Comedy is a light that shines through and can defeat the darkness of the human soul. For all the light that Robin Williams brought into our lives, it was his darkness that unfortunately took over in the moments that would ultimately lead to his untimely demise. Behind all great comedy and comedians there is a darkness that resonates and with all of Robin Williams performances there was always a darker element against which the comedy was played. It allowed him to shine brighter and impact us more. His talent allowed him to do that on the level he did. A lesser artist would not have moved us with the magnitude of Robin Williams. His legacy is not one of darkness though, even in his more serious roles.
Behind the red nose of Patch Adams there was death surrounding the character and the fight for laughter and dignity. While we were whisked away to Neverland with the boy who eventually grew up, Hook played with the father-son dynamic and the possibility of family disintegration. Mrs. Doubtfire played with the same theme as Hook but gave us a Scottish Williams in drag. Good Morning Vietnam was one of his darkest comedies. Set against the growing conflict of the Vietnam War, Williams, as a radio DJ, brought laughter to those who weren’t even aware they needed it. There is one scene in particular where Williams and Forest Whitaker are stuck in traffic surrounded by soldiers fresh from the U.S. and on their way to battle. Williams entertains them and has them gasping with laughter. As the traffic lifts, the trucks roll out and rather than having a smile of joy, Williams expression is solemn knowing these young men were being trucked off to scenes of horror and, more than likely, their own deaths as Williams character was apprised to news that was being held back from the troops. In a turn of 3 minutes, the scene went from tense, to jubilant, to dire. In these films, laughter and comedy bounced off and burst through the caverns built by tribulation and melancholy, but it is because of that potential sadness that the laughter played the role and had the impact it did.
Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. With these films Williams showcased his depth beyond the iconic monologues. He showed us that it is possible for one scene and one actor to make us laugh, cry, yell in anger and cheer in celebration. He played characters with turbulent pasts that they are in the process of working themselves through when we see Williams inhabit them. In Dead Poets, we are inspired by John Keating and in Good Will Hunting we are inspired with Sean Maguire. They both teach by different methods and Williams depth and breadth as an actor allowed these films and these characters to succeed with their respective lessons as he hit the right beats at the right time on the spectrum of emotion that would have the most impact.
Whether it was through his stand-up or his various television and film roles, his performances elicited emotion, which all art is meant to do. Great art and great artists make us feel something. They make us feel something, ultimately, about ourselves. They make us want to change ourselves, even if it is just a different look to make us feel better internally. Robin Williams never directly motivated me, but he showed what someone can do when they throw away “the book of caring what people think” and they go for it. For the sake of character, performance and sometimes simply to make someone laugh, Williams always went for it. I would say he was underrated with respect to the first two because we knew him mostly for his flamboyance and hilarity. Whereas George Carlin said things we wished we could, Robin Williams said things in a way we wished we could. For people of my generation, his movies were a big part of our childhood for reasons we can and will never be able to totally explain because I would argue we have forgotten the specifics of the matter. We can thank the better part of nostalgia for this. The better part being that which allows us to forget the specific but remember the general. The all encompassing feeling of joy, or simply of feeling, that Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire or Good Will Hunting gave us. Which is the very definition of beautiful.
From all accounts, Robin Williams lost his battle with addiction and depression and took his own life on August 11th, 2014. His smile will always give a reminder to a time when we smiled and laughed along with him. That smile also masked what must have been some very dark thoughts that led to his end. If you are struggling with darkness yourself, there is not much else to say other than don’t give up. Not because you owe anyone anything, but because the ultimate release you seek is not at the bottom of a pill or liquor bottle, nor is it at the end of blade, the nozzle of a gun, the bottom of a fall, or in the tight knot of a noose. The only real peace you can find is overcoming that struggle while you are still able to feel. For every valley there is a peak. In the moment before something drastic, reach out. There is always someone willing to talk even if that person is a stranger. Maybe that stranger is the better option than someone close. I don’t know who said it, but remember that suicidal feelings are the result of your body’s inability or lack of resources to manage or cope with the emotional or physical pain you are feeling. While it may seem like it is all in your head, it is not. It is a physical reaction and there are resources out there to help you make up for the ones, through no fault of your own, you have not developed yet. Reach out. Always.
Here are some resources:
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)
Artists’ Health Centre
Michael Landsberg’s “Sick Not Weak” Campaign – an amazing thing. Also: #sicknotweak and follow Michael on twitter for daily updates.
Rest, hopefully, in peace Robin Williams. Thank you for your talent, your smile and your light.