Vale, Robin Williams, Hollywood’s melancholy funnyman

Why do we feel so moved by the death of a man we've never met?
Zac Alstin | Aug 14 2014 | comment  



Robin Williams’ death moved me more than I had expected.

Which is a silly thing to say because I hadn’t expected him to die; I hadn’t even thought about it. It was nowhere on my mind, and hence a shock to wake up that morning and find that he had gone.

It’s very strange to find out this way that my life was in some small but significant measure dependent on the existence of a man I never met but whose movies and interviews – his persona – shaped me in a way I’d never credited. I feel like I knew him.

Some people think my father looks a lot like Robin Williams, perhaps that’s part of it; that, and hours spent as a family watching and re-watching his films, with the unanimous sense that this was a good guy, the real deal, a truly funny man.

But more than that, he was clearly inspired, electrified, with an exuberance that didn’t always translate into great comedy but often enough it did, and showed a man with an unusual gift that, on-camera at least, seemed to transform his own personality and overshadow everyone around him.

Reviewing interviews from the late 90s reassures me that it’s not just nostalgia; at his best the man’s mind was alight and, to me at least, it seemed a warm ecstatic humour, even when the exact content of the jokes said otherwise. As Williams himself is quoted as saying:

“You're only given one little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it.”

The contrast between his unassuming seriousness and his manic comedy was used to good effect in many of his movies, perhaps most notably for my age-group: the poorly received 1991 Peter Pan adaptation ‘Hook’, which depicted an adult, thoroughly modernised Peter ensnared in worldly concerns, who has entirely forgotten his origins as ‘the boy who never grows up’. Peter’s subsequent rediscovery of imagination and adventure was a perfect metaphor for Williams’ genius, the heart of his work and ‘spark of madness’ that characterised his talent.

You can see it in his interviews: a kind of flowing, internalised, self-referential improvisation he described as being “a little bit like possession” or “voluntary Tourette’s”, and “like a fractal…a kind of ‘if a, then 2’, you know…you kind of ‘jump start’ and go to different places, usually from some weird synapse firing.” Before long the interviewer starts to look like a friendly prop; merely the trigger to a self-perpetuating series of uncontrollable comedic impulses.

People have labelled Williams’ bipolar, and with his fair share of substance abuse issues it’s tempting to speculate as to whether his comedic gift was necessarily healthy. But for me, it always seemed obvious that there was a power and a joy in his humour that could fulfil the promise held up in his screen presence – comedy as personal charisma, or better yet, some inner spark or spirit that overflowed through his comedy and, I assumed, into the man himself.

The little I know of Williams’ biography affirms the common comedic tale of a shy, quiet boy, who learns to make others laugh as a way of gaining respect and escaping bullies. The way he threw himself into his humour, it seemed he could escape anything. But a 2010 interview covers some of the darker territory, showing both a more sad and sombre side of Williams apart from the humour, as well as the signs of wear and tear on the humour itself, with his trademark ‘hyperactivity’ beginning “to feel more like a reflex than irrepressible comic passion”.

If the biography is right then Williams may well have been the epitome of his kind: the natural introvert who explodes outwards until he outshines the extroverts. Other comedians have followed a similar path, but most give the impression of doing comedy as a clever, practised skill, often with a measure of sarcasm or sly detachment which Williams seemed to lack. He wasn’t hurtful, superior or mean, but delighted in the kind of harmless, surreal absurdity one would expect from a childhood fan of The Goon Show.

But at the same time there’s an isolation in this gift. Melancholic temperaments can make for good actors, but they tend to maintain a careful distance between their real self and their public persona. Williams might have been unusual in the degree to which he could invest himself in his role, or perhaps the degree to which he could integrate his own private thinking process into his act au naturel, bridging the gap between the comedian’s contrived effort and the man’s true self. You didn’t sense a distance in his act, because he imbued it with an enthusiasm that was both natural and sincere.

People have commented in recent days on the apparent paradox of a tragically depressed man of laughter, who brought such joy to others while somehow hiding his inner torment. We can’t seem to make sense of both, as though only one must be real: the laughter or the pain. But both are real and can exist side-by-side, especially in an idealist whose career, identity, and energy are bound up in an act, a performance that though thrilling and fulfilling, must inevitably give way to an ordinary self in an ordinary life.

Melancholic temperaments derive their meaning, purpose, and sense of worth from their ideals. If their ideals falter, life begins to seem intolerably empty. There’s a direct relationship between the inspired energy of the ideal and the crippling barrage of self-criticism, anxiety, and general pessimism that dogs the melancholic at other times. As Williams told an interviewer: “Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes. […] Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh yeah."

In some cases the internal pressure to succeed is the same pressure that hurts us when success ceases to satisfy, or our sense of purpose falters. Williams himself touched on the ambiguity of this ‘internal drive/critic’:

"You have an internal critic, an internal drive that says, 'OK, you can do more.' Maybe that's what keeps you going…Maybe that's a demon. ... Some people say, 'It's a muse.' No, it's not a muse! It's a demon!”

The exact circumstances of Williams’ death are not our business, but for what it’s worth, the relationship between criticism and drive, ideal and despair, demon and muse, is one to remember. Some people are temperamentally inclined towards a personal ideal that shapes their inner landscape, their sense of worth, their hopes and dreams. With all of this comes a necessary fear of failure, sense of worthlessness, and potential shattering of dreams. Only an unattainable ideal could capture their imagination, yet being unattainable means that they are never satisfied with their progress. If other aspects of life start to fall apart, the unattainable ideal can start to feel like a curse.

People have wondered how someone so popular and successful could have taken such desperate action. The answer, or part of it I suspect, is that the qualities that drive a person forward with single-minded focus to excel in their chosen field also make it extremely difficult in times of need to engage a more balanced perspective, remember the other valuable aspects of their life, and realise that things are not as bad as they fear. Another way of looking at it is that the kinds of people who achieve so much are not the kinds to be satisfied with popularity and success in the first place. Ultimately, the melancholic temperament will always be an idealistic pessimist. He can achieve great things, but will only ever be fleetingly satisfied. He needs his ideal, but he also needs to learn to go easy on himself.  

Zac Alstin is a freelance writer living in Adelaide, South Australia. He blogs at zacalstin.com.



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