Robin Williams: When the laughter stops

Jennie McNulty columnBY JENNIE MCNULTY

Perhaps, Smokey Robinson said it best, “Ain’t nothin’ sadder than the tears of a clown.”

I think the term I heard used most regarding Robin William’s passing was “heartbroken.” A man who has brought us all so much laughter and joy; a man who has inspired so many comics to want to make others laugh; a man who, by all accounts, had nothing but kind words for others, couldn’t feel those things for himself. It is heartbreaking.

The question people are asking is why?

I’m sure his answer would be, why not?

I don’t pretend to understand completely the devastating disease of depression. Nor do I claim to feel it on that level. But I can tell you comics are not what you think you see.

My girlfriend and I just laugh when someone tells her, as they so often do, “It must be so great living with a comedian.” Sometimes, I guess. But we don’t think like you do. You see a glass fall off a table and think, “Oh no, there’s broken glass and a mess, be careful.” We think, “Shit, that was a full beer.” And, we think that, even if we don’t like beer. It’s a joke. It’s what our brains do in almost any situation. Find the twist, find the funny. And we do that onstage, in the car by ourselves, in the supermarket. They don’t all make the act, but it’s the way we process almost every thought.

Some of us have a filter that keeps us from saying it out loud, if it’s inappropriate. Others do not. They’re the ones with the sitcoms.

It is said that comedy equals tragedy plus time. It’s true. And, the time element is far more important to you than us. It’s not that we’re callus or mean or hardened. It’s just the way we think.

I remember the day Princess Diana died. The valet at the Comedy Club at which I was working that night told me about it. We were both talking about how horrific and sad it was. And, I was truly saddened by that news. Who wasn’t? After the show, when the crowd had left and the other comics and staff and I were all sitting around the bar, I said, “I wonder how long it will be before the Princess Diana jokes start.” The other comics knowingly chuckled, then I caught the eye of that valet who had such a look of disgust on his face. I still feel it today as I’m writing this. I’m sure that guy thinks I’m an ass, probably worse. I never planned on doing nor have I ever done jokes about her death, but, for the record, it was about two weeks. And, I assure you, those comics thought those jokes long before they told them.

Comics aren’t the only ones who kill themselves. Depression and other mental illness hit all walks of life. I don’t think comedy makes you depressed. For many of us, it’s the way we deal with uncomfortable things. Perhaps, many of us are predisposed, we start out a little off. Like I said, we don’t think like other people. And show business is filled with rejection.

I had a friend once say to me that she thought my job was the worst, “It’s like going on a job interview every night.” Most of us will tell you we do it, “Because we can’t hold a real job.” That’s also frequently true. But the ability to take life’s tragedies (and other daily happenings) and look at them in a humorous way is a gift. It’s a gift we’re eager to share. It is a gift we are rewarded greatly for by your laughter. For Robin Williams, it was gift he was given in spades. We will all miss his gift. Now, we know a little bit of the price he paid for it.

Robin’s incredible comedy made you laugh hysterically. It made me, and so many others, want to be a comedian. I can still remember some of his jokes we repeated as kids. I’ve seen so many social media posts by comics who said he saw them onstage and told them, “Great set” or “You’re funny.” I can’t quite explain how much that would mean coming from him. And, trust me, it’s not something all comics do, especially icons in this business.

I believe him to have been the warm, loving, kind man as those that knew him said he was. But that doesn’t make his tragic death surprising to me. I was initially shocked to hear it, of course. But sadness was my overwhelming feeling. Selfishly, because we’ll never hear another one of his brilliant jokes, but more so because of how tortured he must have been.

There is no why. The why is the disease. The why is the way his brain was wired. For all those wonderful, touching, hilarious moments he gave to us, he reached some limit in his own mind. I’m not saying we’re all going to kill ourselves. For me personally, I’m quite happy. I assure you, I’m not ready to jump off a bridge. (And, as I typed that just now, I thought, “Besides, with all the Robin Williams stuff, I wouldn’t get any press — see what I mean? I loved that guy, but that rather disrespectful thought popped into my head before I finished typing.)

I’m trying to explain to those who’re saying “he had it all” or “but he made so many of us laugh, how could he… .” Sometimes things are not what they seem. We’ll never really know what was going on in his head. Any more than we knew how his incredible mind came up with the jokes it did.
I wish he would have been able to love himself as much as he was loved by us. Would he have still done it had he seen the outpouring of love and respect we’re seeing now? Who knows? He said during an interview with Bravo’s James Lipton that he hoped there was laughter in heaven. There will be now Robin. Rest in peace, dear man.

Jennie McNulty was named one of Curve magazine’s Top 10 lesbian comedians. She can be heard weekly as co-host of LA Talk Radio‘s “Cathy Is In: The Cathy DeBuono Show.”

3 Responses to “Robin Williams: When the laughter stops”

  1. Donna Mattscheck

    I think it is called “Mascoting”

    The Mascot is the child who jokes and distracts the family from the heaviness of its dysfunction. This child expresses the effects of the family’s painful experiences as humor.

    Mascots have difficulty accepting and expressing difficult feelings, and will joke their way out of serious circumstances, avoiding the real issue that needs addressing. Mascots may find themselves in entertainment-related fields, since it’s second nature for them to make light of tragedy, pain and suffering. Many mascots awaken later in life to find they have not been taken seriously, or are always counted on to make everyone feel better, perhaps at the expense of acknowledging their own painful realities.

    More Here:


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