The ‘Fool-Priest’ Is Dead: Robin Williams, Rest in Peace

williams2 wikiIn the wake of the death of Robin Williams, Facebook and Twitter lit up with reminiscences.

The best YouTube, for me, was the sign off from Mork to Orson about the loss of a friend (see it below). It seems to sum up so much of the work of Robin Williams. He is being absurd — imitating an alien who communicates in his brain with a disembodied voice. He is also being poignant — showing real depth of emotion. He is also being a little too sentimental, in an almost artificial way.

That was Robin Williams in a nutshell: Desperate for laughs, and desperate for real human emotions.

The best article I saw shared last night was a 2010 interview piece that was ostensibly about his newest movie at the time but ended up to be more about his sickness and sadness. With the unwieldy title “Robin Williams: ‘I was shameful, did stuff that caused disgust – that’s hard to recover from’,” it shows a broken man longing for wholeness. A man desperate for love and laughs.

I remember seeing Robin Williams debut on Happy Days in 1978. I was 9, and it was enthralling. I remember being allowed to stay up late to see him debut on Johnny Carson. I was giddy with anticipation a few years later when Mork got his own show. I remember the initial reactions we all had to his strange brand of frenetic humor. And I remember thinking even then that the kind of person capable of being Robin Williams was not entirely well.

Williams Wiki

Robin Williams entertains the troops in 2010.

His movies quickly fell into a pattern. In Good Morning Vietnam (one of my first R rated movies in 1987) he was hilarious but hilarious for others, in this case for the troops. In Dead Poets Society (1989) he was the tragic mentor, using poetry as a salve to adolescent souls, which are equal parts obsessed with carpe diem and death.

Looking through his IMDB filmography you see two Robin Williams. There is the hilarious no-holds-barred comedian (the Aladdin who entertained 1992 kids by imitating William F. Buckley Jr. among many, many others) and the weepy schmaltzy healer. He was often a doctor — in Awakenings, Patch Adams and even Nine Months (a funny and profane doctor, but a doctor nonetheless), or a sad-luck mentor — in Good Will Hunting and Jakob the Liar and, absurdly, in August Rush.

It is said he was a practicing Episcopalian for much of his life, so he knew their priests (and the Catholic League once criticized him for going after our priests) — but he was also himself a “fool priest.”

That’s a term from Psychology Today’s “The Tears of a Clown” article about Seymour and Rhoda Fisher’s careful study of professional comedians in 2008.

“How does the comic view himself or herself? The Fishers found that they viewed themselves as healers. Many of the professional comedians expressed a dedication to being altruistic. The comic sees his or her central duty as that of making people feel that events are funny. At the same time, the professional comics also viewed humor as a technique for controlling and dominating the audience. Indeed, Fisher and Fisher were impressed at how this view of the comic as a fool-priest is consistent with scholarly reviews of the history of the clown, the court jester, and the fool.”

To whom did Williams minister as a “fool priest?”

Famously, he made Spielberg laugh to brighten his mood as he was directing Schindler’s List. And his old friend Christopher Reeve, the Superman actor who was paralyzed in a horse riding accident, had this to say of the early days of his condition:

“I lay on my back, frozen, unable to avoid thinking the darkest thoughts. Then, at an especially bleak moment, the door flew open and in hurried a squat fellow with a blue scrub hat and a yellow surgical gown and glasses, speaking in a Russian accent. He announced that he was my proctologist, and that he had to examine me immediately. My first reaction was that either I was on too many drugs or I was in fact brain damaged. But it was Robin Williams. … And for the first time since the accident, I laughed.”

The research on comics says that they often see the world as a meaningless place, and draw their humor from catching the world making a crazy kind of sense.

They feel overwhelmed by the sadness all around them and try desperately to rise above it, taking pride in helping others up out of it too.

That is what priests do also. The difference: the priest looks to the ultimate meaning of life, God, to help us see the purpose of suffering. The comedian looks at the ultimate absurdity of life to help us accept our lot in life.

Ultimately, Williams ministered to all of us. For that, we owe him thanks. Pray that he will find the rest for his soul that he sought to give to so many others.

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18 thoughts on “The ‘Fool-Priest’ Is Dead: Robin Williams, Rest in Peace

  1. Susie Ceem says:

    I love you, Robin. RIP with Jesus.

  2. Susie Ceem says:

    I ama Catholic and I adored Robin Williams. May he RIP.

  3. Michele S says:

    I think in the most simple terms that Robin Williams suffered from depression. It is a disease that doctors make feeble attempts to correct and control… but that is all they are… feeble attempts.
    If God truly is the loving and merciful God that we have been told he is for the entirety of our lifetimes then Robin Williams cannot be held accountable for having killed himself as it was clearly beyond his control.
    Otherwise we would have to believe our clergy have been lying to us about who God really is.
    Is it time for the Catholic Church to make a statement on this accepting depression as a mental illness and declaring that such deaths cannot be held as sins?
    Or should we accept what has already been said, because there is value in that as well. If the Catholic Church’s stance on suicide prevents even one death perhaps that has profound value. LIFE IS PRECIOUS. It is a gift from Almighty God… All Mighty God… slow it down…. think about the words and what we are saying here! Don’t leave it as an empty meaningless phrase. Life too, is not simply an empty meaningless phrase, it is something that should require work from us in nurturing it and respecting it and going forward to be certain that we address it with love and fierce steadfastness.
    I feel to some degrees we have failed Robin. Sad that the world speaks up to say how much we loved and respected him when it is now too late!
    I am praying a novena for Robin Williams and for his family as well, that all may come to peace! That is the answer that sits right in my soul! And I want to say it publicly! Thank you Catholic vote for being a means to that. I am Catholic and I order my life in such a fashion as to turn my love outward into the world, because it is what Jesus calls us to do! So I say judge this… judge this issue with a tidal wave of mercy and love in your heart and hope and pray that when we go to Him, He will also judge us likewise … with a tidal wave of love and mercy in His heart!

  4. Leona Neaves says:

    Respect what he did for us and don’t play God judging him.

  5. M. Imlac says:

    I also “grew up” with Robin Williams, remembering him both in his Happy Days debut and Mork and Mindy. Later I watched some of his stand-up, including a live performance in 1986. Heathen though I was at the time, I do remember being very disappointed by the obscenity of his schtick. It just seemed overdone for cheap thrills. I really didn’t follow his subsequent movie career. In closing we should certainly feel saddened, but I would say that his legacy was very mixed. Without judging his private life, his public work cannot be ranked top tier.

  6. Janet O'Connor says:

    For Crying out loud this was a anti Catholic Episcopalian Comedian not some superhero. Like the Bishop of Rome. I liked him in Aladdin as the Blue Genie. But I think we should member the other person who died yesterday Lauren Becall. Celebrities die.

    1. Genie says:

      Yes, celebrities die…. but the passing of such a funny man who brought smiles and joy to billions of people shouldn’t be so disrespected as your comment has done to him. Religion has no place in this, a funny man has died.

    2. Trisha says:

      Love thy neighbor as thyself is one of the most important rules Jesus gave us. Robin William’s was a child of God, no matter his religion. It is important to recognize what he gave to all of us through his God given talent of humour and his charitable efforts. It is equally as important to talk about the disease that is depression. I am saddened that someone that brought laughter and light to others was taken by such an affliction. To pray his soul may find rest is an appropriate thing to request. May Lauren Bacall’s soul find rest, as well.

    3. Panda Rosa says:

      It is a bit sad Bacall’s death is overshadowed by this. She too was a symbol of her age, now long gone; yet her death was natural. somehow the difference between them is too great to grasp at one time.

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