If Robin Williams wasn’t your cup of tea, that’s fine. Don’t read this. But I have to get this out.
I’m very, very sad.
There’s just this big hole in my heart where Robin Williams used to be.
I cried a few times last night. The first was instinct. It was the pure shock of death claiming one of the most undeniably alive entertainers in human history.
The others were rip tides, catching me by surprise and pulling me under. I did not realize how deeply Robin Williams was looped into the wiring of my life, how many of my most cherished memories involve him.
When I was 12, I convinced my Dad to let me join one of those record club scams – “five albums for just a penny” – that spell disaster for a parent’s Visa bill. We weren’t yet on board with the CD revolution, so I ordered five audio cassettes. One of them was Robin Williams: A Night at The Met. I listened to it a hundred times. On sleep-overs at my friend J’s house, we lay in the dark, cackling at jokes we barely understood. There was stuff about cocaine, sex, golf, pimps. We didn’t get some of the material, but we got all the attitude. Here was an imp of subversion, injecting a bit of madness and laughter into the world with every movement and breath he took. It’s one of the happiest memories of my childhood, lying there in that twin bed, laughing at things I wasn’t supposed to. Whenever I think about the first stirrings of wanting to be a comedian, I think about that moment.
My Dad was away sometimes. He was a journalist and he worked hard. He worked for many papers and news agencies, and volunteered for many foreign assignments others shied away from. The summer of my 15th birthday he was in China for what seemed like forever, covering some long-forgotten summit. But on the phone, he told us about his day off, about how he watched this movie called The Birdcage in English (with subtitles) in a movie theater full of non-English speakers. No one else in the room quite got it, he said. But he laughed like a jackal, he said. As soon as it came out on video we were all going to watch it, he said. We did. It was every bit as funny as he’d described. In our family, we watch The Birdcage whenever one of us is feeling sad. It takes us out of despair, always. I’m not sure if we can do that again for a while.
Williams’ performance in that film sticks out for its bravery today. He was a megawatt personality and movie star, and yet he plays mostly straight man to two other colossal talents: Hank Azaria and Nathan Lane. He dialed it down and played the truth: he was a gay father caught between the pride of love and the shame of bigotry. He was heartfelt and real, and he set everyone else up for their best lines. He did an eclectic celebration of the dance, but he kept it all inside.
I always wanted to impress my mother, to make her think I was older, wiser, more sophisticated than I ever was. I remember her raving about this film Dead Poet’s Society, and wondering out loud whether it was something I was ready for. I grew up in an outer London suburb called East Sheen: they haven’t invented a safer, nicer place. The summer my two pet goldfish lost the will to live (The Thompson Twins, named after characters from the Tintin books, not the New Wave band) was the closest thing to suicide I’d ever experienced. I was 9, maybe 10. But after enough pestering in the aisles of Ritz Video, my mother said we could watch it together, in daylight, as long as we agreed to “talk about it afterwards”. I still remember how proud I was that she thought I could handle it. The Whitman quotations. The tearing up of the bland works of Dr. Evans J. Pritchard. The O Captain scene. You can call that movie cheesy all you want. But is there a better delivery system for a nine-year-old’s intellectual curiosity?
Even as an adult, Williams was with me. He blew my mind in World’s Greatest Dad. He contributed to an unforgettable episode of Louie. Sure, there were bombs. But that’s what made him a great comic and great artist: he was willing to fail. In their 50s and 60s, most movie stars are playing tennis and cashing royalty checks. He was still taking big swings for the fence.
My most powerful memory of him is from 2010. I listened to him being interviewed on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. I was on the beach in Santa Monica, about to attend Jesse Thorn’s MaxFunCon. I was an early adopter of WTF, thanks to Jesse’s early promotion. I’ll be honest: I am never into a cool thing before anyone else. I’m the last to know everything. I was five years late to Dubstep, and it was invented five miles from where I grew up. I was a WTF guy from the beginning, though, and I remember what a huge deal it was when Robin Williams was a guest. Just his presence on this weird, subcultured podcast was mind-blowing. The interview was out of this world. That was the spring I’d set an end date to quit my day job and try to make it as a comic and writer. I sat on the sand, watched the sun go down and listened to Robin Williams make fun of himself, feeling a great fraternity with him and Maron, and anyone else who just wants to make people laugh for a living. I’m not a spiritual person. But there was magic in that.
I’ve written a lot about myself here. That’s the greatest compliment you can pay an entertainer. His work is enmeshed in my life. He’s in me, forever. It’s hard to write about him directly, because that just makes me want to cry again. The best I can do is word-associate. He was brave. Impossibly, absurdly, unthinkingly brave. If improv gave merit awards for services to “Don’t Think, Just Do”, Williams would get the Medal of Honor. He was restless. Relentless. Warm. Humble. An addict. A clown. Unmoored. Unquestioning. Irreplaceable. Aladdin. Good Morning Vietnam. Good Will Hunting.Toys. The Fisher King. Awakenings. Jesus fucking Christ: this man lived a lifetime of once-in-a-lifetime performances.
He has left us. I am sad that he is gone. I am glad that he was here.