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.
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.