I’m sad in a way that shocks me. Robin Williams is—was, I suppose—far from my favorite comic or actor. He was one of several in that 80s/90s/2000s high-tier white male comic ring whose membership required at least a few HBO shows or a dozen summer blockbusters. Williams never captured my heart the way a well-placed cultural insight from George Carlin or an elastic-man scene from early Jim Carrey might. But when someone mentioned Williams in conversation, the first words out of my mouth were more often than not: “He’s a genius.”
Robin Williams’ death makes me feel the same melancholy I experience reading about the Roaring Twenties seguing unceremoniously into the Great Depression, or of Nikola Tesla dying alone in relative poverty and obscurity. Watching Williams perform, and especially improvise on live television or on stage, is like watching small, hairy supercomputer tear apart the strategies of ten chess grandmasters. His approach to comedy was dripping with manic energy and mental gymnastics, and he introduced it to a world numbed by meatless sitcoms, hungry for something real to the point of scary.
And what made Williams scary, and funny, was the little voice in the back of your head thinking: He’s tearing himself apart for us. Williams, like Carrey, like Carlin, and countless male and female comics before and after him, was fueled by an anger so surface-level it demanded released through the gestures of clownish hands and booming kaleidoscope voices. His late-night talk show rants (possibly the finest examples of his unique mind and talent) are as frightening as they as hilarious, riddled with details plucked from an observant, sharp, and unabashedly aggravated mind.
Williams’ comic anger wasn’t the same bitter acidity I heard listening to Eddie Murphy’s Delirious, or the sarcasm and defeatism of Roseanne Barr, or the debatist jabs of Chris Rock, but was an anger rooted in hunched-over sadness, the kind that squeezes hands shut and wrings the humor out of truth so intensely it leaves you staring right into stark reality. Because of this style of performance—emotionally draining, physically responsive, anti-escapist—it’s unsurprising that Williams took on so many dramatic roles in his lifetime. Unsurprising, but not unnoteworthy.
I haven’t always loved Williams’ acting (I distinctly remember sticking my tongue out in the cinema dark of a showing of Bicentennial Man), but watching him on-screen in roles dependent on true sentiment with only a peppering of humor is the experience of watching someone trying something with true, scholar-like commitment. When we talk of his comic talent, we should use the word talent, because that’s what it was plain and simple. Our culture values hard work, training ourselves to be the best we can be; we love finely produced finished products, and respect the teamwork that produced them. But we’re reluctant to talk about natural, glaring talent, the kind that’s stuck inside not just minds but lifestyles, habits, and manners. In the same way that James Brown oozed talent in every gesture and sound, Williams was living proof of a natural predisposition for comedy, for improvisation, quick-thinking, mimic, reaction.
His acting, obviously aided by this performative gene, wasn’t as organically tied to Williams’ persona. Re-watching clips of some of his dramatic roles on YouTube, I’m awed by the fierce determination in his eyes to get it right, to deliver a line dramatically, even if it means overly dramatically, because he wanted so badly to affect people. Dead Poets Society, a movie I’ve mocked on several occasions for its cliched plot and corny music, is a powerful rewatch, especially when you watch it for the now-gone funnyman trying so hard to reach out to others. The themes of Williams’ dramatic roles–isolation, of not being understood or heard, madness, depression, futility–speak either toward what he as an actor brought to his films, or what initially drew his interest in a script.
Depression is horrible, sometimes weighing and corroding on souls with little to no breaks. There’s nothing funny about that. And yet there is, because we as a society know how much anger and sadness play into our favorite comics, our funniest written situations, the most memorable skits or routines. I dare anyone to watch a Louis C.K. special and tell me there isn’t an obvious, staggering sadness hanging in the air just above the uproarious, well-deserved laughs. When something like Williams’ death happens, unexpectedly, tragically, when it demands us to stop laughing a moment and stare in silence, we have to consider this sadness. It’s disrespectful, and dangerous, not to. We spent decades enjoying, or at the very least acknowledging, his drug-riddled, dizzying, raw humor, and we spent decades seeing his name on movie posters, and to let his death pass without taking a moment to acknowledge the complexity and fiery edges of this talented, tortuous man is foolish.
It’s easy to remember the beard in Jumanji. And to say over a beer that Mrs. Doubtfire is as ideal a family comedy as you’re ever likely to find (which it is). But Williams showed us enough times throughout his career what it can for yourself and others to go past the easy, to touch on what hurts and what’s real, and to leave comfort zones because you want to try.