Robin Williams

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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.

Career-hungry people in entertainment

There is a comedian in New York, roughly my age, who I think is one of the best joke writers in town. I think we’d get along, and have tried to be his friend, for (and I’m being honest) 90% non-career reasons. Do I think he’ll be a huge success one day, and maybe throw me an opportunity or two? Sure. Maybe. But that stuff can’t be counted on. He just seems fun: a good hang, quick as hell, and generally my kind of person. But this guy is so career-focused, it’s off-putting. I can’t help him, so he has no real time for me. Not in a mean way, just in a “Oh hi! Oh bye!” kind of way.

My emotional response to this is weird. I can’t hold his behavior against him. It’s not his job to make me feel good about me. I want people like that to validate me as a person, but they’ve decided they don’t really have time for those kind of connections. He’s perfectly within his rights to do so. And I should just get over it. Part of me feels sorry for him. But I’m also jealous of what his dysfunctional, careerist mono-focus has helped him “get”.

It’s so bizarre to watch. He is very good at “the game”, and also very talented. And that is what’s so unnerving: you can’t tell where success from talent/hard work ends, and success from schmoozing/marketing starts. Then I ask myself: at the end of the day, does it even matter? Did it ever matter? How many of your great entertainment idols are really *that* great? Maybe they were just “good enough” talent-wise, but lucky enough to be born with the gift of networking? Does every creative field have a Patrice O’Neal: a cranky genius so many miles ahead of the competition, but too self-destructive to play the game?

 

New jokes that’ll be old soon (part 17)

Target just fired a security guard for calling the cops on a shoplifter. They fired him for doing his job. Which explains why no one at Target is ever doing their job.

The F-35 fighter jet is grounded because its engine has “excessive rubbing“. The military say they aren’t worried, because the jet has been in development for 13 years, and excessive rubbing is very normal at that age.

The Aryan baby on the cover of a Nazi family magazine… was actually Jewish. That must’ve been tough for a proud Jewish mother: OK, it’s Nazi propaganda, but… of all the babies, they picked mine!

What happened today?

A Korean gentleman at my deli just wished me “Happy July!” Not just the 4th: the whole shebang. What a sweetie.

***

Just remembered: on one day last week, I had sex, watched the World Cup, drank four beers, and quoted The Simpsons with pals for two hours. I’m living my 13 year-old dream.

***

Like most of the world, I’d forgotten that Jay-Z straight up stabbed a dude in ’99 and was looking at 15 years. He’s bounced back well, hasn’t he?

What you can’t eat

youcannoteatthat

You can’t eat carbs because they make you fat. You can’t eat meat because it makes you fat. You can’t eat sugar because it makes you fat. You can’t eat fruit because of all the sugar. You can’t eat eggs because they make you fat. Except the white part. Which makes you want the yellow part. The yellow part makes you fat. You can’t drink booze because it makes you fat. And makes you want to eat more things that make you fat. You can’t eat fat because it makes you fat. You can eat vegetables. But can you eat enough to not want the other stuff? The stuff that makes you fat?  No.

Oh noes! Facebook is trying to make me happy!

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There’s been so much nonsense talked about Facebook “manipulating emotions” lately, it’s tough to know where to start. The Dish, as always, has a decent primer.

First: the facts. Facebook altered the News Feeds of its users in order to determine if “emotional states [could] be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness.” This, we are told, is a VERY BAD THING. Why? Well, it just feels creepy to people. Apparently.

Not to me. I couldn’t care less. In fact, I am amazed anyone cares. Isn’t this what media companies do? Manipulate our emotions, and try and make the source of that emotion “viral” (i.e. popular) and profitable? Newspapers, movie studios, TV channels, Upworthy… they all make their living by triggering emotional reactions. Newspapers seek to make us feel more informed (and therefore better) than other people. Movies and TV want to make us laugh or cry. Upworthy wants us all to feel everything is going to be alright, because a cat and a goat became friends. Or something. Why is it a problem that Facebook is working on ways to makes us feel “better” about the world? I’m puzzled. Maybe it’s because analog media like movies and magazines are written by humans trying to puppet our emotions, and that’s acceptable. Do it with an algorithm? Well, that’s Skynet and the end of humanity, isn’t it?

You can always rely on a magazine writer or two to say something really dumb about Facebook. Step up, Laurie Penny of the New Statesman! Listen how she Chicken Littles her way through 800 words:

“Nobody has ever had this sort of power before. No dictator in their wildest dreams has been able to subtly manipulate the daily emotions of more than a billion humans so effectively.”

What crap. Firstly, it’s false on its face. The Pope? The President of the United States? The head of the Politburo? The Chairman of the Chinese Communist party? I humbly submit that all of them have (or had) a teensy bit more power to “manipulate daily emotions” than Mark Zuckerberg. Although I’m sure he’s very skilled at limiting your intake of engagement notices and baby pictures on Facebook.

Second, what do you take human beings for? Idiotic lemmings with no emotional agency at all? So Facebook throttles back on telling you about war-time atrocities today. Big whup. Do you honestly believe Facebook users will think the world is fine, just because a website isn’t contradicting us? How stupid do you think users are? “Experts” are willing to believe social media is pernicious, almost all the time, for no reason at all. I am baffled. Why are we all so anxious about these tools? That’s all they are: tools. Like hammers. Or lasers. Or fax machines. We want to imagine they have power over us, like evil invading robots, making us toil in their underground transistor mines. They are no such thing. If we as people are unhappy, or too happy, let’s look for reasons other than Facebook for why that might be so.