Thursday, August 14, 2014

Guest Post: The Lasting Influence of Robin Williams

Meredith's Note:

I'm not usually affected by celebrity deaths; I didn't know them personally, and though I may mourn the loss of their artistic contributions, I just don't cry or get upset.

Until Monday.

Robin Williams would not normally be on my lists of actors who come to mind if I thought about my favorite stars, and yet with his passing I cannot help but think about all his wonderful movies I've enjoyed so much throughout my life: Popeye, Hook, Good Will Hunting, Good Morning Vietnam, The Birdcage, and many more. 

More than that, the manner of his death and his prior struggle with depression seem to be hitting us all especially hard. I have not been very open with my own battle against depression since being diagnosed in 2009. For me, it's just too intimate to talk about publicly. As a friend of mine pointed out, though, the suicide of such a well-known person, famous for his humor and his ability to make us all laugh, hits home for so many of us who know that dark place all too well. We who have fought against the black hole and who have even been plagued by the irrational and yet very real thoughts that the world would be a better place without us, we who have talked close friends out of suicide -- we have a pretty clear idea what Robin Williams' demons looked like. Thankfully, with the help of an excellent therapist and some medication, my personal struggle has become manageable and my bad days bearable. For too many others, unfortunately, the struggle is overwhelming...and fatal. People who attempt suicide usually don't want to die, they just want the pain to go away. I can imagine the amount of pain someone has to have inside them to feel like they cannot endure one more moment; I'm so sorry that Robin Williams, and countless others, feel there is no other choice and that they will never get better.

One of my ways of dealing with my own darkness is to write. I write out my demons, I write out my worst fears, and in doing so, I can control them so they don't control me. Lately I write a lot about children because my dark places have taken the form of anxiety -- nearly to the point of paranoia -- about my children being hurt, or worse. I write about children a lot because I know that every day, in a million tiny ways, I let my children down and fail them as a mother. Writing helps me get past that and sleep at night.

My brother, Mr. Funny, has his own ways of coping with his demons and darkness: comedy. If I'm the ancient Greek mask Melpomene ("'Tragedy"), Mr. Funny is Thalia ("Comedy"). Like so many comedians, including Robin Williams, Mr. Funny's jokes come from a very serious and tragic place inside him. One of Mr. Funny's earliest influences was Robin Williams. Here, my baby brother talks about his earliest memories of Robin Williams and how laughter all too often comes from a place of tears.


My mother likes to recount the times when I was five and would take one of her hairbrushes and “brush my teeth,” a bit I picked up from the endless hours of Robin Williams specials. Maybe allowing my sister and I to watch his specials wasn’t everyone’s model of parenting (my father would also play Eddie Murphy records while I was in ear shot), but I’d like to think this helped cultivate my love of comedy, particularly stand up.

To be honest, I probably had very little idea what Eddie or Robin were even talking about. However, Robin Williams’ frenetic, fast paced, multi-voiced act transcended the generations. He could tell a story about wringing out a mop and turn it into something far more hilarious than most comics’ tried and true bits about their strict Catholic schooling or the string of bad dates they had been on.

I was fixated and, as I got into my teen years, I realized stand-up comedy was something I wanted - nay, needed - to do. Oh, I was a shy introvert and knew it would take a lot to overcome my self-imposed shell. A lot of this, I realize now, came from deep anxiety combined with what was undiagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. How was I to know then that my ability to spout off jokes in the middle of family dinners, events, and even family fights was part of both my strange mind at work, and my quick-strike defense mechanism?

As I got older, Robin Williams starred more often in serious roles. This made him twice as talented in my mind and I was as smitten with his dramatic roles as I was inspired by his comic performances. I knew he had had a history of drug use, but never knew about his struggle with depression. Many people are now saying, “We should have seen it” or “we should have seen it more.”  The sad truth is that no one really knows everything that goes on in the mind of someone who’s depressed, no more than anyone would know what an anorexic, manic depressive, or schizophrenic person goes through. There is a cliche that all comics - at least the good ones - have deep issues they are covering up. Maybe now it’ll be seen as less "funny ha-ha," and more of a dark joke that’s played on us all.

Beyond headlines about the tragic suicide of my boyhood idol, I’ve been reflecting on my own experiences with people close to me who have struggled with depression and other disorders. Many, although not all, are comics. For comics, I guess it is easier and even cathartic to work through as much of the pain with jokes, improvisation, and routines. Of course, “easy” may not be the right term.

A few years ago, a friend and I organized a show featuring comics who were dealing with issues – the kind that never truly go away: alcoholism, drugs, agoraphobia, bulimia, etc. My friend spent her life struggling with the often misunderstood and misrepresented Tourette’s Syndrome, I had my OCD, and together we all told stories that were not 100% funny, but also not entirely sad. Our goal was to entertain, but also educate.

While it’s important is that we learn what we can about depression - the signs, and the support that’s out there - I would like to also respect his family’s wishes to remember Robin Williams as the amazing man and talent he was. Comics who worked with him, or even just met him in passing, have endless stories of how generous he was as a person and comedian, pushing for stage time for other comics and being there for people behind the scenes. The remark comics made when comparing other comedians was often, “Well, he’s no Robin Williams.” He was the gold standard.

Actors in Hollywood talk about how hard it is to do comedy, yet comedy gets such little respect by The Academy. Robin Williams won an award for an amazing dramatic role in “Good Will Hunting,” and to say that was long overdue is an understatement. He made it possible to view comedians as the hardworking performers they are.

There have been many comedic trailblazers, but the legacy of Robin Williams will never be matched. 


Mr. Funny, aka Evan Morgenstern, can be found on Twitter at Evanjm02, on Tumblr at EvanMorgensternObsessiveComedy, and is co-host of the stand-up show Comic Sans, which you can find on Facebook at /groups/thecomicsans

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