Robin Williams: The tortured comic soul
The paradox of being a comedian is all the angst that is absorbed from trying to make people laugh. Every comic has a shelf life and moving on can be more difficult than getting there. While everyone recognized Robin Williams’ brilliance, you always feared there was some line he was going to cross. This was the one you never hoped for.
I side with those who think Robin Williams had some form of mental illness, whether it be depression, bipolar disorder or something else. In one sense, it helped his career. Somehow, he was able to verbalize his mania in real time. It was quite remarkable, but scary at the same time. These disorders also make people hypercritical, which is a valuable tool finding humor in the comic world.
Trying to understand his thought process or stream of consciousness was futile. You just sat and laughed. It was too much to comprehend.
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Being a comic is more than just finding irony. It’s about understanding situations and social norms of the time and to rebel against them. Over time, it’s impossible to keep the same relevance. People change, the freshness fades and others co-opt your act. At some point, you want to move on.
What we continually see is once these comedic stars reach the top, they want to be seen as more than just a court jester. When you’re a comic, people expect you to be funny all the time. Everywhere. Everyplace. It gets tiresome.
We’ve seen other comedians like Jim Carrey, Bill Murray and Chris Tucker try to distance themselves away from funny roles. What makes it so difficult in this transition is making people laugh is embedded in their DNA. Stripping that impulse away is a painful process.
Williams’ dramatic roles required connecting with experiences and emotions to bringing them to his characters. The question these actors face is how deep will you go without reverting to your past.
The first film that got notice was Good Morning Vietnam. The movie was a success and Williams was nominated for his first Academy Award, but it was hard to accept. Despite all the raw emotion, he still made you laugh in only the way Robin Williams could.
With Dead Poets Society and Awakenings, you could see his willingness to open his soul even further and I became more comfortable with it. Even his comedy hit, Mrs. Doubtfire, ended with an unusual Hollywood ending where the parents ultimately decide not to reconcile. I was shocked with this being a family movie, but Williams went somewhere that made you understand not all things were made to be.
His Oscar winning performance in Good Will Hunting was a deserving apex in his career. Playing a psychologist who reveals his flaws to help a youth deal with his, Williams takes us to a real place few actors dare go. There is a pain in having a great loss, but even more trying to put it into words. It was as if he was accepting defeat in order to move forward.
At the same time, his character in Insomnia might have been a place where he took you, a place you didn’t want to do. His blackmailing touched a psychotic side we’ve associated those with being bipolar. It is mean, direct and strikes a nerve that leaves you shaky. While it was a true way of playing the role, it was uncomfortable watching this portrayal.
Williams’ place in dramas started to fade as it was impossible to replicate the success he had in “Hunting.” He would continue to find characters that stretched his range, but was met with limited success.
Hollywood would respond in the only way it knows how, to return to the formula that made him successful: Comedy! Rarely does this repackaging work, much less for a significant amount of time.
It’s not only the audience that changes, but also the performer. It’s hard to embrace your past when you now have a lifetime of experiences. You want to show that you’ve evolved, but people still hold you to your earlier standard of success. Trying to achieve the same impact is impossible and only compounds the problem.
I’ve seen some of his more recent comedies, like RV and License to Wed. It could be bad writing or directing, but ultimately it felt like he was never fully invested in it. It may have seemed like a betrayal going back to the same formula. He still wanted to push the envelope, but had trouble discovering how to break out.
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I had trouble fully embracing Williams. It is not that I didn’t recognize his comic genius or his acting ability, but that I always feared this would happen.
The stories about depression, money problems, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, and failed marriages never seemed far fetched. I never thought that he was a bad person, but people with this condition don’t have the same tools to fight these demons.
Watching some of his sweaty, rambling television appearances that boarded on hysteria, you knew he was battling something. Now imagine trying to find your place in this world having this condition when your successes and failures are amplified by fame.
This hurts because we all know someone like him. Maybe it’s even a person you love. Trying to balance someone’s mania with therapy and prescription drugs is a solution that’s yet to be perfected. Sometimes, you have no option other than embracing their passions and energy because of their inability to handle failure. For Williams, treatment could have dimmed this edge and his condition was a monster that kept feeding itself.
It’s a tragedy anytime someone goes before their time, but this cuts deeper. He chose to leave us. We all ignored the signs and it is all of our loss.
We cannot bring him back, but if his passing means anything to you, do something. Call a person like Robin. Someone who needs help. It’ll help us all.
Zachary Rynew has touched Los Angeles in many ways. For years he helped visualize many of the city’s major projects (LA Live, Hollywood Blvd., Metro Rail, UCLA) and had his work featured at the Getty. He was a winner at the LA Improv Comedy Festival and ran in five LA Marathons. Now, he travels the city by bike and couples his local knowledge with his sports writing experience to bring you a different look at the blurs we normally pass by.