Robin Williams a Reminder that Comedy is Born of Pain

I am late to this discussion. I know that.

But I had something more urgent to say about the Ferguson disaster, and I’ve needed some time to compose my thoughts on this.

Like practically everyone else, I was saddened by the death of Robin Williams. The man was a great entertainer. He made me laugh more times than I can count. I own several films in which he starred, and there are a couple more I would like to have. My favorite is his little-known collaboration with late, greats Walter Matthau and Jerry Reed, The Survivors.

But unlike so many opinions I’ve read in columns and friends’ Facebooks, I was not surprised to learn Robin Williams was mentally ill and suffered from depression. Even if stories of his past substance abuse had not been widely published, it was obvious to me that the man struggled terribly.

Williams was frenetic. If you’ve watched his standup, you can see his brain moving at a million miles an hour. He struck me as bipolar from the moment I really understood how the disease worked. I have several bipolar people in my life, and Williams was a lot like them. The brain works so much faster than the average person’s. Talking with a bipolar individual in a manic phase can be exhausting.

And speaking with them during a depressive episode can be crushing. Williams’s standup and some of his more erratic characters were familiar to me. I’d seen it before.

A number of years ago, I worked briefly for a comedian. He made his living writing things everyone found funny. Everything was a joke to him. In public, he was the life of the party.

But as I got to know him, I discovered something I think is universal of comedians — they are sad. The world they perceive isn’t very nice. It hurts. It makes them unhappy. And they react to it by making a joke. They laugh it off.

And they learn to do it with everyone. Fearful that people won’t like them or that people will think it is strange they are sad, they pretend to be happy instead. They make jokes. They hurl funny insults to disguise the seriousness of what they really think.

Robin Williams was hurting. No one who endures substance abuse isn’t hurting. It’s a desperate attempt to feel good. No one who attempts suicide isn’t hurting. And given what we know about Williams’s death, he was especially determined to succeed.

That kind of despair isn’t just debilitating, it’s frightening. One can only imagine the emotional pain he felt that drove him to such a desperate act.

Robin Williams was very good at making jokes. He made people laugh. He might have even made himself laugh. But he was doing it to hide the mental anguish.

Williams was 63 years old. That means he had enough willpower to live with his afflictions and his depression for over six decades. When you think about it, that’s extraordinary.

My point in discussing all this is not to rehash old ground or to smugly claim to have known he was ill all along. Rather, I think we need to change the way we look at people who entertain us.

One of the themes of the post-Williams suicide articles has been a mourning for the passing of a great talent mixed with shock at how he died. It’s time for us to pay better attention, to have greater understanding.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with allowing comedians to make us laugh. Robin Williams made me every bit as happy as the millions of others he touched with his comedy.

But we need to remember that the class clown isn’t just funny. He or she is also sad. I’ve yet to meet one that wasn’t. And while we should embrace their talent, we also need to recognize pain, and reach out to soothe it. Give something back to those that make us laugh — comfort.

Because no one should be hurting so badly they want to die just to make it end. People in pain should receive love, medication, treatment, and understanding, so they can cope. Some mental illness is environmental — depression brought on by suffering. Some of it is genetic. All of it is worthy of acceptance and treatment.

I salute Robin Williams for battling his demons for so long and for using the power they gave him to make others happy. I hope his death encourages us all to recognize others’ pain and help them cope — both with love and understanding and, where necessary treatment and medication.


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