Mark Breslin is an actor, comedian and co-founder of the Yuk Yuk’s chain of comedy clubs
Robin Williams is dead at 63, by his own hand.
The proper media referred to it as asphyxia, the tabloids called it a hanging, and the blogs made detailed references to a belt and his neck. Nobody rests in peace anymore.
Did anyone see this coming? The clown prince of manic schtickery felled by his own misery and perennial depression? Was there ever such a chasm between a public persona and private hell?
There are comics you might have expected to do this – mopey sad sacks who whine and whine some more to get the laugh, but not Williams, whose career was always a fountain of joyous outburst. His death has shaken all of us. I mean, if a Robin Williams can’t keep it together, who can?
My first Williams experience came in 1978. He was in Toronto doing a guest spot on the Peter Gzowski show, of all things. I had never heard of Williams but Yuk Yuk’s co-founder Joel Axler had seen him at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles only a few months before. “Get somebody up to the show and escort him to Yuk Yuk’s.” We did just that, and Williams arrived just in time for the Friday midnight show. “How much time would you like to do?” I asked him, and he told me ten or twelve minutes would be just fine.
He did more than two hours. I had never seen anything like it before, and neither had anyone else. He made the entire room his stage, standing on our rickety tables and bouncing from persona to persona, accent to accent, reciting mock-Shakespearean verse and introducing a new creation, Mork the Alien, with the aid of a pair of ski goggles.
He was electrifying. If you were lucky enough to be there that night, you still remember it: Because it was close to three in the morning, and your ginger ale was coming out your nostrils from laughter.
A few months later, Mork and Mindy premiered, and the rest is comedy history.
I think his stand-up would place him in the top ten comedians of the twentieth century.
His film career was often inspired, but sometimes a little disappointing. For every Good Morning Vietnam or Mrs. Doubtfire, there was a Bicentennial Man; for every Good Will Hunting, a Patch Adams.
Patch Adams was the moment that Williams lost the unanimous respect of the comedy community. It was the beginning of the struggle between Funny Robin and Icky Robin, a place where sentiment often won out at the expense of laughter. Some of his films started to feel like apologia for some secret crimes only he knew about.
The truth is, Williams was no saint.
He was a notorious cocaine user – at least until the death of his friend John Belushi. An alcoholic, too, a problem that continued to erupt, even recently. He was considered a joke thief, even pushed down a flight of stairs by a comic whose bit he purloined and performed on the Tonight Show. And then there was that messy business of leaving the wife and marrying the nanny. But his persona was constructed of Teflon, and his essential humanism so profound, that the public let his misconduct slide. If you liked Robin Williams, you loved him.
His antic ways were never far behind, anyway, even if he seemed to be trying too hard at times. Once I ran into him, in of all places, a washroom in Rockefeller Centre in New York. We were standing at adjoining urinals, always an uncomfortable male social ritual. He said hello, and then proceeded to make it talk. He made it talk in various languages and accents. It was a bravura impromptu performance, and I felt grateful to be an audience of one, but I also thought he didn’t have to be “on” all the time.
Much has been made of Williams’ improvisational genius, but let’s be careful here. I happened to be in Los Angeles the night before Robin was to perform at Comic Relief, the charity juggernaut he created along with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg. I found out he was going to do two practice shows at a little comedy club on the west side, so I headed down to watch.
In front of an intimate crowd of about 80, I watched Williams play with the audience, improvising wildly for his 90-minute set. When it was over, I asked the club owner if I could stay for the second set. He said yes. I then watched Williams do the first show all over again, bit by bit, line by line, all the while making the whole thing look like an extended improv. He knew exactly what he was doing and where he was going all the time. There was no improvisation. Just great writing, perfect timing, and even better acting.
Now he’s gone. Maybe we should have noticed the exhaustion in his eyes, the downward droop of his mouth, and the sadness in his face. I wasn’t shocked when I heard the news. Chilled, but not shocked.
Suicide in the comedy industry is not an anomaly. I’ve known more than a dozen comedians over the years who have killed themselves, which is statistically staggering. But comics are usually in the closet about their emotional issues, fearing they’ll lose the love of the audience if their problems are too real and messy. Robin Williams was not like this. He was quite open about his stints in rehab and institutions. But we never really listened.