Along with everyone else in the world, I was shocked to hear about Robin Williams’ death last night. Shocked, but not surprised. Williams had fought depression — which for many is a condition, not an illness — for the majority of his adult life. It is perhaps because of that condition that he also was one of the greatest comedic talents known, a man possessed who raged against fear and personal doubt with before unimagined heights of manic genius. Comedians who ranked as contemporaries, such as Steve Martin and John Belushi, were like the Jimmy Pages and Eric Claptons of comedy — but Williams was Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival, wrenching every last note and primal sound out of his instrument before setting it aflame. He among a generation of voices fashioned a new age of comedic commentary, one that was daringly political, surreal and disturbingly intimate.
I won’t go into detail about his career, other than to say many of his roles onscreen showed what the man behind the mania was like — a sensitive, poetic soul with a chillingly dark edge. Like the greatest of actors, one had an understanding when seeing him take on certain aspects of character that he knew them all too well. Most others were simply frail containers set up to fall away and let him fly free, like some sort of berserker warrior who is set into the fray of battle.
Those moments showed what Williams did best — furiously improvise and embody the most abstract of concepts in a way that made them both immediately familiar and hilariously obvious. The greatest of comedians are those who manage to reveal the human condition for what it is — a series of blunders and happenstance punctuated with fleeting moments of genius and beauty. That exposed truth is what makes us laugh, even if we never realized it before. And Robin Williams, a Joycean whirling dervish of a man, did that more than most.