Robin Williams and Comics’ Depression

Robin Williams
Robin Williams

Robin Williams isn’t someone I can claim to have known, although I ran into him a few times during the ‘70s at Budd Friedman’s fabled Improvisation on West 44th Street. I was performing a funny-songs-and-snappy-patter act with Bill Weeden in those days, and if I remember correctly, Williams would come in with the also wildly creative comedian Elayne Boosler. They were apparently going out at the time.

Since he was said to be based in Los Angeles then, he worked the Improv only occasionally but was always superb when he did, already as madly inventive as he was when he became internationally famous. And in light of his death—which we now learn may have been related in part to battling Parkinson’s disease—I use the word “madly” with some thought.

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At the time I first encountered him, he struck me as promising in the same way that many comics did who were appearing regularly at the Improv for exposure—but no remuneration. He didn’t strike me on those few sightings as being as depressed as other comic so obviously were while working under Friedman’s basilisk eye.

Which is my way of saying that on many, if not most, nights it was impossible to miss the occasional—even frequent—relationship between comedians and depression. It wasn’t the first time I noticed it. When I first came to Manhattan, I was friendly with a fellow whose father was a famous Broadway clown. Whenever I saw the man, I was startled to observe him barely altering his expression as he dejectedly sat for long periods in a club chair, his arms dangling by his side.

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That introduction was my introduction to a larger context in which Robin Williams figures. We now know he certainly became as depressed as other comics can be and have been. Even, evidently, more so. Indeed, within an hour of the announcement of his suicide, abundant commentary about depression surfaced.

Ian Youngs, a BBC arts reporter, wrote about an Oxford University study that found “comedians had a rather unusual personality profile, which was rather contradictory. On the one hand, they were rather introverted, depressive, rather schizoid, you might say. And on the other hand, they were rather extroverted and manic.” This, almost needless to say, sounds like a succinct description of the Robin Williams we all watched.

Liz Neporent, reporting on Good Morning America, quoted clinical psychologist Deborah Serani as saying, “Comedy can often be a defensive posture against depression.” Serani wrote that “for many comedians, humor is a ‘counter-phobic’ response to the darkness and sadness they feel.” Their intelligence, Neporent reports of Serani, “helps them put a funny spin on their despair.” Again, a familiar view of Williams.

I need to point out that the Improv bar area, where comics waited for their 15 or 20 minutes in the spotlight, wasn’t strictly a gathering of blatant depressives looking as if they were waiting to see their shrinks. Many were as upbeat off stage as on. David Brenner was, Jay Leno was. Jerry Seinfeld was. Larry David wasn’t, and he transformed his discontent into a career.

But it’s Williams who’s on all our minds these days. I’ve been thinking about the signs of his depression. I didn’t know him aside from the Improv sightings, but one evening only a few years ago at an impressive Eastside Manhattan restaurant where I’d gone with a chum, I spotted him seated with a group of five or six friends at the table next to ours. They were a lively group, chatting amiably with each other throughout the meal. The only one who didn’t join in at that convivial level appeared to be Williams. Although he kept a small smile on his face, he seemed to speak only occasionally. I won’t venture to say his reticence was proof of depression, but it did seem evidence of preoccupation in the midst of camaraderie. Let’s leave it at his behavior being noticeable.

More to the point, I’ve been thinking about a series of movies Williams made in the ‘90s in which he played a character involved with children’s welfare—Mrs. Doubtfire, Patch Adams, Hook. Later, he was the focal figure in World’s Greatest Dad.

When I saw them, I wondered whether fatherhood had inclined him to look fondly on scripts dealing with issues of paternity. These days after learning of his isolated upbringing, I’m wondering—readers are free to dismiss the following as dime-store psychology—if Williams was consciously or unconsciously concerned with attempting to rescue his (forgive the contemporary cliché) “inner child.”

I’ve also been ruminating on Williams’s explosive comedy monologues, so much of them ad-libbed but some undoubtedly scripted. I’m reminded of something read from Spalding Gray’s diaries during the relatively recent Off-Broadway revue Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell. Shortly before he committed suicide by jumping into the East River from a ferry, he wrote that he’d hoped his work would be beneficially therapeutic but that he had come to the conclusion it hadn’t been.

Perhaps this explains Williams’s self-inflicted demise.

Something else occurs to me about Williams’s monologues, so many exclaimed off-the-cuff—that is, off-the-clown’s-wide-cuff. I don’t know if they’re recorded, transcribed and collected in print. Perhaps segments of them appear in Williams biographies. Whether or not, I’m imagining them. In my mind’s eye, they sit on the page like free-form epic poems. They’re poetry. Williams was a poet of the stage and occasionally of the big and small screen as well, and we all know that comics aren’t the only ones preternaturally and terminally depressed. Poets sometimes are, too.

I won’t go so far as to say the depression is the comic’s—and the poet’s—disease. But I’m tempted to.