There’s a reason why clowns wear makeup.
That thought struck me Monday evening when I heard the news that comedian Robin Williams had died. The first report didn’t say how it happened. But somewhere inside, I knew.
And, sure enough, an update quickly followed. Suspected suicide.
That Williams — at 63, an age that, to me, sounds increasingly young as each day passes in my all-to-rapid pursuit of those bigger numbers — had died, admittedly, caught me off guard. The actual method authorities determined he used wasn’t my first guess, either.
But the fact that he had killed himself … well, I just can’t say I was surprised.
Williams, for all his talent, was, at heart, a clown — an actor who wore a painted-on smile, said funny things and did funny things, regardless of how he felt inside. There’s a cliche about clowns, that they’re laughing on the outside, crying on the inside. Just because something has become a cliche doesn’t mean there isn’t an awful lot of underlying truth to it.
What’s come out of this death is disbelief from those who were his fans, sadness from those who knew him and, for some reason, an outpouring of vitriol from others who figure he got what he deserved, what with him being a rich Hollywood type with a history of substance abuse and all.
It’s hard for me to work up that kind of hate for someone I’ve never met. I don’t have to agree with someone’s perspective or politics for him or her to make me laugh.
And Robin Williams did exactly that. Not so much the first time I remember seeing him, which was on a reboot of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” back in 1977-78. While some critics said Williams had a shot at being a breakout star, the show, shortened to simply “Laugh-In,” also had a mercifully short existence, maybe four or five weeks, before it was dropped like an ill-baked biscuit. I remember mentioning to a friend, “Someone at the network lost his sweet bippy betting on that turkey.”
From there, he went on to do a guest shot on “Happy Days” that morphed into a full-time gig as a misplaced alien on “Mork & Mindy,” which also didn’t do much for me. I was more of an “Alf” man when it came to comedic extraterrestrials, mostly because I also wasn’t much of a fan of cats, which Alf would eat, if only the Tanners would have let him.
While I did like some of Williams’ movies like “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Good Morning, Vietnam,” where I found him to be a great comedian was his stand-up routines. If he was on the “Tonight Show” or anything else where he bounced from one idea to another at breakneck speed, I wasn’t going to miss it.
He blistered through routines at the speed of sound, starting something new before I realized he was finished with his last ad-lib. I took some solace in the fact that Johnny Carson, who was by no means riding his first rodeo, looked like he was having just as much trouble keeping up with it all himself, even as he laughed out loud.
I also grabbed up a copy of “Reality, What a Concept,” which is one of the top three comedy albums of all time. “Pop Goes the Weasel,” where Mr. Rogers microwaves a rodent on his kiddie TV show — “Can you say severe radiation?” — was disturbingly hilarious (no actual weasels, I am told, were injured in the recording of the bit), and I can’t think of another comedian who would have improvised Shakespeare and Three Mile Island in front of a live audience.
Kindergarten for the stars — with Truman Capote Jr. complaining that the “Dick & Jane” readers that had been inflicted upon him were mere “typing” as he demanded preschool literature with “some substance” to it — was a hoot.
I was once told by a college adviser that you should never lend three things — your books, your albums or your wife. My failure to adhere to part two of that sage wisdom is why I don’t have that album today.
The sad thing is, I don’t think Williams realized the impact he had on other people’s lives. The ability to bring a smile, a chuckle or even a deep belly laugh to someone — particularly someone down in the dumps — is a gift that has always been under appreciated. People love comedy, but it’s generally seen as lightweight compared to “serious” acting in dramatic roles. That doesn’t help comedians who crave respect. The euphoria of making people laugh is an immediate and short-lived drug, leading to a search for something to feel the void and self-perception of inferiority. Too often, they turn to drugs and alcohol.
I never idolized Williams. I got over the idea of idols and heroes a long time ago. I simply enjoyed and appreciated his work, much as I did John Belushi, another talent who lived too fast, lost to his personal demons and died too young.
Obviously, not everyone who tells jokes — or tells them for a living — has problems that manifest themselves in self-destructive behavior. Similarly, many who do deal with these types of issues aren’t professional comedians. It just seems like it because deaths like Williams’ and Belushi’s get national attention owing to their fame.
But there are a lot of other people who aren’t famous and wealthy, people who struggle every day with similar problems. They just don’t realize that the world is a richer place simply because they’re here. They don’t realize the wonderful influence they really have on the lives of their family, friends and loved ones. They don’t realize how much and how deeply they are loved and appreciated. And sometimes the thing they fear most is seeing tomorrow.
And that is the real tragedy, especially for those who are left behind.
Email Jim Hendricks at email@example.com.