Robin Williams was a whirling dervish – so fast, so funny, seemingly the life of any party. When he turned up on talkshows, the hosts always seemed to essentially take the night off, realizing that with a talent like that, all one really needed to do was wind him up and let him go.
The comic actor’s death of a reported suicide thus feels doubly unsettling, another reminder that the laughter elicited by some of our finest clowns often comes at an exorbitant personal price.
Williams is hardly the first comedian (and he was more than that, but for the purposes of this discussion, the description fits) to be plagued by self-destructive demons. Indeed, at times it has seemed through the years that the brighter the comedic light, the more tortured and troubled they can be when the cameras stop rolling.
The tragedies garner an inordinate amount of attention — especially now, in a media era increasingly defined by TMZ — but the list of comics who have succumbed to drugs alone is dishearteningly long. There was Lenny Bruce in the 1960s, John Belushi in the ‘80s, Chris Farley in the ‘90s – the last two, given their similar career paths, almost feeling like an eerie instant replay for the generations that grew up with them. Richard Pryor survived into his 60s, but the impact of drug abuse on his life and career is well documented.
Obviously, the entertainment industry has produced more than its share of similar stories, and they haven’t been confined to comedy. Actors and rock stars have certainly lost their share.
But comedy might be unique in the personal nature of the exercise, especially in stand-up, where there is nothing but the performer and a microphone. Few artists are as exposed, or as solitary in pursuing their craft.
Williams had demonstrated himself to be a versatile actor, though some of his better remembered roles – “Dead Poets Society,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” even as the genie in the animated “Aladdin” – traded off his rat-a-tat patter and improvisational genius. The same held true for his most recent vehicle, the CBS sitcom “The Crazy Ones,” which featured outtakes at the end of every episode reminding us how hard it must have been to maintain a straight face when working alongside him.
Williams grew up admiring Jonathan Winters, who established the template for the freewheeling wackiness Williams came to embody. The two worked together on Williams’ star-making series “Mork & Mindy,” and in an appreciation he wrote for the New York Times, Williams talked about how Winters — who he referred to as his “Comedy Buddha” — had wrestled with his own emotional struggles.
But Winters lived to be 87. And while Williams leaves behind no shortage of material to appreciate, for anyone who admires comedy and his unique gifts, it’s hard not to feel that we’ve been cheated, once again, out of a whole lot of promising years — and laughter.