“Throbbing Python of Love” contains the funniest moment – the funniest two words – in the history of stand-up comedy. Referring to that magical moment of male-adolescent discovery, when an alarming knock suddenly sounds from the opposite side of the bathroom door, and a somewhat sterile-sounding, maternal voice demands, “What are you doing in there?!”
Without missing a beat… “GOING BLI-IIIIIIIIIINNNNNND!!!”
Zero shame – nor, for that matter, shamelessness – just admission of pure exultation and liberation bordering on religious jubilee! 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 how he had 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 immediately fell back into his chair, feigning exasperation and a post-sex cigarette, adding of course the perfect topper: “It’s not the size of the shoe!”
My friends, older brothers, cousins, and I would often gather together or privately listen to his albums, or watch his HBO specials, along with other greats of the day, like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Billy Crystal, and Steve Martin. I started watching and listening to them before having even hit puberty (mainly because of the strictly taboo appeal of curse-words, of course, and talk about girls and sex). And of what I couldn’t understand – the weight of which was much of what they were talking about, including various references to current or historical affairs – I would come to love and value in terms of its honesty and perspective, on top of sensing how it was all funny as hell.
Long since having shed much of those days off, for millions of American youths before and after me stand-up comics were our first real educators for the world. (And what a diverse and extraordinary education!)
And above every other performer – with the possible exception of brother Bill [Murray] – Robin was king.
And, forgone conclusion it was that he would be great in films, from then on in my early teens up until my early thirties I would 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”. But by far, 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 tumultuous 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 movie) 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 none of us saw Robin’s coming.
Suicide, in an extremely selfish way, can first be perceived as a matter of very bad timing. It was only after the fact that many if not all of us learned he had been seeking treatment for severe depression. Given the aforementioned subtle warning signs and his huge volume of work – not to exclude many of his interviews, which were like comedy routines – I don’t think there was anyone who didn’t feel utterly blindsided.
So, along with wanting to pay tribute, the big, base-question his death has called attention to is: does being creatively inclined go hand-in-hand with being, to some extent, clinically depressed? All things considered, being an artist myself, I wanted to explore and share what I managed to uncover for the sake of both creative and non-creative, young and older, folk, alike. Albeit after the fact, the more I traced back to those early years, and had read about him in more recent years, the more I was able to pick up the signs.
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. After the actor/comedian Jonathan Winters recently passed away of 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, popular, and romantic one. Poets and writers, and musicians, seem like they’re the most associated. George Byron, Robert Lowell, Alfred Tennyson, Anne Sexton, and David Foster Wallace, as well as more well-known sufferers, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, 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 his 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.”
All told, one does not have to be considered clinically ill in order to create something powerful. Nor are all creative people to a potentially serious extent ‘crazy’. Nor does proper medication generally hinder creativity. Nobody can tell for sure how much his particularly severe disorder played a hand in helping make him who he was, or how the scope of his brilliance was aided as a result. But 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 would spin 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 all said out of love. He was worldly and wild, and embodied a child-like curiosity to always want to learn more. He was extremely articulate as well as an extravaganza of cultural voices, recognizable musical instruments and sound-effects, and real-life impersonations. He could retain and dole out the obscurest of technical details, 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 I cannot find on youtube, but just have on VHS, and so will try to do justice here:
“…And she just finished her first movie, which she co-stars with Kenneth Branagh – [dropping into 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 appeal was that he was an incredibly theatrical comedian, 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. But, 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, and so on. At the heart of his brilliance, stemmed kindness and human dignity.
Fare thee well, great, dear king.
 From which, Keating’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-over 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 reminder of two of the school’s four ‘pillars’: “‘Tradition’, John. ‘Discipline’. Prepare them for college and the rest will take care of itself.”