Nothing was off the table for Robin Williams' jokes, least of all his life

Robin Williams thought everything from politics to personal struggles were fodder for a good joke.

Deepanjana Pal August 12, 2014 18:47:36 IST
Nothing was off the table for Robin Williams' jokes, least of all his life

A few years ago, Robin Williams went on tour with a new stand-up show. It was called Weapons of Self Destruction, which is a punch in the gut today, when the news of his suspected suicide is out.

Even in 2009, the title of the show made people do a double take. Everyone knew Williams had a history of addiction and alcoholism and he was one of the many people in show business who knew what it meant to self-destruct. He was one of the few who talked about it, candidly and humorously, in both interviews as well as in his stand-up routines. But did he have to be so cruel to himself, some wondered even while admiring Williams's ability to make fun of himself.

This is a clip from one of Williams’ old but legendary shows, Robin Williams: Live at the Met.

In Weapons of Self-Destruction, he said, “Being a functioning alcoholic is kind of like being a paraplegic lap dancer — you can do it, just not as well as the others, really.” He made his addictions a laughing matter, even though every joke was actually on him and both the audience and Williams knew it. He was encouraging everyone to laugh at him for having behaved irresponsibly. It seems, in hindsight, almost a way of punishing himself.

When speaking about his alcoholism in interviews, a slightly more earnest side seemed to emerge. Williams was still sardonic – “sleepwalking with activity” is how he described his years as an addict – but he seemed eager to talk about experiences that few celebrities admitted to and it didn’t seem like a performance.

Nothing was off the table for Robin Williams jokes least of all his life

AP

Except it was.

In interview after interview, when he talks about that day when he took a sip of Jack Daniel’s after 20 years, Williams uses the same words, pauses at the same points, and throws in the same asides. He spoke about the small town where he rediscovered whisky, describing its location as “not the edge of the world, but you can see it from there.” He joked about how cocaine slowed him down and became a hiding place each time anyone asked him about his drug addiction. Did Williams like repeating those stories because they were reminders of him having beaten the addiction in the past? Or did the stories become performances, tales of another life; rather than a reality that he’d lived through?

Williams, a Juillard-trained actor, had been an alcoholic and cocaine addict in the 1980s, after he became famous for his role in the sitcom Mork and Mindy. Williams quit both in 1983, when he was about to become a father. He stayed clean for 20 years and then, in a small town in Alaska, he chose to have one little drink. The next three years were alcohol-fuelled until finally, Williams checked into rehab again in 2006. In summer this year, he checked into a “renewal facility” and his representative insisted that this was “his version of a retreat” because he’d been working very hard. Rumour has it, however, that he had started drinking again and had checked himself into rehab.

Through all this, Williams worked at a manic pace that makes you wonder when he found the time to get drunk. Films, television, live entertainment, he’d done it all. He’d created beloved characters like Mrs Doubtfire, established himself as one of America’s comic legends, made unforgettable films like Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting, voiced iconic characters like the genie in Aladdin, and found time to do television as well as stand-up shows.

Although better known for his comedy, Williams’s range was far from limited. He was one of a mere 20 students who were admitted to Juillard School in New York in 1973, which goes to show how much he’d impressed the school that is notorious for being difficult to please, let alone impress. Despite his almost classical training in acting, Williams spent more time on film and television sets, than on stage. His natural talent for mimicry and superb comic timing quickly got him parts, but he didn’t let himself get complacent. Every now and then, he’d pick a role that demanded he use his acting talent and not rely on canned laughter.

His performance as a homeless man in The Fisher King took everyone by surprise and many struggled to recognize Williams in the film. He played the sadistic killer in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia and was tremendously unsettling in One Hour Photo, in which he played the role of a seemingly unremarkable man who works as a photo processor and is a stalker.

Looking back at Williams’s career, many of the roles he immortalized were characters that were heartbroken. At his comedic best, Williams brought to endearing life, people who were floundering in their misfortune – often caused by some fault of their own – but could still notice the absurd humour that came out of their own mistakes.

In 2011, Williams made his Broadway debut with the Pulitzer-nominated play, Bengal Tiger at a Baghdad Zoo, written by Rajiv Joseph and directed by Moisés Kaufman. He played the ghost of a royal Bengal tiger and his performance won him great praise from critics and audiences. At one of the shows, there was an after-party for the cast, crew and friends. Williams was a livewire and those at the party remember being amazed and awed that he could follow a high-energy performance on stage with another equally high-energy routine off stage. It was as though he would do anything and everything to burn himself out, rather than let the adrenaline stop rushing. That he was out of breath wasn’t a good reason to stop telling jokes. He’d just pause, suck in a noisy breath and make sure he didn’t mess up the punchline.

The actual cause of Williams’s death is yet to be announced. Authorities suspect it was a suicide “due to asphyxia” because the actor had been suffering from depression.

In an interview he’d given last year, after talking with characteristic candour about his addictions, Williams said, “Comedy can be a cathartic way to deal with personal trauma.” Looking at how he managed to make a joke out of everything from God (he described his Episcopalian faith as “Catholic lite – same rituals, half the guilt”) to American politics (his favourite term for Republicans was “comedy piñata”) to his personal struggles, nothing was out of bounds. And for many years, comedy as therapy must have worked. That's why it seems unbelievable that Williams, the grand jester of Hollywood, couldn’t find something that would keep his demons at bay.

Perhaps the most perfect and poignant farewell to Williams has been from his daughter Zelda, whose baby picture is the last photo on Williams’s Instagram feed. Yesterday, Zelda put up a message on Twitter for her father that is also a beautiful tribute to the laughter that he’d held on to so dearly all his life:

Rest in peace.

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