The HBO specials of Robin Williams first showed me how absolutely hilarious comedy could be–how brilliant it could be, and brave. It, along with blues, leading to jazz, leading to rock and roll, might be the quintessentially American art form. It has only grown in influence since the heyday of Robin Williams: SNL and then later Stewart and Colbert became astonishingly influential in the way they changed what CS Lewis called our “stock responses” to various issues. Ridicule became the power to punish. They were our age’s prophets.
But the suicide of Robin Williams should also remind us that these people are among the most damaged of us. Yes, addictions are everywhere, but it doesn’t take too many trips past the grocery check-out line to see how fame tends to draw to itself the most needy, the most hurt, and in many cases the least able to cope with life—and, I would add, the least able to guide us. What Robin Williams told the world in the 1970s is that drugs were just great, a badge of honor of insider status. The message which came roaring out of the comedy culture out of which Williams emerged was basically a repackaged 60s counter-culture. Drugs will expand your mind, screaming obscenities in public is an act of cathartic liberation, virgins were backward fools.
Those on the Right were the greatest fools of all. Remember Williams’ joke about Rehnquist (or was it Thomas?) getting a new judicial robe? “Does this come with a hood?”
Sidenote: Could Williams’ pain have something to do with depression over his early participation in an abortion? Here’s a quote from Dougan’s biography of Williams:
Once again Robin Williams was in the middle of a deep depression. His early days back in San Francisco after dropping out of Julliard were among the unhappiest of his life. His relationship with his girlfriend, which had seemed so full of promise back in New York, had now come to a sudden and abrupt end. It’s interesting to speculate on the reasons, even though Williams himself seldom speaks publicly about it. In an interview in Playboy magazine some years later, the subject turned to the Bush administration’s stance on abortion. Williams agonized about the plight of the poor who would be forced into a terrible dilemma of either having an unwanted child or consulting a potentially deadly backstreet abortionist. Williams offered that making the decision to have an abortion was not an easy one, which begged the obvious question from interviewer Lawrence Grobel about whether he had ever found himself in that position. “Long, long, long time ago,” Williams replied candidly, “and it was because we were too young and it wasn’t right.”
The period of time between the 1992 Playboy interview and the break-up of his relationship in 1976 would certainly constitute a “long, long, long time ago.” That being the case, did Williams and the love his life split up because she had become pregnant?
There’s an institutionalized place in society for “the fool.” Kings used to have them; read Shakespeare on that. And from time to time they may have even spoken the truth.
But “the fool” has changed sides. He now berates the commoner, insults the King’s rivals, and flatters the king. He is no longer the voice of common sense. He is the voice of the revolution. And so very often he is even more at war with himself than he is with anyone else.
In many ways, despite all of his deep brokenness, and emotional and intellectual distortion, he rules us. And that is no small problem.