Monday, August 18, 2014

Robin Williams’ Art of the ‘Broken Places’

Shortly after David Letterman jumped to CBS for his own talk show, Robin Williams came on as a guest. Watching, I was chuckling away, as I’m sure thousands of others were, when the conversation took an even zanier turn, to then-tabloid sensation John Wayne Bobbitt and his beyond-infuriated wife Lorena.

“It’s amazing, when she threw it [her husband’s mutilated member] out the freeway, she didn’t land it in some toxic dump,” Williams speculated. Whereupon, jumping out of his seat, he began to enact the results: Attack of the 100-Foot Penis, featuring the short actor practically making himself several inches taller as he lifted and squared his shoulders, Boris Karloff style, stalking around the set and staring madly into the camera. (You can see the results on this YouTube video.)

The whole audience was reduced to a collective puddle of laughter, enthralled, astonished and delighted by the lightning-flash free association, the synapses jumped in a single bound by this superman of improv comics. Comedians sum up this kind of galvanic effect on listeners with a verb: killed.

That word took on an alternate, far more awful connotation this week with the news that Williams had killed himself. The act prompted an extraordinary outpouring of grief in the social media, with much of it focused on a question born of anguish: How could someone whose work involved bringing joy to millions end his life in absolute despair?

The shock was compounded by the fact that Williams’ death came when, if not at the top of his game, he seemed eminently capable of reaching it again. And so the speculation began in earnest about what drove him to these awful final moments.

“It is often easier to account for a suicide by external causes like marital or work problems, physical illness, financial stress or trouble with the law than it is to attribute it to mental illness,” wrote Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, in an op-ed this weekend for The New York Times.

It was those steep alimony payments to his ex-wives that led to his death, some people said. It was the failure last year of a sitcom, the genre that launched him to fame in 1978 with Mork and Mindy, others thought. It was survivor’s guilt over losing good friends such as John Belushi and Christopher Reeve. It was a recent diagnosis of early-onset Parkinson’s Disease.

But if the last several days have taught us anything, it is not only how little we knew about the actor, but also how little we know about others in his field plagued by this condition—indeed, how little we know, two decades after Prozac, about the best means of keeping depression at bay.

It turns out, for instance, that quite a number of stand-up comics, comic actors or directors have been affected by what has been called “the noonday demon.” We already knew that the late Rodney Dangerfield, Richard Pryor, and Williams’ biggest influence, Jonathan Winters, suffered from this affliction. In the past week, though, other comic entertainers’ similar struggles have become better known, including Carrie Fisher, Jim Carrey, Chevy Chase, Rob Reiner, Lena Dunham, David Letterman, and Luke Wilson.

Some observers have reacted viscerally to what they see as the cliché of the clown laughing on the outside but crying on the inside. An especially fierce dissent along these lines was voiced by Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute and a researcher in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, in a blog post for Scientific American Magazine. The media should dispense with “cutesy connections to genius that are not even supported in the scientific literature,” Kaufman stated bluntly. In this regard, he found no thread between Williams’ suicide, an event “strongly influenced by mental illness,” and his comic brilliance, the product of so much more in his life: “his compassion, playfulness, divergent thinking, imagination, intelligence, affective repertoire, and unique life experiences.”

Kaufman’s impatience with the simplistic thinking in the air this last week about Williams’ death is understandable. Yet, if we cannot accept a one-circumstance-fits-all explanation for the despair experienced by Williams and other comics, certain aspects of their livelihood and environment increase their vulnerability to misfortune:

*Schedules that define their outsider status. Comics, like many entertainers, do not work nine to five like most people. Five p.m. is, in fact, early in the day for them. After a show, their natural tendency is to celebrate with other professionals well into the morning hours. Their systems now run counter to the body’s natural rhythms.

*Questioning of social norms. Comics find fodder for their work everywhere. From religion to sexuality to politics, nothing is sacred for them. The bitterness underlying such routines can be energizing—until, like an engine allowed no rest, it gives out. At that point, they feel inadequate support from the institutions (including the family) in which so many ordinary people take shelter.

*Drug use. For the last several decades, recreational drug use has been an integral part of the entertainment scene, a sign of being anti-establishment and cool. (The first decade or so of Saturday Night Live was, by common agreement, coke-fueled.) But this use, when combined with an inherent tendency toward depression, becomes especially dangerous for some users.

*A penchant for risk-taking. David Steinberg, who made many appearances on The Tonight Show in the Johnny Carson era, was quite insightful about the frequency—even necessity—for failure in his and Williams’ line of work during an interview a year and a half ago with The Huffington Post: “There is no way, and everyone will tell you this, to get better at stand-up -- that is talking for an hour in front of a live audience who are paying money to hear you -- without failing. And failure is something that takes place in front of an audience….So basically, what makes it brutal … is that you can only get better at it by failing in front of an audience. There's no way to do it at home quietly.”

*Constant craving for creative validation. Returning to the stand-up term “kill,” three words should follow it: “or be killed.” While an actor might live for applause at the end of a show, a comedian will be virtually mainlining approval, from one joke to another. The results can be devastating when the laughs don’t come as often as expected.

Kaufman, I think, is right that Williams did not suffer because of his comic genius. But Williams did feel the ground shifting beneath him because of the environment in which stand-up comics must survive.

Over the last week, a quote has reverberated in my mind to explain the nature of survival in the midst of reverses: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

That passage comes from a crucial point in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Three decades after writing that, at an age and under circumstances roughly similar to Williams, with a similar high status in his field, he also chose to end his life. 

At some point in a not-so-distant future, as neuroscience advances, we may well look back on the current  regimen for treating the comic as something from the Dark Ages, much like we now do with the electroshock therapy used disastrously on the Nobel Prize-winning novelist.

In the meantime, though, we will be left to mournfully wonder why these two American masters came to be destroyed by their broken places.

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