I had a wonderful panel on the show last night, Ted Alexandro, Abbi Crutchfield, and Nick Turner. Unfortunately the planned antics had to be put on hold to discuss the pall hanging over the comedy world by the sudden loss of Robin Williams. The conversation turned to expressions of public mourning, the impact of Williams' death, depression in comedy, and the intimacy which any performer brings to their act. These guys really made it an exceptional conversation and I thank all of them profusely. Below are some links to their excellent work which you should check out, but first is the little essay I wrote on facebook which I reference in my intro.
It's 4:30 in the morning. I woke up from a nightmare in which I was writing a condolence letter to the family of one of my heroes; not Robin Williams, someone I know, but the mental math wasn't exactly difficult to do. I'm crying now, again, more times in one day than I have in an awfully long long time. Unlike a lot of the comedians who populate my mental constellations and facebook feed, I never met Robin Williams, and I won't pretend to have the same kind of loss that those who knew him have. Regardless of how much humanity he always brought to his work, knowing someone as a human and not as an icon is a different thing, and entails a different kind of loss. But neither will I be a cynical idiot and mistake the feelings I'm having as mere narcissism or self-indulgent emotions put on display to showcase my own depth. I grew up on Robin Williams' work. Aladdin came out in 1992 and his luminous supernova of a performance lit my 8 year old mind on fire. It seeped into every crack and planted little seeds which are still growing to this day. I would parrot lines from his 1978 Live at the Roxy special and tell other kids how he climbed up into the balcony and yelled "Look, now THOSE are the shitty seats" at the front. I can't tell you how many times I saw Mrs. Doubtfire, because you'd probably have to file some kind of retroactive child services report on my parents. I won't walk you through the rest of his filmography because I don't need to, and you know which roles probably touched me as I grew up and saw him in new ways, many of which changed the way I would think about myself as a creative mind, but the things that get in your skull when it's still soft have a way of sticking.
The thing is this: Robin Williams has a place in my childhood psyche like nobody else in this world. His performances trace a direct nerve to feelings of innocent joy and exuberance, unburdened by the knowledge that comes with life experience, feelings which in many ways I've long since left behind. That he would die in such a way, suffering from mental and emotional anguish feels like such a violent incursion of adulthood upon youth. It feels like such a violation of innocence for him to go like this. It hurts. The irony of his playing a grown up Peter Pan is not lost on me, but this is a facebook post not a comparative american lit essay so I won't belabor the point. And this bit here actually is a bit embarrassing to admit, but I swear, when I woke up the first thing I thought was "I can't believe that if I have kids someday they're not going to get to exist in the same world as their comedy grandpa Robin."
The people who deserve our sympathy and empathy first and foremost are those who knew and loved him as a person, and not just as an author of joy, a parent of the mind, and I'm not usually one to mourn a celebrity's passing as anything other than a tragedy for their family and a sad factoid for the internet's emotional simulator to mine it's shitty clickbait, but man, this one really hurts.
Anyway. I don't want to turn this into too much of a PSA, but please, if you're uncomfortable with the term mental illness then call it mental anguish. Call it deep emotional suffering, I don't care. Whatever you need to do to frame it, please just recognize it as a real thing, have empathy, and if you or someone you know or love is suffering, please do what you can to help. Sometimes you can't do anything no matter how much you try, but that's not an excuse to stop. It only absolves you if you keep on trying, and yes, some people are going to die trying. I didn't know Robin Williams, so I really don't know, but I'd like to think he died trying. For my part I hope I retain enough of a sliver of my innocence, no matter well hidden, even from myself, that I don't let that stop me. And if I do have tiny little splinters of innocence buried beneath my calloused skin, a lot of them are in there because when my skull was still soft, Robin Williams exploded on screen and blew them into my tiny little mind.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255. Never be ashamed to call it, unless you're making a crank call, in which case: yes, you should be ashamed of yourself. Stop it.