Dying is Easy; Comedy is Hard

I am fortunate, perhaps, to have not had to deal with as much shock and numbness at Robin Williams’ death as I might have at some other time. It has been a very emotional couple of weeks for me and I feel drained and a bit cried out. But it will come, a number of times, down the road, and I am terrified by it.

Robin Williams had encompassed so many of the different things I wanted to be when growing up–actor, comedian, über geek, etc. Unlike my other comedic idol, Bill Cosby, Williams had a signature frenetic style that I could identify with. You could see how, in order to be the funny guy people loved, he had to flip a switch up to almost unsafe levels of “being on.” Many times he could fuel that effort with natural excitement, enthusiasm, or even nervousness. Other times he needed help from drugs.

I could always relate to the concept of having to “be on.” Looking back I can see that no one really expected or demanded that I be witty or funny or even social, but somehow I had it in my head that people wouldn’t want me around if I didn’t provide some form of entertainment value. Just being me, withdrawn and quiet, would not be acceptable. Even today–as it is with many introverts–my “being on” that takes place just in the act of being social and having to chat with or deal with a whole mess of people at a get-together or convention is draining. I may not do cocaine, but if I’m “on” for a presentation or panel like I was last week, it’s not uncommon for me to drink an entire pot of coffee and maybe a couple of caffeinated soft drinks for good measure. Then I make it through and try to reset by sleeping for as much as possible over the next couple of days.

Whenever anyone commits suicide, the “normals” out there are always struck first by how “he/she had so much to live for!” They can see all the good things and potential that the deceased person somehow could not stay afloat with. Depression is a filter that keeps you from feeling those things as good. Depression is a lie that tells you that you have been given these great gifts in life and that YOU ARE RUINING THEM. Depression is a predator that takes any opportunity to point out your weaknesses and failures until they outweigh anything positive in your life.

I usually don’t think about “all they had going for them” when I hear of someone’s suicide because I understand these things. But even so, I did it in this case. Robin Williams was a legend, beloved by millions, a comic force of nature, with money and fame and the power to make things happen. And I can’t escape the flawed notion that critical and/or public success would or should make me happy. I did so because Robin Williams represented the pinnacle, the upper echelon of how far a clown can go in life.

In “Watchmen,” Alan Moore writes:

“Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says, “But doctor…I am Pagliacci.”

Williams’ death terrifies me because I have identified with him for so long, and he didn’t make it. He had avenues of support and a life I can only dream of, and he didn’t make it. He was rich and successful in his work, and he didn’t make it. He was one of the greatest at his craft, and he didn’t make it. I am terrified because depression got him in the end, even through treatment.

Depression is a villain who asks me, “So what chance have you got?”

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Author of over sixty children's books, as well writer of textbook materials and standardized exam text. I may have helped teach your children...

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