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Robin Williams and the heavy price of funny

This week Robin Williams delivered a punch to the gut as he joined a terrible club: comedians who killed onstage but flamed out of life far too soon – John Belushi, Chris Farley, Lenny Bruce, Freddie Prinze, Richard Pryor.

If you want to see darkness and angst gather collective itchy steam, hang out in the green room of a comedy club. Neurosis and dysfunction are the stock-in-trade of the people who make us laugh our own troubles away. Decked out in armour constructed of so many comedy bits, the stand-up may be able to walk out onstage into the blinding spotlight, demons be damned. No joke – comic genius, it seems, is so often fuelled by unbearable darkness.

This week Robin Williams delivered a punch to the gut as he joined a terrible club: comedians who killed onstage but flamed out of life far too soon – John Belushi, Chris Farley, Lenny Bruce, Freddie Prinze, Richard Pryor. Even with this sad litany of early deaths, the seeming incongruity of the tragic funny-man continues to stun. And yet there is a pervasive feeling that comedians come from a dark and troubled place, that the hilarity and the despondency are intertwined.

"The other side of whatever comic genius is, is sometimes this," the comedian and interviewer of comedians Marc Maron reflected on his WTF podcast this week, before replaying an interview he conducted with Mr. Williams four years ago. "That with that sensitivity, that with that perception, that with that empathy, that with that love, that with that mental agility comes a heart too heavy to live, a heart that becomes so heavy that it chooses not to go on."

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Must the funny come at such a price? Or is it some sort of madness that drives the comic to the stage in the first place, where he or she can shake off the torment and bathe in the intoxicating solace that comes with making people laugh?

It's an issue that has raised the interest of science, with academic research being conducted into a possible connection between comedy and mental illness. But Canada's comedy club pioneer doesn't need statistics to back up what he has been seeing from his front-row seat for decades.

"Nobody gets into the comedy world because they're happy people. Nobody – including myself," says Mark Breslin, founder and CEO of comedy chain Yuk Yuk's. "Everybody is trying to compensate for something – whether they think they're ugly or they didn't get enough attention as a child or they got too much attention as a child and then the world didn't keep paying attention. There's always something that's going on that makes people do this highly unnatural act of trying to make strangers laugh at what you have to say. I don't really know very many well-adjusted comedians. I know comedians who have become better adjusted because the success that they have kind of has calmed them down. But it obviously doesn't work for everybody, does it?"

Mr. Williams first performed at Yuk Yuk's in Toronto in 1978 – what was supposed to be a surprise 10-minute set during the midnight show enraptured the audience for more than two hours as he walked on tables and riffed on Shakespeare, Mr. Breslin recalls. He wasn't famous yet – he was about to be, as Mork from Ork on the highly rated sitcom Mork & Mindy – but that night, his star power was evident.

As we now understand, there was a dark side to Mork's cheery rainbow suspenders: the pain of the snap. We know about Mr. Williams's addiction problems, his divorces, his severe depression.

During that interview with Mr. Maron, conducted in April, 2010, Mr. Williams talked about a time when he considered suicide. He joked about cutting his wrists with a Waterpik. Was it shtick? Serious? Both?

He also talked about the desperate insecurity that drives comedians, about being "this weird insecure guy who does this and looking, like Lenny Bruce said, for love. Going: 'Do you love me? Temporarily? Kind of?' … And that's why I guess sometimes you go: Is that an artist? Or is that a sociopath? Or a psychopath?"

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At the University of Oxford, Gordon Claridge has been investigating a possible link between comedy and madness. The retired professor of abnormal psychology co-authored a study that found that comedians have a higher level of psychotic traits than the general population, or the creative control group that was studied – actors. The study, which involved more than 500 comedians, concluded that comedians' "unusual personality structure may help to explain the facility for comedic performance." It was published online in the British Journal of Psychiatry in January.

"They came out extremely high on the psychotic traits but the most significant thing was this rather odd combination of depressive introverted rather hypersensitive personality together with the opposite – they were also extroverted and manic and impulsive and so on, and that was an odd combination really. But it's not odd really if you think of it in terms of a sort of manic depressive kind of profile," Dr. Claridge said from his home in Oxford.

He added that the characteristic cognitive style of people high in these traits "is very divergent, very out of the box. So the comedy comes from out of the box thinking, so they're able to jump very quickly from one train of thought to another, which in the clinical literature is called flight of ideas."

Mr. Williams, he said, perfectly exemplifies that. "We did the study a few months ago and by some awful tragedy, here comes an example which is an absolute archetype of what we're saying."

But in the U.S., Peter McGraw, who runs the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) at the University of Colorado at Boulder (the city where, coincidentally, Mork & Mindy was set), has found that the act of creating comedy may make comics appear more troubled than they actually are.

"Comedy trades on the taboo; on what we call benign violations – on things that are wrong, yet okay. When you're trying to make people laugh, you have to venture into the dark side; you have to violate some norms or tell stories about your troubled childhood or your alcohol problem. … So things can't be normal; things can't be wholly good. There has to be some bad there," said Dr. McGraw, also the co-author with Joel Warner of The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.

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"Are these people really troubled or do they appear troubled? In the case of Robin Williams, he was clearly troubled. But for every Robin Williams, there's a Jerry Seinfeld or a Bill Cosby who doesn't make the news because of their bad behaviour."

Perception or not, the situation is serious enough that the big L.A. club the Laugh Factory (where Mr. Williams often performed and where on Monday night the marquee instructed Mr. Williams to "Make God Laugh") has been bringing in a psychologist several nights a week for free in-house therapy sessions for its comics.

"We make money off them; we never do anything for them, and it's not fair," says Laugh Factory founder and owner Jamie Masada, who was inspired to offer the therapy after the 2007 suicide of comedian Richard Jeni. The night before, Mr. Jeni took Mr. Masada out for some soup and repeatedly told him that he loved him. "And I said, well, I've got to do something."

At Yuk Yuk's, Mr. Breslin is certain of the connection between mental illness and comedy – where success and failure are magnified (either the audience laughs or, crushingly, doesn't), and believes those who stand to benefit financially have kept these very real troubles out of the spotlight.

"Mental illness has become the new closet, especially if you're a comedian. Because we want to believe that our comedians are happy-go-lucky folk and to know that they're tortured beings inside might just ruin the illusion."

On that 2010 podcast, Mr. Williams talked about being onstage as a sort of salvation. He also spoke openly about his many second chances – the alcoholism, his heart surgery, divorce. He said he was happy. "You come out the other side going, 'What's to be angry about?'" he said. "You're alive."

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More


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