Rare are the moments where reading of an actor’s passing does much more to me other than illicit a half-shrug before I carry on with my day, but in the case of Robin Williams it stopped me straight in my tracks. There I stood in the middle of the grocery store, hands full of cat foot, as I stared down at my phone with my eyes fixed at the top of my Facebook newsfeed where Toula Drimonis had shared a breaking news tweet from NBC.
I stood there for a few minutes, half unable to digest the news, half perplexed by why precisely it affected me so.
As a playwright and director, I naturally veer towards the comedic, even though I’m far too serious in my daily life and my eyes have often been described as acutely sad.
I believe there’s tragedy and heaviness to those who excel at making us laugh. A fight. An anger that slaps away life’s cruelties. Scoffs at its idiosyncrasies. An awareness that if life is going to be crummy and society unfair, you may as help others help others laugh about it along the way.
This underlying darkness that accentuates most comedians work is the reason I tend to find deeper appreciation in their dramatic ventures. Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love. Jim Carey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Marlon Wayans in Requiem for a Dream. Mo’Nique in Precious. And, of course, Williams. World’s Greatest Dad, What Dreams May Come, Dead Poets Society, One Hour Photo: all beautifully, humanly sad.
In these films Williams performed tragedy with unsettling vulnerability. World’s Greatest Dad and What Dreams May Come both deal with themes of suicide. Here, Williams portrayed with nuance, empathy and compassion, but in hindsight, perhaps the strength of his performances was first-hand familiarity with the subject matter at hand.
Williams depression wasn’t new. He was an alcoholic with a long history of substance abuse. He dodged consistent allegations of stealing jokes throughout his years as a stand-up comic. He suffered, despite and through the laughs, he suffered.
He was ill, and yes illness kills. Not every cancerous tumor proves to be fatal, and the same is true for depression and other mental illnesses folks live with. But some are indeed fatal. His suicide was an act of agency, not cowardice, and while sad, he should neither be judged nor pitied.
Help should be sought, shoulders leaned on, therapy offered, and medication tried, but in the end, laughs may falter, and we have to accept that maybe that’s just how it goes.
Sadness. Laughter. Peace.
Rewatching World’s Greatest Dad tonight, I can’t help but smile at this clip from the film set to the tune of Queen’s Under Pressure. A great, big, beautiful, liberating dive. May we all find ours, in whatever form it takes.