City Journal Autumn 2014

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Autumn 2014
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Books and Culture

Matthew Hennessey
Comedy’s Cost
No one worked harder to make us laugh than Robin Williams.
12 August 2014
Photo by Shameek

Comedy, they say, is tragedy plus time. It may take a while for the world to laugh again at the comic genius of Robin Williams, who died this week, apparently at his own hand, after what he himself called a long struggle with addiction and depression. This sudden and tragic ending seems at odds with the joie de vivre that he brought to his work. Manic, magical, incandescent, uncontainable—there aren’t adjectives enough to describe Williams’s improvisational talent and the role he played in American popular culture over four decades.

He was the Keith Moon of comedy, barely believable, a sweaty mess yet somehow right on the beat, a size XXXL figure with almost no earthly point of reference. It seemed as if he’d arrived fully formed, in an interstellar egg-ship like his first, wholly original creation—the now nearly non-translatable icon of the late 1970s, Mork from Ork. Then it seemed as if he’d always been here, as Popeye, as Garp, as the tweedy English teacher you never had but always wanted, as the zany and improbably Scottish Mrs. Doubtfire. He was a slam dunk on Leno or Letterman. In fact, he was a slam dunk everywhere. There were no half-assed Robin Williams appearances. He never phoned it in; you got the sense that he couldn’t. Like any comedian, some of his gags didn’t land, but not for lack of trying. Williams was all-in to make us laugh. The price, it seems, was paid mostly by him. His public exuberance masked private anguish. And in the end, tragedy won out of over comedy, as it does for many who strive to make us laugh.

Comedians often do drama better than so-called straight actors do comedy. On his deathbed, the great English actor Edmund Kean allegedly proclaimed, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” The reason is simple. Pain is the seed of both comedy and drama, but the dramatic actor can often get away with presenting a facsimile of his pain. The comedian, on the other hand, is in the business of hiding his pain, of redirecting it, and you can’t hide what you don’t have. You can’t redirect something that doesn’t exist in the first place. We laugh because a joke strikes us as true, because it hits us where we live. The good stuff, the side-splitting stuff, derives from pain, and is elevated, amplified, and ridiculed by the comedian. Comedians crave our laughter because it soothes something otherwise unreachable in their damaged spirits. Laughter helps anchor the comedian’s gypsy soul to a drab world he doesn’t understand. He can’t get by without the life-giving plasma of laughter. He is an adrenaline junkie (often a real junkie, too) and he thrives on the overdrive sensation that comes from making a roomful of people break up.

No one was as crazy to make us laugh as Robin Williams was. But what set him apart from his peers, what lifted him above the pack and sent him hurtling into fame’s stratosphere, was control. It seems odd to say it, since he personified the stereotype of the coked-up, off-the-rails, Sunset Strip lifestyle (for a while, anyway), but control was his stock in trade. He was born with a talent that contained the destructive power of a hydro dam. His biggest trick was learning to let out just enough of it at any one time. He needed to keep the laughter turbines spinning at a rate mere mortals could tolerate. If he let out too much, we’d drown under a flash flood of impressions, references, jokes, and allusions. Too little, and he wouldn’t have been Robin Williams.

Williams knew not to overfill the camera lens. He knew that just a little of his barbaric yawp was enough to do the trick. A lifetime of playing before live audiences taught him where the line was between his personal madness and our collective ability to interpret and absorb it. We couldn’t keep up with his quicksilver mind, but he never held that against us. Some comedians despise their audiences, can’t wait to attack and humiliate them. They want us to think, “So clever. How did he think of that?” But Williams wasn’t built that way. He loved his audience, or appeared to.

The best example of this is the scene in 1987’s Good Morning Vietnam in which his character, a radio DJ, is forced to teach English to a classroom of Vietnamese people. It’s clear that director Barry Levinson simply set up the camera and let the jester hold court. Williams’s interactions with his scene partners, who are obviously not actors, is both touching and hilarious. He never condescends to them, even as they butcher the words (mostly curses) he is trying to teach them. Everyone at one time or another has had a giggle at the mispronunciations of someone trying to learn our native language, but Williams doesn’t stoop to that level. His laughter in the scene is genuine and inclusive, as is the laughter of the Vietnamese students.

“Even though they really didn’t understand much of what he was saying to them, Robin had the entire group in stitches,” Levinson would recall. “They had the time of their lives and so did we.”

Suicide is always a disastrous event. Whether the victim is a famous international star or a lonely kid in an out-of-the-way town, nothing funny can be found about it. The suicide of someone who seemed born to make us laugh leaves us feeling all mixed up. Why must the funniest ones always be in such pain? Now, when we see a Robin Williams movie, will we always be forced to remember his sad ending? It seems contrary to the way he appeared to live, a betrayal of the laughter he gave us. But the laughter will return.

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