Last night, comedian, actor, beloved public figure, and Bay Area icon Robin Williams died of depression. He was only 63, but he had lived countless lives in the public consciousness. Many of those made us laugh, but it was his ability to make us cry that elevated his humor.
Most of us first recognized Williams' manic, improvisational gifts when he appeared on television as the naive alien Mork from Ork — first on Happy Days and then in his own, spin-off show, Mork & Mindy. In this period — the late '70s and '80s — Williams was known as a chemically-enhanced dervish of ideas, impressions, and inspired asides. That was only half of it. If you peel back your memory, you'll recall that much of his comedy was laced with pain. The films he made in this period are not, primarily, comedies. They are stories about multi-faceted men who find humor in their lives. Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam exemplifies this. Cornauer is a funny man in an unfunny world.
He takes the pain around him and, with comedy, transmutes that into active energy.
In the '90s, Robin Williams tempered and aged. His comedy — still what most looked to him to provide — became ironically more childish as his own children grew. His forays into serious drama also increased, as if the man was advancing on opposite paths. Dead Poets Society brought him acclaim, but The Fisher King captured more of his angst and pathos. In that film by Terry Gilliam, Robin Williams played a man struggling to overcome trauma through the simple kindness of connection. The flip side — Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, Hook, and others — let the man-child loose and his audience laugh.
Throughout the past decades, Robin Williams' bifurcation between soaring comedy and smoldering pain continued. The little seen dark comedy World's Greatest Dad brought these halves of the man together as a character dealing with his insufferable son's suicide. While younger audiences were laughing at Night at the Museum and Happy Feet, more adult ones were pushed back in their seats by his performance in Insomnia.
Yesterday, as news of Williams' passing spread, comedian Patton Oswalt reminded us of an old joke via Twitter, one that stems from the Leoncavallo opera Pagliacci:
A man goes to see a doctor, says, "Doc, I'm depressed. I can't sleep. I can't eat. I feel down most days. I just can't feel happy."
The doctor says, "I've got the perfect remedy for you. In town tonight is the great clown Pagliacci. He's hysterical and will make you howl with laughter. You will be happier than ever before."
The man bursts into tears. The doctor, confused, asks why.
"Doctor. Don't you see? I am Pagliacci."
Robin Williams made us laugh. He made us cry. And now he makes us appreciate what being so connected to the joy and pain of life cost him. We will remember him and his gifts.