Feeling Sad About Robin Williams

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.

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Laughing

My weekends, I have come to realize, are defined by whatever place/person/song/TV show/movie I spend most of that weekend obsessing about. This year, I’ve had Royal Tenenbaums weekends, Kevin Spacey weekends, Boston weekends, West Wing weekends…I spend hours invested in the topic at hand, and realize with a weird sadness on Sunday night that I won’t get to spend as much time with it on Monday as I did the previous two days.

This weekend has been John Mulaney weekend.

I first heard of John Mulaney a few months ago when I saw a bit about him in New York magazine. I cannot remember the title of the story (it was something along the lines of “The Best Comedians in New York Today”) but it briefly described him as a former SNL writer and creator of Bill Hader’s “Stefon” character with a sitcom pilot in the works. For each comic featured, the story named a “representative joke.” Mulaney’s was:

Nothing that I know can help you with your car, ever. Unless you’re like, ‘Hey I’ve got a flat tire, does anyone here know a lot about the “Cosby Show”?’

That. Is. My. Life. More with 30 Rock or The West Wing, but having nothing but television quotes at your disposal, even in troubling life situations? I can relate. And even though the joke struck me and I memorized it for future reference, all I did after reading it was watch a few of Mulaney’s stand-up videos and move on with my life. I had not entered obsession phase.

Then – backstory: my friend Miranda, who lived across the hall from me for two years at U of O, is visiting New York this week. I am SO HAPPY she’s here because of all my closest friends at school, she’s the only one I haven’t seen since I’ve lived in New York – Miranda brought up one of his jokes on Saturday during a conversation about delayed flights. It was about a bad experience John Mulaney had with Delta airlines and I vaguely remembered the joke from my own YouTube trollings a few months prior. I told her I’d heard that before, and Miranda proceeded to tell me that his stand-up was the funniest thing ever and we should watch it immediately when we got back to my apartment.

So we did.

Please take a 40-minute break from reading to watch this – his latest stand-up release, New in Town:

It felt good to laugh really hard. The routine covered a lot of material about growing up and living in New York City, and I liked that he made the hard parts of those experiences something to laugh about – not something to rant about or wallow in self-pity about or think too seriously about. Weird stuff happens. May as well laugh about it. (Though the “When people order fries, they act like it’s a little adventure” bit hit a little too close to home).

Plus, it was laden with obscure pop-culture references. I don’t watch Law and Order: SVU and thus had no major connection to Mulaney’s jokes about it, but I love that he loves it so much and had watched it enough to make hilarious observations. I love when people let others into the dark little corners of their obscure obsessions and shine a light that lets you see how wonderful those obsessions are (and even if they aren’t wonderful to you, you get to appreciate how much they mean to the other person).

Since I had SNL on the brain, I was excited to see Lorne Michaels wrote a short piece for the October issue of Vanity Fair on television and the 1970s. It was a very personal story of Michaels’ start in New York, but he told it in the context of the decade’s dichotomous television landscape: Past and present were airing at the same time. Networks execs ruled the airwaves, but the young writers they employed knew change was afoot…or at least, they were ready to start making the change. You can read most of the piece online, but some of my favorite parts (like the second one below) came only in the print article.

A couple of favorite lines:

Michaels talking about his morning routine when he first moved to New York City:

I found a sublet on 57th and Seventh, in a building called the Osborne, which had a Chock full o’Nuts right on the corner. I began my day with a cup of coffee, The New York Times, and two sugar doughnuts. They were whole-wheat sugar donuts. I had learned about nutrition in California.

Michaels talking about the performers and artists he worked with in New York, and how their work reflected the decade’s culture:

Pretty soon we began to feel as if we were on to something new. After all, we were the baby boom – we knew television the way French kids knew wine. TV for us had been the miracle that brought us the world, and now we were determined to reflect the world we were living in on TV.

It was our turn. The 1970s, I realize now, were a time when things were both coming undone and being put back together in a different way. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that all of life is re-invention. Sometimes past and future can share the same time period. New just shows up sometimes.

“New just shows up sometimes.” I love that line. It’s a reminder to stay on your toes. As someone with an affinity for the 70s, I found the whole piece charming and funny; criticism on the decade in TV was fascinating.

I guess the moral of this post is that I hope you laughed this weekend. And watched New in Town.