Robin Williams Could Find The Funny In Even The Unfunniest Things

CREDIT: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

Robin Williams was so fast. He thought on some high-speed wavelength most people never access. He cracked jokes in that His Girl Friday-rapid-fire. He was almost manic, electric, a frenzy in human form. He was more animated than animation. It seemed like he couldn’t be still, not ever, until yesterday.

I think we have a tough time imagining that anyone who makes us laugh could possibly be depressed; it’s like finding out that your parents cry. It’s like seeing the bloodied, blistered feet of the loveliest ballerina. It makes us feel terrible. And this isn’t about us—typical millennial reaction, making this about us — but we may as well lean into it: to us, he was that one English teacher who really got it, the nanny who was family all along, the therapist who saw through our blonde bangs and our bullshit. He’s our Peter Pan, all grown up, but not really. He’s the boy locked inside our board game. He granted all our wishes.

He was 63 years old.

He struggled with addiction—he told us he struggled with addiction, he told us like a million times, “Cocaine is God’s way of telling you you’re making too much money.” He was so funny about the whole thing. “The devil’s dandruff, Peruvian marching powder!” “There’s also something called freebasing. It’s not free; it cost you your house. It should be called homebasing.” Some of his funniest jokes were about the darkest, unfunniest things.

In 2006, he checked himself into rehab for alcohol abuse. Three years later, he told The New York Times that “he was not ashamed of discussing the subject, whether in private or onstage in front of thousands. ‘It would be insane not to talk about it,’ he said. ‘Oh, what happened?’ ‘Nothing.’ It’s what’s happened, and everyone knows.’”

There’s probably this temptation to say that his genius and his demons were inextricably linked, but it doesn’t really seem like he wanted anyone to think of him that way. From that same NYT story:

“The point of all this recrimination, Mr. Williams said, is not to glamorize his substance abuse. “I can’t talk about it any other way than going, ‘Just don’t,’ ” he said, in a booming, God-like voice. “There’s nothing romantic about it. This idea that as an artist you have to push yourself and explore the dark side? I went there. You can do a lot more interesting stuff when you’re not” messed up.

This loss still feels like a suckerpunch, probably because, at his best, Robin Williams’ work did what really great comedy, great performance, can do: it transported us to some other place, where he’d never been an addict or an alcoholic, where we had never been whatever things we didn’t want to be, either. He could be ten men in the span of twenty seconds, snapping in and out of accents at rip-off-a-Band-Aid speed. He could make us believe he was a thousand different people.

Williams testified to the Senate about homelessness prevention twenty-four years ago. Almost everything about the video is so dated: the clothing, the hair. But his testimony hasn’t aged much, actually. His words are as relevant as ever.

“You can’t keep picking people up,” he said. “You have to stop them from falling. That’s what I hope.”