By Jared Jones
It’s funny — the first thing I did after allowing the news of Robin Williams‘ passing to settle last night was rewatch his appearance on Inside the Actors Studio. A comedy and film icon with over 100 voice and acting roles to his credit (and more memorable characters than my video library could possibly hold) had just died, and rather than dust off my ancient VHS copy of Jumanji and remember the good times, I was looking for closure in the deadpan monotone of James Lipton?
I guess I sought out Williams’ appearance on Inside the Actors Studio out of the misguided sense that it would reveal who the real Robin Williams was. Surely, the episode would consist of a series of deep, “revealing” questions that hinted at the pain, the depression, the drug abuse that Williams had battled against throughout his legendary career. Surely, I would get a glimpse into the man behind the perpetually contorting mask.
Some eight minutes into Williams’ appearance, the only question he had even come close to answering was about his style of comedy, which he had dubbed “legalized insanity.” The rest was basically an extended improv, featuring prop work, audience interaction, and no less than 10 characters; an immigrant, a southerner, an old-timey politician, a smoker speaking through an electrolarynx, etc. Dizzying, hysterical, and almost overwhelming, the bit was the epitome of every joke that’s been made about Robin Williams’ style of comedy since he rose to popularity some 40 years ago, and it freaking killed. Most of the audience was doubled over with uncontrollable laughter, and even Lipton was in stitches. Robin Williams was treating this prestigious, learned audience like the Saturday night crowd at the Laugh Factory, and he was on fire.
Forty impression-filled minutes later, Williams borrowed a pink scarf from a woman in the audience and used it to transform into a female movie director from Bombay, then a terrified Iraqi woman, then Robin Van Schoppel: Gay Rabbi, and finally, an Iron Chef host.
And that’s more or less when I accepted just who Robin Williams was. The unprompted outbursts, the constant barrage of voices and characters; that was just him doing him. Robin Williams was schizophrenia fully realized; a walking, talking stream of consciousness, or an errant television signal from another planet, maybe, that had (barely) been contained to a human vessel in some sort of freak accident. He was certifiably bonkers, but managed to harness those crazy, kneejerk, Id-driven thoughts we all have into a routine. If he weren’t so damn famous, he’d probably be locked up. Hence, “legalized insanity.” He was also one of the kindest, most outgoing guys in the industry, which is probably why they allowed him to stick around as long as he did.
Williams always came across — to me at least — as someone who chose comedy out of a greater desire than making other people laugh. It wasn’t a mindless indulgence to Williams, although the speed at which he could fearlessly fire off material might lead you to believe it was. It was a necessity, a distraction from the soul-crushing normalcy of people who weren’t Robin Williams. To write it off as a coping mechanism would be too easy, but comedy seemed to be the only way he could exist in a world so mundane, so profoundly inhibited.
And that’s perhaps the saddest truth about comedy (and the success garnered by it), that those gifted with it are seemingly the most conflicted, depressed people among us, often as a result. Because comedy is creation — a single person’s unique understanding of the world around them, from premise to execution — and creation often breeds dejection. Where there should be self-confidence, there is only doubt in one’s abilities. Like any drug, comedic success builds a tolerance within you that can only be satisfied with a bigger, better high. Perfection becomes your endgame, impossible as it may be, and eventually, the bottom always drops out.
We’ve seen it with countless comedy greats: Chappelle, Seinfeld, Pryor, and so on. The pressure to constantly best yourself, to make each and every person you meet laugh no matter what condition you might be in…it’s too much for most. Eventually, you just drop all your shit and flee to Africa, so to speak, or become a recluse. You do anything within your power to avoid the mountain of expectation your own damn mind has convinced you that you need to rise above. It’s exactly what happened to Williams, and exactly what has happened to dozens of praised funnymen before him.
Moments before bringing about the apocalypse in Stanley Elkin’s The Living End, God revealed himself to the legions of the assembled dead and the living billions and addressed them all at once. He was moments away from bringing about the annihilation of everything he had created, and his reasoning behind it was simply “Because I never found my audience.”
“You gave me, some of you, your ooh’s and aah’s, the Jew’s hooray and the Catholics’ Latin deference — all theology’s pious wow. But I never found my audience.”
I’d like to think that Robin Williams found his audience. Maybe not during his time here on Earth, or maybe not in whatever afterlife you prefer to picture him in, but within himself. Robin Williams was the only audience necessary for Robin Williams, and the only audience that could truly appreciate his greatness. A hyperbolic or egotistical or plain rude statement it may be, but it’s ultimately fitting for a man as truly original as Williams. Go ahead, try and name one person who you could even begin to compare to him, celebrity or otherwise. Name one person so unashamedly wacky, so multifaceted and uninhibited, that they could even begin to understand the constant influx and outpour of thought that Williams has displayed in almost every public appearance since 1975. I don’t know about you, but I’m extremely grateful that I cannot.
To pull a quote from one of William’s more recent efforts, World’s Greatest Dad, “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up alone, it’s not. The worst thing in the world is to end up with people that make you feel alone.”
Here’s hoping you found your audience, Mr. Williams.