The recent suicide of Robin Williams shocked the world and there has been no shortage of public speculation and amateur psychology about why he took his life. The sad fact is, as with most suicides, that no one will ever know for sure. Even experienced health professionals, with a detailed understanding of mental illness, cannot reliably predict who will commit suicide or explain why someone did after the fact.
In addition, although Williams was frequently interviewed in publications and was a regular on talk shows, he was rarely forthcoming about himself. Rather than discuss his personal life candidly , he preferred to hide in plain sight from the public by leaving interviewers, readers, and audiences laughing with his brilliant monologues and improvisation.
Williams had a history of depression and substance abuse, traits unfortunately all too common in talented comedians, who face intense pressure to get laughs when performing in public. In The Daily Express, British comedian Jimmy Perry once explained, “Comedy can be very frightening … as a comic you’re out there on your own with the solo spotlight on you. You tell one joke - it doesn’t get a good reaction. If the next one doesn’t either, you begin to panic. The comedian is like a matador. Comedy is a marvelous world but it’s so dangerous. It can be soul destroying.”
The consummate professional Williams explained the difficulty of getting up before an audience and making them laugh, by using the metaphor “Either you kill or you die”.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not so, the comedians Williams named as his inspirations suffered from similar troubles. Among the comic influences he cited was Peter Sellers, specifically in the 1964 movie, Dr. Strangelove, where Sellers played three roles. Sellers specialized in comic impersonations, and was widely acknowledged to be one of the great comedians of the 20th Century but in real life, he too suffered from serious depression. Off camera, he often displayed extremely erratic behavior and died at the young age of 54 from heart disease, likely aggravated by constant stress and insecurity.
The young Robin Williams grew up listening to the comedy albums of the nonpareil 1960’s British team of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, both of whom succumbed to the pressures of performing. Cook was known for his brilliant monologues that presaged today’s stand-up. No less than John Cleese of Monty Python fame said of Cook, “Most of us have to grind away for something like six or seven hours… to produce three minutes of material, whereas for the first fifteen or twenty years of Peter’s professional life it took him exactly three minutes to produce three minutes of material” Yet after those early years, Cook never realized his full potential, becoming a chain-smoking alcoholic who died at 57 of liver disease.
Meanwhile Moore, who broke from Cook and moved to Hollywood, starred in such great comic films as Arthur and 10, but suffered from an almost completely immobilizing depression and spent decades in therapy.
Without question though, Robin Williams’s most important comedy influence was his good friend and mentor Jonathan Winters, whom Williams called his “Buddha”. Winters developed the spontaneous improvisational style that Williams adopted, and the two occasionally performed together, most notably on Williams’s hit television series, Mork and Mindy.
But at the height of his career in the early 1960’s, Jonathan Winters hospitalized himself voluntarily at a psychiatric facility. In an NPR interview he said he declined the electroshock therapy doctors said would help relieve his mental anguish. He said, “I needed that pain — whatever it is — to call upon it from time to time, no matter how bad it was.”
Indeed, pain seems to be a common denominator for some comedians. In a tribute to Winters after his death, comedian Gilbert Gottfried wrote that tapping into that mental pain is “a concern for performers when they go into therapy or other treatment; ditto performers who give up drugs and alcohol. They worry: If I don’t have that pain, where do I draw my creativity from?”
That point was brought home during a 2011 Australian interview with Robin Williams. The interviewer told him that Billy Crystal once observed that stand-up is how comedians process painful things. The interviewer half-jestingly asked, when Williams needed new stand-up material, whether it was necessary for the public to wish more painful things on him. In an uncharacteristically serious moment, Williams replied softly, “You don’t have to. I find them.”
Trained in the dramatic arts at Juilliard, Williams was without question familiar with theater’s most famous speech about suicide - Hamlet’s soliloquy, “To be or not to be…” Along with all the medical reasons Robin Williams may have committed suicide, one can’t help but wonder if, at some point, he pondered whether it was worth suffering “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. In his case, those must have included the agonizing pressure to perform and the unspeakable mental torment that some great comedians are forced to rely on.
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