This is going to be a long one.
Today, for the first time in my life, I awoke to a world without Robin Williams. Before today, there was not a single day of my life where Robin had not been Robin, and had not been a part of me. Before today, a world without Robin Williams was inconceivable. It still seems that way. Robin’s death feels like a hallucination wrapped in a delusion wrapped in a bad dream. I know it is not, no matter how hard the yearning ache in my chest wishes it to be. Before yesterday, if I were to imagine a world without Robin Williams, it would have been an impossibility. Might as well imagine the Vatican without a Pope, or Slash without a top hat, or Donald Trump without the hair, I might say.
Here was a man so ubiquitous, so entrenched into the fabric of four decades of my life, it was easy to simply take him for granted. Year after year would pass by; there would be wars, calamities, natural disasters and tragedies, yet there would be Robin Williams on the sidelines hands clasped in front of his torso bellowing in a mock basso profundo about the absurdity of it all. “Don’t be afraid,” he would holler, and then jump to another part of the stage and explode into another joke. This was a given. This was expected. Generations enjoyed it, it was as traditional as a bouquet being thrown by the bride at her wedding. Now, it will happen no more.
One of my earliest memories is of sneaking an episode of Mork & Mindy. While goofing off in his backyard one afternoon, a neighborhood friend named Christopher fell off his deck into his yard.
"Shazbot!" he yelled, grabbing his skinned and bloody knee. "What did you say?" I asked, running and kneeling be his side as he writhed in the grass.
"Shazbot. Shazbot, shazbot, shazbot!" he screamed, still wincing. After he recovered seconds later—as preadolescent boys are apt to do—he explained it was a swear word he’d learned from a new show that was really, really funny called Mark & Mindy. (He used my name, which peaked my interest).
"You should watch it," he suggested. I nodded, knowing full well there was no possibility my parents, with their strict one-hour-a-day t.v. show policy for me, would let me watch something in prime-time. As luck would have it, my parents were gone the very next Thursday, and I convinced the baby sitter my parents let me watch the show "all the time." I laughed, and laughed, and laughed. With only one episode clattering around in my skull, I was hooked on Robin for life.
The next time I went to play at Christopher’s house, I greeted him within Ork handshake and a hearty “Nanu-Nanu.”
Perhaps at first it was the accidental kinship that drew me in; his character’s name was Mork, my name was Mark. I had a few nicknames growing up, and Mork ended up being one of them. At the time it was a harmless, offhand thing to do; people steeped in t.v. and popular culture often apply their favorite memes to everyday life. My name happened to be very similar—so once in awhile I got called the name. I wore the badge proudly. Even as child, I felt a natural affinity to Robin’s character—because of his name, because he acted like an overgrown kid, because he was goofy like me.
As I grew older, I realized that it wasn’t only the character I had developed a fondness for; it was the man. There are too many moments in my life where Robin popped up, both as entertainment and as inspiration. Each successive era of my life included Robin in one form or another. His comedy albums were paired with Bill Cosby’s; I would listen to them in the dark in my room, Robin and Bill dancing around on the stage of my imagination. Dead Poet’s Society was an epiphany for me; I imagined my own parents’ reaction to my desire to act, and reveled in the support I was certain Robin would provide me.
My experience with Robin’s acting would rebound and invert into itself. Thanks to the wondrous invention of VHS, I would rediscover the “serious” Robin, watching his performances in The World According to Garp, Seize the Day, and Moscow on the Hudson, all of them discovered with the help of those wannabe Quentin-Tarantinos-in-waiting who stocked the dark and dingy shelves of local video stores in the 80’s. I even watched a poorly taped copy of Live at the Met sometime around junior-high. There was a thick line of recording static saturating the bottom third of the picture, but the audio was fine, and I could see Robin well enough to relish the flop-sweat glistening on his forehead while I laughed and laughed at all of his riffs. Even the ones I didn’t get. I must have watched him run around that legendary stage dozens of times, until the tape itself gave way and broke.
Quick note: my friend and comedian Mike Black talked about his experience with Live at the Met and memories of Robin recently in a podcast. I recommend you check it out: http://stolendress.com/comedyonvinyl/wordpress/wordpress/episode-98-mike-black-robin-williams-night-met/
I have to pick and choose my own anecdotes. There are dozens over decades. Most of them would be meaningless to the general public, but are meaningful to me because they are deeply personal.
I got to second-base for the first time with Good Morning, Vietnam playing in the background of the living room on one of those giant 50-inch tube tv’s. One day in college I faked being sick, then stayed in my dorm room and watched five Robin Williams movies in a row. I sat and watched these movies and contemplated where my life was going, what I was doing, who I was becoming. This is a very specific memory of mine, and I cherish it. Robin helped me make some tough decisions that day.
Or when I recorded an Robin’s episode of Inside the Comedy Mind with Alan King from the old Comedy Channel (pre-Comedy Central), and coerced everyone and anyone I could to watch the tape in awe. It was as if I had found the Rosetta Stone of comedy, and wanted desperately to share its significance with others.
I would seek out minutiae about Robin. Pictures of his early years, stories about his wild days at the Comedy Store, rumors about his love life. Once I sought out an obscure radio show Robin had been on in the early 80’s. Rumor had it there was a recording of it floating around the inter-webs. Remember, this was the era of dial-up, when AOL was still king. By some miracle, I found the recording online and spent the entire afternoon downloading the file, then listening to it with the excitement of a kid on Christmas morning. In the recording, Robin was talking to the DJ’s about Germans in a silly German accent, and in a throwaway pun declared he was “hooked on teutonics!” I didn’t know the term, and immediately looked it up. It was another revelation: Robin didn’t just make me laugh, he made me want to find out more about the world. I remember very specifically that warm feeling of anticipation and excitement grow in my stomach. Often while listening to Robin, I would take notes, so I could look up some of his historical, political, and current-event references later. That desire for raw knowledge was something that I thought had been kicked out of me in high school by a long series of burnt-out teachers. Suddenly, the sheer enthusiasm of Robin’s silly puns had blown the doors wide open for spontaneous edification. I never wanted to be left behind again. I wanted to “get” it all. I spent the rest of the day reading up on anything and everything, and is a trend that continues to this day. Through Robin I had rediscovered the joys of learning to learn, and it felt wonderful. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, Robin *made me want to be a better person.*
(I’m imagining Robin doing the quote in Jack’s voice).
Watching Robin perform on late night shows was another light-bulb moment. Here was a man who seemed to be able to say anything, do anything—the more outlandish the better—and not only get away with it, but be celebrated for it. He was being encouraged to do it! Robin was a verbal whirling dervish, and it was an exhilarating sight to behold. The jokes, the endless voices, the hilarious non-sequiturs, the manic energy, all shining through with a certain off-kilter sweetness, tenderness, and vulnerability absent in other performers of his era. There was nothing better than watching Robin bring Johnny Carson to silent convulsions with his oddball behavior.
Of course, I had no idea about what was happening behind the scenes. For the most part, we—as his collective lifetime audience—had no conception of the darkness that enveloped him. He was a performer for the ages, but after the show was over, after the appearance was through, we didn’t get to glimpse his sadness, his frustrations, his disappointments, his addictions, and his personal failures. Not that we should have been privy to any of it. It was none of our business. However, my deepest Aladdin’s Genie wish is that he could have trusted someone to *make* it his or her business, to help him through his illness. Robin had imperfections of the same strains that affect all of us. Though he rarely let the public see them, it is now apparent he had miseries we couldn’t possibly imagine.
The public Robin always seemed to be gliding effortlessly along the surface, like an impressively skipped pebble—skimming and bouncing over the skin of the water, never never going deeper, never penetrating underneath the meniscus, never plunging into the bottomless depths under the surface, but always skipping, skipping, skipping across the ripples and waves of life. The cinematic Robin was a bit more personal. Sometimes, just sometimes—not often, and mostly through his dramatic work—we got to peak into that darkness. When he lifted the veil, he exposed us to a morose, soulful, beautiful side of his personality. The rarity of those moments made them all the more compelling.
We see comedy icons like Robin as untouchable, as rock gods, as ineffable and indefatigable. They are not. Despite his effervescent mind, his formidable abilities, his incalculable wit, he was dealing with all the same inadequacies, weaknesses, and imperfections that make us all human. Robin was superhuman? No, he was extremely human.
He was also the ultimate people-person. By all accounts, he was warm, sweet and cared deeply about people, whether family, friend, or stranger. These stories aren’t the normal gaggle of rubber-necking fawners and ego-strokers who come out of the woodwork when a celebrity dies. The inexhaustible list of admirers dates back years; story after story of Robin helping to push a stranger’s broken down car, Robin helping with a lady’s groceries, Robin listening—really listening—to a person telling her sad story and offering consolation, Robin giving not just his money but his time to charities, Robin treating cast and crew with love and respect on the set. And entertaining. Oh, the entertaining. Using his gifts to brighten the day of the one person in the room, not for the benefit of an audience, but for the benefit of that one person. These aren’t stories I’m hearing now after his passing, these were all stories I’ve heard again and again over years and years.
I deeply regret never being able to meet Robin and shake his hand. To tell him how much he meant to me. I am fully aware I would have been just another in a long line of awestruck fans pushing and prodding and preening for a chance for a moment with Robin. But this understanding doesn’t lessen my regret. It is a gut-wrenching feeling, this regret. I don’t want to feel it for anyone else in my life ever again. Robin’s abrupt end makes me want to reach out to everyone in my life who I might be struggling with depression, addiction, or other troubles in their lives and tell them I’m here for them. Because I am. I want to be. If each of us can let go of our egos and overcome our vulnerabilities, each of us can help each other. I can’t imagine the isolation, desperation and despair Robin was feeling. It must have been infinitely painful, and my heart aches to know he was silently suffering. My heart aches to know there are people in my life who are silently struggling with the same thing right now. I hope I can do my part to help. If you are reading this, and you are struggling, call me, email me, talk to me. I’ll listen. Maybe I’ll crack a few jokes here and there, but I’ll listen!
Beyond his four decades of spontaneous joy and love and laughter and inspiration, for me this is Robin’s legacy: being there for others. If you suspect a loved one in your life is troubled, talk to them, tell them you care. For this is what Robin did for others, if he couldn’t do it for himself. He was there for us. Having lived, he made us laugh, he made us cry, he made us feel more human and more alive. For a man as supremely talented at mending other’s hearts, it is a tragedy he was not able to mend his own. Yet in the end, his life is not a tragedy, for every clip, every movie, every show, every bit, every joke, every pun, every impression, every flight of fancy, every life he touched, every laugh he coaxed will echo on forever when we relive the memories.
I was mistaken. Today is not the first day of a world without Robin. Because he lived, the world will always have him.
Thank you, Robin.