The first joke I ever told, I stole from Robin Williams. At dinner, when my brother was speaking, I told him, “Sit down and shut up!” I didn’t get the joke—not sure I do now—but I had heard Robin Williams say it on a rerun of Mork and Mindy. The people on TV laughed, and when I said it, my family laughed (with the exception of my brother, who beat the ever-living fuck out of me—everyone’s a critic). This started my long career of repeating what I saw on TV and hoping it made people laugh. The results lay somewhere between “Schwing” and “Master of my domain.” Which is to say, I’m hilarious.
I’m not interested in Robin Williams’ career, or whether his Oscar for Good Will Hunting is ridiculous (it is) or if he’s underrated as a stand-up (he is). What I want to know is why funny people kill themselves. They don’t always kill themselves directly, but sometimes through dope (John Belushi) or old age (Groucho Marx) or Jet-ski accident (Woody Allen in 2020) or fake cancer (Andy Kauflman) or by hijacking a plane and flying it into the World Trade Center (Mohammad Atta). Okay, so maybe just dope. But there are a lot of comedians who die from dope.
Mork and Mindy wasn’t my favorite show when I stole their joke. That was Diff’rent Strokes (which roughly translates to “Different Strokes”). That family felt funny without trying. In retrospect, I realize it was mawkishness that kept me watching. But I liked spending time with the Drummonds. Mork had to win me over with craziness because he was an alien. I didn’t understand him, so he had to work at making me like him.
Every comedian is an alien. This is something that Robin Williams understood more than anyone. He flailed around to make his joke. If you and I were having a conversation and I said “How’s it going?” you’d say “Fine” (if you’re normal) or “Oh, let me tell you about it” (if you’re in asshole) or “Hippopotamus “ (if you misunderstood the question). But if you were talking to a comedian, you’d get a barrage of one-liners and jokes. On top of that, you’d expect it, and if that person simply had a normal conversation with you, you’d feel cheated.
Robin Williams is the biggest alien—or as he’d soon be seen in Popeye, a fleshy cartoon. He’s so unlike us that we laugh at him trying to communicate with humankind. His comedy was the equivalent of a squirrel shooting a free-throw—it doesn’t matter if the shot goes in, but it’s cute that he’s trying.
I don’t much like Robin Williams. I like the sort of humor I can recognize as coming from someone I know. It’s the same reason a casual conversation with my friends makes me laugh far more than a gifted stand-up comedian. My friend wants me to laugh—the comedian needs me to laugh or he’ll sulk and feel like he’s a failure. My favorite comedians perfume that desperation to where you can’t smell its stink. But that wasn’t Robin Williams’ way.
He seemed like a nice guy. If I met him on the street, I bet he’d humor me by talking to me and trying to make me laugh. But my (wholly unfair) impression of him is that after fifteen minutes I’d be checking my watch and pretending I have to go somewhere. It’s not that he wouldn’t be funny—I imagine I’d laugh a lot—but he’d be so desperate to be funny that I think it would be hard to relax and enjoy the conversation. It’s entertaining and exhausting to listen to Robin Williams talk to us because he’s not one of us. He’s an alien.
The same problem happened when he switched to serious roles. He played saints—a surgeon who heals people through his red rubber nose, a psychiatrist who cracks through his tough cases by repeating “It’s not your fault” (I get that I’m in the minority, but Jesus, Good Will Hunting was a stupid movie). That’s no different than being a wise-cracking genie who impersonates Jack Nicholson. Both are compelling: neither is human. In fact, both play like a robot approximating what it would take to get humans to like him.
No death is easy, even from a great distance. But why is suicide different? And why is suicide sadder?
I heard about Robin Williams’ death from a text message chain from a couple of my wise-ass friends who are also Barefoot writers. They were joking and I joked too. The headline I read said, “Robin Williams Dead at 63.” When a 63 year-old with a history of cocaine use and heavy boozing who has already had a heart attack dies, the world tends to be unsurprised. I passed one of my stupid jokes to my brother (he who would neither sit down nor shut up). He said, “It’s sad when people kill themselves.”
That changed things immediately. Now, I felt like I was bullying him, his loved ones, and his fans. It’s difficult to say why. But imagine if you found out tomorrow that Robin Williams died because he was trying to auto-erotically asphyxiate himself. Would it make his death seem less tragic somehow? In fact, it seems like a wasted opportunity for a final Robin Williams joke: he could’ve pulled his pants down and made the world think that’s how he died.
Suicides are sadder. Objectively, that doesn’t make sense. Why do we feel differently about the deaths of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and James Gandolfini? Both of those men were younger, and, more pertinently, they did not want to die. Robin Williams did want to die. That we can’t accept that says a lot about our national character. Whether we should accept that, depends largely on your proximity to suicide.
A few years ago, my God-brother shot himself in the mouth. This was after a daily struggle with crippling depression that he had ever since he was a teenager. The great refrain about suicides is, ”I never saw it coming.” Yes, I never saw it coming, but only because I didn’t look very hard. I should have seen it coming from a mile away. Still I do not, do not, do not accept that he wanted to die.
When we mourn the dead, we’re talking about ourselves. Every tribute to Robin Williams is someone detailing their own lives. It’s not even that we feel depressed—we feel robbed. They chose to spend time with nothing over us.
James Gandolfini eating himself to death causes us pain, but we can deal with it—he is fat, and we are not. Phillip Seymour Hoffman OD’ing hurts us, but only to a point—he’s addicted, and we are not. Rush Limbaugh breaking his neck while fellating a baby mountain goat causes us grief, but it’s a manageable grief—Rush Limbaugh loves the taste of goat semen, and we do not.
But Robin Williams killed himself. And there’s a reason why that hurts us more than any other death. It feels like he’s addressing you and saying “Well, you’ve given me no reason to stay.” In truth, people leave our lives for the same reason they show up there in the first place: no reason at all. Yet, we see leaving as a judgment.
Why do funny people kill themselves? The same reason the rest of us kill ourselves. I get that this is a political website and a pretty non-political topic, but I do think it has politicized roots. This is a component of living in modern America. We hate ourselves. We aren’t suicidal, but when something bad happens, we feel like we deserve it.
When we work longer and harder than our parent’s generation for less money, we think “Only an asshole complains.” That’s because we hate ourselves. When East Kentucky is named the poorest and unhappiest part of America, and we figure we can’t do anything different because this is our culture, it’s because we hate ourselves. We don’t feel we’re worth more.
And when people leave us, we think we deserve it as well. The outpouring of grief over Robin Williams is no doubt genuine, but it’s not about Robin Williams. It’s about the grievers. A year ago, when Robin Williams was the star of The Crazy Ones, how many of these same people would talk how much they loved him? How many of them thought of Robin Williams as this cringing embarrassment they wanted to go away?
Now he’s gone away, and we feel responsible. In his depression, he seemed more human—less like the manic clown who wanted our approval, and for once, like someone who didn’t care about us at all. We want to apologize for letting him down. But we didn’t do anything wrong. Neither did he.
Depression is a motherfucker. I imagine Robin Williams knew how much people loved him, but no amount of love alters the nature of depression. It’s a disease, same as addiction, same as cancer. Instead of projecting our sadness onto Robin Williams, let’s talk about the real issue. Why do we hate ourselves? How do we get better?
We can start by taking our friends at their words. They wanted to die. Let’s respect them, and leave them their grief. Part of the reason we can’t accept that our loved ones want to die is because we don’t want to die. We understand the pain of being alive, but we like it—at least we prefer it—and we can’t fathom people who don’t think like us. But it’s okay to not understand. We don’t need to apologize for existing; they don’t need to apologize for not existing.
I called Robin Williams an alien, but of course, he’s not. He’s human, and he died succumbing to the human condition. But we don’t have to. Sometimes we tell jokes or stories to stave off that condition. Sometimes it works.
The impulse for extinction is part of all of us. But if we can love and forgive famous people who we did not know, we can forgive each other. The first step toward doing so is to ask more from ourselves and to ask for more for ourselves.