Magazine | September 8, 2014, Issue

The Borderless Mind of Robin Williams

(Rex Features via AP Images)
It could hold everything but itself

A confession: When I first heard the news that antic, ferociously funny actor Robin Williams had committed suicide, my first thought wasn’t, Oh, no, what a horrible tragedy.

I got around to that, eventually. But my first thought was, Did the episode of my TV show in which we make fun of Robin Williams air yet or not?

Because it’s one thing to poke a little fun at a celebrity who has enjoyed — and is still enjoying — a legendary career, but quite another to take shots at a guy who is currently being eulogized, accurately, as one of the kindest and most talented movie stars who ever lived. As with everything in life, timing makes a big difference.

As it turned out, it was broadcast last month. I was in the clear.

In an episode of the television comedy I created and produce, Sullivan & Son, we indulged in a small storyline in which one character reluctantly goes on a date with a guy who is a compulsive celebrity impersonator. The guy — played by the masterly Frank Caliendo — simply cannot be himself. He bores his date with non-stop impressions of William Shatner, Morgan Freeman, the last three presidents, and — and this is the final straw for her — Robin Williams.

He barely gets into his Robin Williams impression before she throws up her hands and begs him to stop. The audience responded with a gigantic laugh. Because, in a way — and remember, this was weeks before Robin Williams’s tragic and miserable death — there was just something a little too much about Robin Williams, even when it was just a Robin Williams impression. A guy who bounces between Shatner, Freeman, W., and Bill Clinton may be irritating, but sitting at the table with Robin Williams must have been exhausting.

It was for him, as we now know.

I met Robin Williams twice. The first time, I was (probably) in my pajamas. It was 1978 and I was watching the first episode of his explosively funny and free situation comedy, Mork & Mindy. A lot of us met him for the first time then. Most of the comedy writers who are about my age remember that moment, when the carefully controlled and canned situation-comedy style of the 1970s suddenly burst open and this bananas character in rainbow suspenders raced through the set, free-associating and riffing on everything from pop culture to quantum physics.

His first smash-hit comedy album, Reality . . . What a Concept, extended his reach beyond twelve-year-old boys in their pajamas — it was funny and loose and profane and managed to feel both tightly controlled and improvised at the same time.

Robin Williams created a new kind of comic character — the hip nerd — that was perfect for the late 1970s and the dawn of the tech age.

We didn’t know it then, but what it signaled was that a new generation of comedy writers — and comedy viewers — were coming to the fore. The older generation came out of radio and television variety writing. The jokes were funny and sharp but all of a type — there was a set up, and then there was a punch line. In the first act, there was a rule — Lucy, dun ju dare come to de club two-neye! — and in the second act, well, Lucy shows up at the club that night dressed as an Arabian sheik. Mork & Mindy didn’t do away with the basic story structure, but it was the first time I remember when a television show felt like it was written and performed by people who watched I Love Lucy rather than people who wrote I Love Lucy.

Or, to make the comparison more direct, in the hit outer-space-alien-next-door sitcom of the 1960s, My Favorite Martian, the joke is really on the snoopy nervous neighbor. The Martian, played by Ray Walston, is a calm and collected kind of guy. One decade — and immeasurable social upheaval — later, it’s Mork who’s the funny one, Mork who gets things all mixed up, Mork who tries to figure out this insane (and baffling) world. His comedy was essentially about the cultural scrambled eggs inside all of our brains — where Hamas, the Kardashians, Twitter memes, Chipotle, Harry Reid, the insurance-company lizard, Eli Manning, and our ATM password jumble around, competing for attention. No wonder he was exhausting, sometimes, to be around. It’s exhausting, sometimes, just to be alive.

#page#Robin Williams went on, as we all know, to movie superstardom. But the barely contained energy he showed on the small screen just got bigger and fuller on the large one.

The second time I met him — this time, IRL (in real life), as the kids say — was at the Golden Globe Awards in the early 1990s. In those days, the Globes were a low-rent kind of affair — it was broadcast only locally — and no one ever knew who, exactly, was going to show up. But that year pretty much everyone who was nominated turned out, and at the end of the ceremony the lobby of the Beverly Hilton Hotel was filled with tipsy celebrities with nowhere to go.

“Let’s go to Trader Vic’s!” cried Robin Williams, and he led the group along the outside of the parking area, snaking along the landscaping, into the (now closed) Trader Vic’s restaurant, where an astonished and terrified line of Malaysian busboys and waiters watched as several hundred of Hollywood’s most famous faces showed up, suddenly, for Mai Tais and Pu-Pu platters. I remember very little about that night — I still don’t remember who paid the bill — but I do recall using my AT&T calling card to help the actress Kathy Bates, who had just won, call her mother to give her the news. And I remember Robin Williams, laughing and joyful and (I’m guessing) exhausted, leading us from the lobby to the after-party, which he was improvising. That was his specialty: the high-wire act.

Comedians, someone once told me, are all a little broken inside. There’s something not quite right about a person who actively chooses to stand in front of a bunch of strangers — many of whom are perversely hoping not to laugh — and attempts to make them breathe in an involuntarily staccato fashion. It’s both a deeply submissive act — Please like me! — and a sharply aggressive one, too — I am trying to control the way you breathe. The kind of person who is drawn to this kind of work is the kind of person who both loves and despises attention — a toxic psychological brew that creates the perfect environment for alcoholics, drug addicts, depressives, and sociopaths.

When they’re offstage, comedians tend to shut down and withhold. Remote to loved ones, unreachable and undemonstrative to their children, cold and unexpressive — this is what they usually say about the “funnyman” when he dies and the truth comes tumbling out. “He was mean,” they say about the guy who played America’s kindly dad. “He never once showed concern or warmth for anyone,” they say about the most famous and charming talk-show host on television.

After double-checking the episode order for my television show, the news finally sank in that Robin Williams had committed suicide. As is often the case with suicide, the reaction is not so much surprise as recognition. Oh, right, I said to myself, this kind of makes sense. Not because I knew Robin Williams or heard backdoor gossip about his struggles with drink and depression, but because anyone that dazzlingly funny, anyone that unstoppably needy, was probably battling something. The man onstage with the borderless mind and the missing “off” switch didn’t know how to live with the man at home, alone, with no audience to distract him from his troubles.

In a way, he was like the character on my television show, on a date with “Robin Williams.” At some point he just put up his hands and asked for it all to stop.

What’s unusual, though, about Robin Williams is that no one ever — not just after his death but when he was alive and thriving — had a bad word to say about him. In Hollywood, where “He’s a nice guy” usually means merely that “he is not a psychopath,” Robin Williams was more than that. He was lovely. And thoughtful. And generous. And decent to everyone.

Except, of course, to himself.

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