“Throbbing Python of Love” contains the funniest moment — the funniest two words — in the history of recorded stand-up. A steady and stern knock suddenly starts pounding on the outside the bathroom door. It’s followed by an equally stern and typical sterile-sounding, voice of a parent. The voice demands, “What are you doing in there?!”
Utter shamelessness. The story of Adam and Eve had been rewritten! I hit the floor in absolute amazement as well as in tears. (…”If it feels this good I’ll take the hair, I don’t care!” …Sorry.)
It was in my pre-adolescent years when I was first introduced to these things called comedy albums, by slightly older kids in the neighborhood. They listened, I could tell, because the recordings predominantly talked about girls and sex. For me, at the time, the taboo-appeal was more because they used swear words. The material was all hysterical (in every way) — funny, wild, crazy, and honest — but of course kept entirely in-bounds.
And though much of the material was doing Blue Angels over my head, what made these guys so appealing to my friends is because they were predominantly, jokingly sharing stories about what it was like to be their age. And I would end up getting my first, authentic, adult, intellectual education for the outside world.
Everything was fair game, and down to Earth, from how you can tell a guy is over 40 by way of how he now always tucks his t-shirts into his jeans, balanced with the less pop, more radical topics of politics and religion. Cable-television was also relatively new at this time, and HBO started showcasing these giants, so that you can see as well as hear hour-long performances by Richard (Pryor), Eddie (Murphy), George (Carlin), Bill (Cosby),Billy (Crystal), and Steve Martin ( 😉 ), among others.
These great ‘stand-up philosophers’, as Cardinal Mel (Brooks) once referred to them, all serve as profoundly indelible educators in the art of freedom of expression.
And I can very easily say that one of the things I revered most from those early years — along with music and sports, like every other male — was stand-up comedy.
And apart from the impact of early M*A*S*H episodes, and with the possible exception of Bill Murray’s flawlessly esteemed wary style of comedy, Robin was king. [His inflection and energy of performance].
I had already seen evidence and developed a sense that the best comedians could excel dramatically, as well. And so from my late teens up into my early thirties was ripe time that his comedic and dramatic work in many a film would have an influence on me, particularly, “The World According to Garp”, “Moscow on the Hudson”, “Good Morning, Vietnam”, “Awakenings”, “Aladdin”, “Death to Smoochy”, “Man of the Year”, and of course the two most significant – each, I have seen at least a couple of dozen times — would be the extraordinarily colorful and creative, “The Fisher King” (still among my all-time favorites; a beautiful performance from him, and Jeff Bridges’ best performance at the time) and of course the brave, powerful, and beloved film of my late-teens, “Dead Poets Society”.
I remember the late New York Times’ film critic, Vincent Canby, writing in his review of “Dead Poets” (which left me wondering if he had actually seen the film) that if you were unable to see one of his students “take [Mr. Keating’s] teachings to fatal lengths” then you would have had to have been raised on a space station. I didn’t see Neil Perry’s suicide coming, just as virtually none of us saw Robin’s coming. Why? I think because he left such a mark, from my youth.
It was only after the fact that a great many of us learned he had been seeking treatment for severe depression. Given his huge and hugely generous volume of work — not excluding a great many of his televised interviews which were like comedy routines — his material never seemed to reflect a general fear of death. And thus now, only after the fact, am I able to see it.
So along with herein wanting to pay tribute, concerning the big question in which his death has raised for me, in being creative myself, I have always loathed the myth that one has to be ‘crazy’ — suffering from some sort of clinical depression, diagnosed or not — in order to create something powerful. Thus, I want to share here and now what I have uncovered for the sake of both creative and non-creative, young and older folk, alike.
I was always aware he had a bit of a ‘Hamlet complex’. I don’t know if such a term actually exists in psychology lore, but it is a bit of a cliché among male comedians to try and make light of an inability to identify with and/or please the father (or, the ‘ghost’ of the father, if you will). After the actor/comedian Jonathan Winters had recently passed from natural causes, I caught Robin commenting to a reporter on television how he was the only comedian he had ever witnessed make his father (a former, rather austere auto executive) laugh. No coincidence then how he would become a major influence on the son’s
The following is a very revealing excerpt from an article published in The Guardian, in 2010, promoting his film, “World’s Greatest Dad”. About halfway down, the paragraph begins with the interviewer writing, “My worry beforehand had been that Williams would be too wildly manic to make much sense. When he appeared on the Jonathan Ross show earlier this summer, he’d been vintage Williams — hyperactive to the point of deranged, ricocheting between voices, riffing off his internal dialogues. Off-camera, however, he is a different kettle of fish. His bearing is intensely Zen and almost mournful, and when he’s not putting on voices he speaks in a low, tremulous delivering a funeral eulogy. He seems gentle and kind — even tender — but the overwhelming impression is one of sadness.” The next few paragraphs continue on this.
In recent years, anytime I hear of anyone abusing alcohol and/or drugs, or having gone as far as taking their own life, my first impulse as for their main culprit is ‘depression’, untreated or unsought after. Yet, for as long as art has existed the link that being ‘crazy’ and a ‘creative genius’ has always been a very easy and very romantic one to make. Poets, writers, and musicians seem, to me, to be the most associated. George Byron, Robert Lowell, Alfred Tennyson, Anne Sexton, and David Foster Wallace, as well as more well-known sufferers, like Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, and Vincent Van Gogh, to name just a few, all suffered from a particularly debilitating form of depression called bipolar disorder — bipolar I, to be exact; as opposed to the less severe bipolar II. Lowell described living with it as “a magical orange grove in a nightmare.”
From the study, “Creative Mythconceptions: A Closer Look at the Evidence for the ‘Mad Genius’ Hypothesis”, by Judith Schlesinger, published in 2009:
“In his Creativity and Madness: New Findings and Old Stereotypes, [Albert] Rothenberg (1990) addresses what he calls the presumably objective work of [psychiatrist, Nancy] Andreasen and [psychologist, Kay Redfield] Jamison, noting the widespread inclination to soft-pedal its limitations: ‘the need to believe in a connection between creativity and madness appears to be so strong that affirmations are welcomed and treated rather uncritically’ (p. 150).”
“To date…the most basic assumption of this whole enterprise remains in the air: there is still no clear convincing, scientific proof that artists do, in fact, suffer more psychological problems than any other vocational group — and probably little chance of obtaining any. So far, neither the National Institute of Mental Health nor the National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association keep statistics on the rate of mental illness by occupation. Meanwhile, the biased focus on those creatives with troubled lives will never confirm their unique vulnerability, even if their troubles had unimpeachable documentation.”
So, the rather dangerously tempting and disturbing fact of the matter is, is that there is no proving nor disproving of a scientific link. Nobody can tell for certain how much Robin Williams’ particularly severe disorder/extrovertedly compulsive desire to entertain played a hand in helping to make who he was and ultimately undo him, nor how the scope of his brilliance was influenced as a result. (The reported early stages of the neurodegenerative illness, Parkinson’s, accompanied by these two elements, along with old age, I believe all played a significant part.)
What makes dealing with this even more troubling is that, I know at least in the case of David Foster Wallace, from having read his biography, is that it can be difficult finding the right medication, the right dosage of the right medication, in order for one to feel as if that can effectively create as well as live with it.
But all told, one certainly does not have to be to some extent clinically, mentally ill in order to create something powerful. Nor would proper medication, should one be able to find it, hinder creative output.
Generally speaking, first and foremost surrounding yourself with friends and a supportive community is most important foundation in order to encourage and sustain your muse. Since the moment I learned I wanted to write I just felt I needed love as a sole foundation, and it took some long, excruciating not-knowing in order to uncover this other necessary foundation.
When he got going, it was always invigorating to experience. He would seem in every way in speed with the nineteen miles per second the Earth would spin on its axis. His sharp, mesmerizing barrage of calculated wit and highly calibrated sense of irony, for one, were huge influences on me. Classic Robin-isms, like, “Excuse me, Mr. President, in the dictionary under ‘irony’, it says ‘See irony’”, or “We’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing near you,” were always said out of love.
He was the most worldly and voraciously in every way adventurous, as far as wanting to learn more about something new and exciting. He embodied a child-like curiosity to always want to learn more. He was extremely articulate, even while dipping into a dizzying array of character voices, or musical instruments and sound-effects. He could dole out the obscurest of technical details in the middle of an improvised routine, and was able to conduct this entire compendium at any given time (…I had to pause for a minute after the ‘invention of the bagpipe’, around the 6:40 mark).
He will, like Cy Young in wins, forever remain untouchable in his ability to improvise. I was/am especially amazed by his Shakespearean launches; one of which, in the middle of introducing Rita Rudner at Comic Relief V, which I cannot find on youtube but will try to do justice here:
“…And she just finished her first movie, which she co-stars with Kenneth Branagh [dropping into highly pronounced/dramatic British personae]: Gadzukes! Yes, the woman is here — all the way from The Royal Shakespeare Company! ‘I fear not, Fellatio… This is I damndest cunningly withstane! These queen-sheets: I shall not know thy thread, but yet touched the cock and called her thro! Oh, saucy Worcester, wilt thou deny thy father’s brothers’ eldest son, Vollack? Come to the moisture of all England’s fetted loins — in my loins! Titus has no penis.’ — Act IV, scene ii.”
He was just an incredibly, selflessly theatrical. And that was it for me. And this was in considerable credit to having studied stage-acting at Julliard for three years. He only needed three years, before being recommended to leave by his professors because there was nothing more they could teach him.
And even though he was not always on, or other people did not find him as entertaining, it was also remarkable to me for as long and often he would go on his tangents how he would never lose confidence, never lose control of his context, or just ever allow himself to be overtaken by the slightest of indulgences. He had an enormous and thus rather fearless sensibility to either seriously or exuberantly point out our hypocrisies, and would just go until it was somehow indicated that it was time to move on.
Mel Brooks said it was never enough for him, personally, to just make people laugh but to leave them on the floor. Robin was the same way. He seemed to humbly hold his craft in esteem with other more prominently humane professions, such as in medical science, research, education, humanitarian aid, and so on. At the heart of his brilliance, stemmed kindness rooted in human dignity.
Fare-thee-well, dearest King of kings.
 From which, his character’s recitation of the excerpt from “Leaves of Grass” has now been immortalized in an i-pad commercial. ‘Seize the day’, youth of the world, by burying half of it into an electronic device? Hearing Walt Whitman promote Apple is like hearing Hart Crane do a voice-spot for Home Depot.
 I do not own the dvd, don’t really need to, and don’t wish to currently pay $500 for a used copy on amazon, but the rest of the scene finishes with the headmaster’s polite reminder of two of the school’s four philosophical ‘pillars’: “‘Tradition’, John. ‘Discipline’. Prepare them for college and the rest will take care of itself.”