“Throbbing Python of Love” contains the funniest moment – the funniest two words – in the history of stand-up. Referring to that magical moment of adolescent discovery, when a knock is suddenly heard on the bathroom door followed by a typically sterile-sounding, parental voice demanding, “What are you doing in there?!”
Zero shame – nor for that matter, shamelessness; just pure exultation and liberation bordering on religious jubilance! I hit the floor in tears.
He famously coined the phrase, “Because, there are nights when you’re not looking for ‘Miss Right’, but ‘Miss Right Now’.” David Frost once interviewed him and at one point interjected having heard running eight miles is the equivalent to sex. (It’s not, actually; maybe somehow in terms of endorphins but certainly not the fun part.) “Running eight miles is the equivalent to sex?!”, he responded. And then he immediately slouched back into his chair, feigning exasperation and puffing a cigarette, with the perfect topper: “It’s not the size of the shoe.”
Childhood friends, older brothers, cousins, and I would often gather or privately listen to his albums, or watch his HBO specials, along with other greats like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Billy Crystal, and Steve Martin. I watched and listened before having even hitting puberty (mainly of course because of the taboo appeal of curse-words and talk about girls and sex). And all of what didn’t fly over my head – including various references to current events or historical affairs – I would grow to value the expressed honesty of their perspectives, on top of it all being hilarious as hell.
For millions of American and even world youths before and after me, these ‘stand-up philosophers’ would fondly be our first real, adult educators for the world. (And what a diverse and extraordinary education they were!)
And of all the actor/comedians who have had the most lasting impact – with the possible exception of brother Bill [Murray] – Robin was king.
And forgone conclusion I knew it would be, from then on my early teens up until my early thirties I would love his work in film, particularly, “The World According to Garp”, “Moscow on the Hudson”, “Good Morning, Vietnam”, “Awakenings”, “Aladdin”, “Death to Smoochy”, “Man of the Year”. Of course the two most significant – each, I have seen at least couple dozen times – would be the wonderfully colorful, creative, and original, “The Fisher King” (still among my all-time favorites; a beautiful performance from him, and Jeff Bridges’ best performance at the time) and of course the brave, powerful, and beloved film of my late-teens, “Dead Poets Society”.
I remember the late New York Times’ film critic, Vincent Canby, writing in his review of “Dead Poets” (which left me wondering if he had actually seen the film) that if you were unable to see one of his students “take [Mr. Keating’s] teachings to fatal lengths” then you would have had to have been raised on a space station. I didn’t see Neil Perry’s suicide coming, just as virtually none of us saw Robin’s coming.
It was only after the fact that a great many of us learned he had been seeking treatment for severe depression. Given the subtle warning signs, huge volume of work – not to exclude many of his interviews which were like comedy routines – and how his material never reflected a general fear of death, I don’t think there was anybody who didn’t feel blindsided by the news.
So along with herein wanting to pay tribute, the more I was able to trace back to those early years and read about him in more recent years, the more I have been able to fine-tune picking up the signs. Yet moreover, concerning the big question his death has raised, being creative myself, I have never cared for the idea that one has to be ‘crazy’ – manic-depressive, on all sorts of experimental drugs, or even a social pariah – to create something powerful. Thus, I wanted to share what I have uncovered for both creative and non-creative, young and older, folk, alike.
I was always aware he had a bit of a ‘Hamlet complex’. I don’t know if such a term actually exists in psychology lore, but it is a bit of a cliché among male comedians to try and make light of an inability to identify with and please the father (or, ghost of the father). After the actor/comedian Jonathan Winters had recently passed from natural causes, I caught Robin commenting on how he was the only comedian he had ever witnessed to make his father (a former auto executive) laugh. No coincidence then how he would become a major influence on the son’s comedy.
The following excerpt is from an article from a published interview he did with The Guardian, in 2010, then promoting his film, “World’s Greatest Dad”. About halfway down, the paragraph begins with the interviewer writing, “My worry beforehand had been that Williams would be too wildly manic to make much sense. When he appeared on the Jonathan Ross show earlier this summer, he’d been vintage Williams – hyperactive to the point of deranged, ricocheting between voices, riffing off his internal dialogues. Off-camera, however, he is a different kettle of fish. His bearing is intensely Zen and almost mournful, and when he’s not putting on voices he speaks in a low, tremulous delivering a funeral eulogy. He seems gentle and kind – even tender – but the overwhelming impression is one of sadness.” The next few paragraphs continue on this.
For as long as art has existed the suggestion that being ‘crazy’ and a ‘creative genius’ has always been an instinctively easy and very romantic one to make. Poets, writers, and musicians seem, to me, to be the most associated. George Byron, Robert Lowell, Alfred Tennyson, Anne Sexton, and David Foster Wallace, as well as more well-known sufferers, like Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, and Vincent Van Gogh, to name a just few, all suffered from a particularly debilitating form of depression called bipolar disorder – bipolar I, to be exact; as opposed to the less debilitating bipolar II. Lowell described living with it as “a magical orange grove in a nightmare.”
From the study, “Creative Mythconceptions: A Closer Look at the Evidence for the ‘Mad Genius’ Hypothesis”, by Judith Schlesinger, 2009.
“In his Creativity and Madness: New Findings and Old Stereotypes, [Albert] Rothenberg (1990) addresses what he calls the presumably objective work of [psychiatrist, Nancy] Andreasen and [psychologist, Kay Redfield] Jamison, noting the widespread inclination to soft-pedal its limitations: ‘the need to believe in a connection between creativity and madness appears to be so strong that affirmations are welcomed and treated rather uncritically’ (p. 150).”
“To date…the most basic assumption of this whole enterprise remains in the air: there is still no clear convincing, scientific proof that artists do, in fact, suffer more psychological problems than any other vocational group – and probably little chance of obtaining any. So far, neither the National Institute of Mental Health nor the National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association keep statistics on the rate of mental illness by occupation. Meanwhile, the biased focus on those creatives with troubled lives will never confirm their unique vulnerability, even if their troubles had unimpeachable documentation.”
So, the rather disturbing fact of the matter is there is no proving nor disproving of a scientific link. Nobody can tell for certain how much Robin Williams’ particularly severe disorder/extrovertedly compulsive desire to entertain played a hand in helping to make who he was, and how the scope of his brilliance was influenced as a result. (The reported early stages of the neurodegenerative illness, Parkinson’s, accompanied by these two elements, to go with old age, I believe also played a significant part.) But all told, one certainly does not have to be to some extent clinically, mentally ill in order to create something powerful. Nor would proper medication – should one be able to find it – hinder creative output.
Generally speaking, surrounding yourself first and foremost with friends and a supportive community are the most important things that encourage and sustain growth. A muse helps, and since the moment I learned I wanted to write I felt I just needed this as a sole foundation. It took a long time and some excruciating not-knowing – some, personally speaking, being able to maintain that hurting my selflessly creative self would be the ultimate act of selfishness – to uncover this more base-foundation. (I have always been able to in some way say to myself, ‘O, what an ass am I’, and work from there. :) ) Yet his influence will no doubt continue to inspire me to be a well-rounded, and grounded, creative individual .
He always seemed in every way in speed with the nineteen miles per second at which the Earth revolved on its axis. His sharp, sometimes mesmerizing barrage of calculated wit and highly calibrated sense of irony were huge influences on me. Classic Robin-isms, like, “Excuse me, Mr. President, in the dictionary under ‘irony’, it says ‘See irony’”, or “We’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing near you,” were said out of love. He was worldly and eccentric, embodying a child-like curiosity to always want to learn more. He was extremely articulate apart from and even in between the extravaganza of cultural voices, musical instruments and sound-effects, and real-life impersonations. He could dole out the obscurest of technical details in an improvised routine, and was able to seamlessly conduct this entire compendium at any given time (…I had to pause after the ‘invention of the bagpipe’, around the 6:40 mark). He will forever remain untouchable in his ability to improvise. I was/am especially amazed by his Shakespearean launches; one of which, in the middle of introducing Rita Rudner at Comic Relief V, which I cannot find on youtube but will try to do justice here:
“…And she just finished her first movie, which she co-stars with Kenneth Branagh – [dropping into exaggerated-dramatic British accent] Gadzukes! Yes! The woman is here, all the way from The Royal Shakespeare Company! …‘I fear not, Fellatio! This is I damndest cunningly withstane! These queen sheets I shall not know thy thread, but yet touched the cock and called her throne! Oh, saucy Worcester, wilt thou deny thy father’s brothers?! Eldest son, Vollack, come to the moisture of all England’s fetted loins – in my loins! Titus has no penis.’ – Act IV, scene ii.”)
His was just an incredibly theatrical comedian. That was it for me. And it was in considerable credit to having studied stage-acting at Julliard for three years. (He only needed three years, before being recommended to leave by his professors because there was nothing more they could teach him.)
He was not always ‘on’, in the general sense, but that was very rare. And it was remarkable to me for as long and as often he would go on tangents how he would never lose confidence, never lose control of the context, and never allow himself to be overtaken by the slightest of self-indulgences.
He had an enormous and fearless sensibility to either seriously or exuberantly point out our hypocrisies, and would just go until it was somehow indicated time to move on.
Mel Brooks said it was never enough for him to just make people laugh but to leave them on the floor. Robin was the same way. He seemed to humbly hold his craft in esteem with other more prominently known, humane professions, such as in medical science, research, education, humanitarian aid, and so on. At the heart of his brilliance, stemmed kindness rooted in human dignity.
Fare-thee-well, dear, great King.
 From which, his character’s recitation of the excerpt from “Leaves of Grass” has now been immortalized in an i-pad commercial. ‘Seize the day’, youth of the world, by burying half of it into an electronic device? Hearing Walt Whitman promote Apple is like hearing Hart Crane do a voice-spot for Home Depot.
 I do not own the dvd, don’t really need to, and don’t wish to currently pay $500 for a used copy on amazon, but the rest of the scene finishes with the headmaster’s polite reminder of two of the school’s four philosophical ‘pillars’: “‘Tradition’, John. ‘Discipline’. Prepare them for college and the rest will take care of itself.”