For most of us, being funny, especially extremely so, leaves us looking like a shaded relief map: The funny part juts out, while the rest falls into shadow. When we make another laugh, the catharsis the listener experiences is realized viscerally, like twitching funny bones. Even when comedy takes darkness as a subject (such as Williams’ musings on the Grim Rapper), the listeners see the pain inherent to their lives decontextualized enough to hold close to the heart, and from it, they heartily guffaw, feeling recalibrated. They are healed, if but for a moment. What lies underneath the surface is the fact that, through the performance of comedy, be it on stage or for a doting fan in an LA restaurant, a connection is formed, the intimate connection between performer and audience. It is a sacred circle we have entered, the peals of laughter the foundation of a grand temple of the enduring human spirit. But on the other side of this light is darkness: When we make another laugh, they want more of the same, like a drug addict on a quest, and in pursuit of it, they disregard the totality of the performer’s terrain, his relief map, his other sides that may not be so endearing.
Imagine what it was like for someone as funny as Robin Williams. The isolation brought about by the selective partitioning off of his experience, and thus himself, whether done willfully or unintentionally by his fans and his business, not only accounts for the drugs he took and the life he ended, but for the bud of severe depression that flowered in his later years. The experience of such compartmentalization fractures the whole into pieces, dark and light, good and bad, pain and pleasure, all losing meaning as they are placed in their respective slots; even the dichotomy holding these pieces together becomes cracked, and because of that, we lose balance, spinning off center. As an example, Williams’ may have felt he could never be judgmental, for wouldn’t that be callous for a man with such fame, influence, and money? Therefore, without even the “piece” of judgment, without the live-wire tension it may have centrifugally held with his acceptance or maybe love, suicide became a possible action. In 1993, I tried to kill myself from a sense of being utterly misunderstood: My most valued quality, kindness, became so disregarded by others in favor of my perceived lothario-essence that I could but simply watch it – hog-tied by their perceptions as I was – fall off the map, plunge off the cliff. Williams may well have felt the same way, unwanted and untouchable, leaving him rented and gashed, leaving him desperate enough to do what he unfortunately did.
Mental illness is no joke. It is rife with loneliness that is, in part, exacerbated by a lack of privacy, an inability to go anywhere without being dragged out of the shell – fans snapping photos; tabloids unearthing “dirt” – the shell we all must inhabit from time to time to stay centered. The constant dwindling of Williams’ inner light should have presented an opportunity to not only heal him, but move beyond what I suggest is the stigma of being funny (Chris Farley, John Belushi). Someone should have listened, and let Robin share his most jagged thoughts; talked, and let it be words for him of wholehearted, unadulterated acceptance. I just wish he could have told us what was hidden within, instead of always showing us what was splendidly obvious: talent, humor, and significance.