I didn’t expect to feel like this, but the news of Robin Williams’ death has gutted me. I still can’t exactly put my finger on why. It’s partly because everyone knows him. (At some point in your life, you’ve laughed at something Robin Williams did. And now he’s gone. No new laughs.) It’s partly because someone who made us all laugh was, at the same time, facing such a scary set of demons.
The root of my sadness, though, might be my realization that Robin Williams’ genius and talent was wasted on me. I’ve been reading and watching a lot about Williams in the last 24 hours, and nothing has articulated my feelings better than this Deadspin piece by film critic Tim Grierson – well, maybe it didn’t so much articulate what I felt as it did expose the true reason I was heartbroken.
Grierson’s larger point was that he regretted ever being disappointed in Williams for doing movies like Flubber and Patch Adams, and that he didn’t appreciate until after the actor died how “different audiences loved him for different things.” “Now,” he says, “I realize the greater disappointment: There will be only so many more Robin Williams movies left to come.” Perhaps my personal disappointment stems more from the fact that I never paid Robin Williams much attention at all – though he was one of those actors who always lurk in the back of your mind, who are present enough that you never see them and wonder, “huh, wonder where he’s been for 10 years” – and that now I’m having to come to terms with the fact that there won’t be anything else. I never appreciated the genius at the height of his craft.
But even though I hadn’t seen enough of his movies or watched much of his stand-up, I (and everyone else) knew Robin Williams was a thing. He was famous. He was important. He was not a niche celebrity. The piece I’ve read since his death that best articulates his cultural importance is comedian Chris Gethard’s story about doing improv with Williams one night at UCB. He makes the most perfect illustrations and comparisons to describe what Robin Williams meant to this world.
He talked about how he and his friends would pretend to sleep while their parents watched Williams do stand-up. “…and we laughed even though we didn’t know why he sweated so much or moved so fast or referenced a thing called cocaine so often.”
I know it wasn’t Robin Williams stand-up, but I have a very specific memory of doing the exact same thing once when my parents were watching Letterman – we were in a hotel room on vacation, I was probably ten years old, and had my eyes closed while trying to stifle laughs about jokes I didn’t really get but still knew were hilarious. That illustration made sense to me. Robin Williams was that funny.
This analogy – Robin Williams is to comedy as Chuck Berry is to rock and roll – struck a chord with me, too (pardon the French):
To a crowd that loves improv, Robin Williams is like Chuck Berry. For a lot of them he is a little dated, or a guy their parents liked, or someone that they’ve heard the legend of but maybe never knew at his best — but when you listen to his solos and his spirit and his energy, there is no denying that he is rock and fucking roll.
Robin Williams is comedy, but he is also, in his own shy way, rock and fucking roll.
“Heard the legend of but maybe never knew at his best.” I know Robin Williams fifty times better today than I did when I first heard of his death. It all makes me sad. But I’m grateful for the words of others who articulated why losing him hurts so badly.