by Dish Staff
Megan Garber honors the comedy legend:
[Robin Williams] has been with us—and next to us, and above us—for more than 40 years, not just on the screens of multiplexes, but in our living rooms and in our lives. There’s Good Morning, Vietnam, on Netflix. There’s Mrs. Doubtfire, on TBS. There are those reruns of his stand-up on Comedy Central. There are all those clips on YouTube. …
We refer to our actors—the big ones, at least—as “stars.” We do that mostly because it’s a convenient cliche. But we do it as well because celebrities have a kind of cosmic constancy in our lives. The people we put on our screens—the people we elevate and exaggerate, the people whose likenesses we watch, huddled together in darkened rooms—form their own kind of firmament. Ancient humans used the stars to navigate the world; we ask our own stars to do similar work. We look to them not necessarily to guide us, but to orient us.
What are your thoughts about Mrs. Doubtfire? How funny is the Genie? Do you think that “words and ideas can change the world“? However you answer those questions, they will reveal something about you and your place in the universe.
A bit more down to Earth, Alyssa reflects on Williams’ remarkable range, which “resonated in radically different ways”:
Williams excelled in bring out the strength in characters who initially appeared weak, and in bringing dignity to people mired in hopelessly undignified situations. He also slyly exposed the weakness and selfishness in people who seemed to be strong, even when he was only acting with his voice. As the Genie in Disney’s gorgeous animated movie “Aladdin,” Williams beautifully captured the dilemmas of a being who had access to tremendous power, but had to manipulate other people to get closer to his own heart’s desire. He was critical to making the movie more than kids’ stuff.
Marlow Stern adds:
[Williams] didn’t just play a huge role in the lives of children; he was a malleable, adaptable comedian who could cater to audiences young and old, gay and straight. Take his outré turn as gay Miami nightclub owner Armand Goldman in Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage (a personal favorite), which saw him shift from flamboyant scenery-chewer to composed pseudo-Republican parent at the drop of a hat. Or as Joey, the sleazy, besieged used car salesman in Cadillac Man.
A good glimpse at Robin’s range:
But Damon Linker sees the darker edge of that versatility:
In his manic and maniacal stand-up routines no less than in his greatest dramatic acting, Williams danced on a tightrope over the abyss.
He behaved like a man desperately trying to distract attention from an emptiness within himself. The possibility that he ended his own life leaves me feeling terribly sad. But it also feels somehow fitting, like the confirmation of a half-acknowledged hunch — or the fulfillment of an awful prophesy barely perceived or understood.
On stage Williams could be exhilarating, and exhausting, as he hurtled through a kaleidoscopic array of characters, some impressions of famous people, most of them conjured from the depths of his own slightly deranged and riotous imagination. In well over an hour of frenzied free-association, Williams would careen through the world, making bizarre connections, heaving forth fragments of ideas and clumps of observations from what must have been a tortuous unconscious.
When it was over, I was invariably worn out by laughter — but I also felt slightly unnerved, aware on some level that I’d just been entertained by one man’s utterly distinctive form of self-abuse. It was less a comedy routine than a comedic seizure.
That spectacular energy came from “not just natural genius,” Willa Paskin points out, “but also cocaine, drugs, emotional pain”:
At his best, and also at his worst, there was something uncontrollable about Williams. Even perfectly in control of his body, of his impersonations, of his timing, he seemed powerless—or scared—to stop being a fount of funny, to turn it off. His non-stop energy often had a childlike quality to it—Peter Pan in Hook; an overgrown boy in Jack; even Mork, who like all Orkans aged backwards—but also something more substantial, more dangerous, and more unhinged. … Performers’ deaths, especially the unnatural ones, often color, at least for a little while, their work. Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” is not a song you could listen to the same way after she drank herself to death.
J. Cohn hopes that Williams’ death raises more awareness of depression and the risk of suicide:
Although we’re accustomed to hearing about artists and their hidden “demons,” Williams was such an effervescent, joyous presence that his struggles could put into sharper relief just how life-altering and devastating mental illness can be. If he couldn’t conquer it on his own, who could? The lesson would be one last, great contribution from an artist who made so many already. …
We’ve come a long way since the days when we treated the mentally ill as freaks—covering up and denying their problems, holding them singularly responsible for their conditions, or locking them up far away in institutions. We’ve also learned a great deal about the interaction with addiction—and the extent to which both afflictions can have deep genetic roots or be shaped by experience very early in infancy and childhood. But we still treat it as a second-class disease. It’s evident in the choices we make as a society and, too often, in our actions as individuals. The stigma, though far less potent, lingers.
Comedian Jim Norton can relate:
So many comics I know seem to struggle with the demons of self-hatred and self-destruction. While my physically self-destructive days ended when I got sober, the thought of suicide has always been there, as an option, behind a glass that I could someday break in case of an emergency. I glamorized the idea of constructing my own exit. …
The funniest people I know always 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.
Read all of our RIP coverage here.
(Photo: A makeshift memorial for Robin Williams is set up in front of a home in Boulder, Colorado on August 11, 2014. The exterior of the house was used in the opening credits for “Mork & Mindy,” the comedy based in Boulder that catapulted Williams’ career. By Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)