Everyone has a celebrity death that hurts the most. Mine was Robin Williams.
Robin Williams was and still is the funniest human being I’ve ever seen. I never saw him with my own eyes live, but his energy is burned into my psyche. I remember when he died, I was living in a house for the summer with two of my closest friends. Our reaction to the shock of him dying? Watching all of his movies. All of them.
There are the first ones I saw – Aladdin, and the surprisingly terrifying Jumanji. The ones I came in contact with later in life – the Mrs. Doubtfires, the Flubbers. The serious movies – Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, Good Morning Vietnam. We had to watch them all.
I didn’t know why I hurt so bad when Robin died. It took a while to sort out the feelings, but eventually I landed on this – there is no one I’ve thought I was more like than Robin Williams.
I’ve never been a boring kid.
Growing up I was quiet a lot, sure. A lot of that was because I was sorting out how to fit in. What to say and where to be and how to act. It took a long time before I landed on something I could cling to – I was funny.
Not really class clown funny (I didn’t even get voted funniest in high school) but I was funny. Witty. Able to do impressions and keep people entertained. Classmates, teachers, family members. I could connect with all of them by being funny.
Sometimes it got me in trouble. The first time I ever impersonated someone was when I was four and did a spot-on impression of my Indian doctor. That was the day my mother knew she’d be in trouble with me around.
As I’ve gotten older, being funny is the one thing I never really lose. When I’m angry, I’m still funny. I’m self-depricatingly funny when I’m upset. I will interrupt all serious moments with a very misplaced joke. I can’t help it – funny is my default setting.
I went to funny because it made for a great baseline.
Robin Williams died, and that part hurt because I idolized him. I loved his energy, his smile, his rapid fire delivery. He was who I wanted to be.
Robin Williams died by suicide, and that’s the part that scared me. I had the energy, the smile and all of that. Then I saw what I felt could be my future – making others laugh and while not laughing myself.
Everyone seemed shocked and surprised that a man who could bring joy to literally millions could be feeling sad in his own life. He was undoubtably one of the funniest men on the planet. Yet he was hurting, and hurt so bad that he took his own life.
I wasn’t just making jokes to fit in. I made jokes because I felt sad a lot. Making other people laugh brought a hit of dopamine to my brain. It allowed me to feel important, valuable, and needed. Funny has never been enough though, both in scape and in practice. I’m never funny enough, or I feel I have to act a certain way to fit into serious situations. It can be tiring because I think, at my core, funny is what I really live for.
When there’s nobody to make the jokes to, it can get kind of sad.
When I heard that Robin had died by suicide, it invoked the feelings of the sad clown that we may have heard of before. This narrative that all comedians have pain and make the jokes to hide it or dull it. I saw that my favourite comedian had died by suicide and thought “well, if it happens to Robin, what chance do I have?”
The idea that comedians all have to be coming from a sad place is, frankly, a little crap. It’s an escape clause that a lot of angry people use to make people feel like they don’t “get it.” How can you understand the pain unless you’re one of the comedians? How can you make jokes unless your own life goes to crap? It ties into a history of comedy being a “boys club” of men dealing with problems by having therapy sessions with live audiences instead of a counsellor.
I believed this for a really, really long time. That being funny and making jokes weren’t just my thing, they were my only thing. The only thing I had value from was making jokes, and the only way to make jokes was to be sad. If the comedians I looked up to were sad and turned that into fame and jokes, then I could too.
That logic is broken, on a couple of points.
The first is that there are tons of comedians who aren’t sad. There are loads of funny people I know who are funny and successful. Funny without coming from dark places. Funny and enjoying life. These people exist (think of the Jerry Seinfelds of the world) and they do well. Yes, humour is great in dealing with pain but pain isn’t the only place it comes from, and pain doesn’t need to be a constant state to produce comedy.
Secondly, the laughter doesn’t fill holes. I’ve said on multiple occasions to friends and therapists alike that the feeling I get when on stage telling jokes (or even at a dinner table telling stories to friends) is the best feeling in the world and nothing tops it. It is my favourite feeling, sure. However there are so many other things that can bring that feeling. No person can be sustained on just one thing, especially one thing as fickle and temporary as applause. It’s taken me years to even know that, and it’s going to take me even more years to understand it, but I’m learning. Value isn’t just from applause – value is inherent, and can come from so many sources inside and outside of yourself.
Finally, no stories are the same. Yes, I look up to and idolize Robin. My story isn’t his story, and my trauma isn’t his. I have my own things to deal with, as did he. I wish that someone could have given him the support that I’ve been blessed enough to receive in my own life, but sadly that’s not the case. I know from the outpouring of support that I am not the only one who wished they could have helped him, but mental health challenges are different for everyone. All we can do today is to be kind, supportive, and helpful.
I know now that I am not destined to be like anyone else, even someone I idolize as much as Robin Williams. I can emulate the voices, the energy, and the amount of sunshine he brought into the world. However I am not destined to end up a certain way. I am allowed to have comedy come from joy. I am allowed to write a different story for myself. I am allowed to take the lessons I’ve learned from watching one of the greatest comedians of all time make an impact on the world and put that into my own work.
When I’m sad, I’ll make jokes. It’s what I do. I’ll also talk to a therapist, a friend, a partner, a family member as well. I’ll do other self care activities. I’ll work out. I’ll do all of these things because they can sustain me. They can help.
And when I’m happy, well I’ll probably make more jokes too.