wake you up to the good stuff you weren't paying attention to.”

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

As always, well thought out and reasoned. Thanks. Barbara Blum

Anna Parkes said...

Robin Williams was such an extraordinary human being. Sad is not a big enough word to express how I feel about his death, but as I didn't know him in person I don't feel right in claiming any more intimate an emotion. What a tragic loss. Thank you for this insightful piece.
Anna