Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Robin Williams (1951–2014)

I wanted to post something, however belatedly, for Robin Williams. His death is a tremendous loss, and I know several people who were more affected by his passing than by any other celebrity death. If it felt like we knew him, it was because, as several of Williams' real-life friends put it, we kind of did – Williams put a tremendous amount of himself into both his comedic and dramatic performances. He was astonishingly, breathtakingly funny, but also possessed considerable depth. His mind simply worked at a faster pace than those of mere mortals, and his intelligence was stunning – some of the tossed-off jokes he would improvise – witty, slightly esoteric, biting – were jaw-dropping. If ever there was a living embodiment of Albert Einstein's observation that "creativity is intelligence having fun," it was Robin Williams.

Other performers such as George Carlin stuck to standup comedy more than Williams, but Williams definitely makes the short list of best standup comics ever, and he'd periodically come back to the medium even after making it big as a TV and movie star. The only comedian comparable to Williams in style was his idol, Jonathan Winters, but while Winters would do goofy humor, and was similarly playful, Williams' toolkit added some scathing political comedy. In terms of a comedian earning mainstream praise as a serious artist, the closest analogy would probably be Charlie Chaplin, who was wildly successful but also became respected as a filmmaker. Williams did some dumb movies, of course, but his comedic chops were never in doubt, and he earned several Oscar nominations for roles that were primarily serious (finally winning Best Supporting Actor for Good Will Hunting).

There's a saying that clowns make the best tragedians, and there's some truth to that. I've long been fascinated by the intersection between tragedy and comedy, where they mix, where they switch, where one can transcend the other. Robin Williams really understood those dynamics, far better than most people. His best performances all display that understanding – in The Fisher King, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting and Good Morning, Vietnam (among others). It was that depth that I found so captivating and admirable – coupled with his lightning-fast wit. (I inadvertently had entire sections of some routines memorized from watching them so much.)

I would have liked to have thought that Robin Williams had conquered his demons, that he had an adequate support network in place, that he had some way to handle his depression and avoid suicide. After his death, countless stories emerged about his generosity, and many of his acts of kindness were done in private. To paraphrase his friends, it's tragic that he wasn't able to give himself (or otherwise receive) what he so selflessly gave to others.

Salon has a great set of 13 memorable moments.

Slate collected some Hollywood reactions.

Here are obituaries from the Los Angeles Times The New York Times and The Washington Post.

His friend David Letterman gave a lovely tribute.

Conan O'Brien remembered Robin Williams, " The Best Talk Show Guest In The World."

His daughter Zelda wrote a moving, public goodbye. (A story from Williams about Zelda is also pertinent.)

"Michael J. Fox Reacts to Robin Williams's Parkinson's Diagnosis."

Jerry Leichtling, GottaLaff, Lizz Winstead and Joel Silberman have remembrances.

"Terry Gilliam Breaks Down a Particularly Hard Night With Robin Williams on The Fisher King."

NPR: "What Robin Williams Taught Us About Teaching."

PBS: "Robin Williams Hones his Craft."

"Broadway's Cast of Aladdin Pays Tribute to Robin Williams."

Questlove on Robin Williams: “Ain’t no way this old white dude knows my entire history and discography!”

"Norm MacDonald May Have Just Written the Best Tribute To Robin Williams Yet."

"Lewis Black Responds Perfectly To Rush Limbaugh" (Limbaugh, being an asshole, used Williams' death as an opportunity to attack liberalism).

"Ethan Hawke on Robin Williams: It Was Obvious He Was in Pain."

Williams was an avid fan of video games, and World of Warcraft is heeding fan requests for an in-game tribute.

Colin McEnroe: "Robin Williams burning brightly: There was just one human being who could do this thing."

Balloon Juice had an open thread remembrances.

Robin Williams on addiction and comedy back in 2009 or so.

Finally, there's some hilarious footage of Robin Williams outtakes from some promotional spots in the early 80s (about 14 minutes long).

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