Robin Williams and the Tears of a Clown

I remember the first time I was exposed to Robin Williams. I was nine, and I was seeing Aladdin in the theater with my parents and five sisters. Robin Williams voiced the Genie, and he was brilliant. In fact, the movie was apparently turned down for Best Adapted Screenplay because Robin Williams had improvised the majority of his lines. That in itself is a testament to his fertile comic mind and quick wit.

But this funny man, like so many other comedians, was a sad clown. In Patch Adams, his character said, “The most radical act anyone can commit is to be happy.” Robin Williams apparently couldn’t ever get there. He was found dead in his apartment yesterday, having apparently hanged himself. He’s one in a long line of comedians who struggled with addiction and depression. And eventually succumbed to them completely in death.

And many people look at this, and they wonder, “Why? He was such a funny person. He made everyone laugh. Why would he kill himself? Why would he be so sad?”

David Wong from Cracked had some insightful thoughts on that topic. Not exactly G-rated, but insightful nonetheless. He describes how, in his experience, pretty much all comedians have serious psychological issues. And the clown is a defense mechanism. In his own words:

In your formative years, you [the comedian] wind up creating a second, false you—a clown that can go out and represent you, outside the barrier. The clown is always joking, always “on,” always drawing all of the attention in order to prevent anyone from poking away at the barrier and finding the real person behind it. The clown is the life of the party, the classroom joker, the guy up on stage—as different from the “real” you as possible. Again, the goal is to create distance.

So, behind the jokes and the slapstick, the real Robin Williams tortured himself with self-doubt until he eventually couldn’t take it anymore. Aside from being there for other comedians (all of whom are apparently in a similar situation), we can’t do anything for Robin Williams. Farewell to one of the most talented comedians of our generation.