When Vultures Weep:

Reflections on Robin Williams and the Alchemy of Joy

I didn’t want to write this column.  From the first moment I heard about the death of Robin Williams, it was hard enough just to process the news.  Besides, I knew millions of other people were probably racing to their keyboards to share obituaries, tweets, blogs, memes, and video clips.  That’s why the idea of me trying to write a column now, a week later … I dunno.  It seems pointless.  Makes me feel like a vulture.

But here’s the thing.  For me, it’s not “a week later.”  Despite my better judgment, I found myself starting this piece within 24 hours of hearing the news, and I’ve worked on it in fits and starts each day since then, but the shock is still fresh, the emotions still raw.  Perhaps the writing is cathartic.  All I know is I haven’t been able to think about anything else this week.

Well that’s not strictly true.  There are other things on my mind.  Last night I was thinking about Ferguson, Missouri, where the police dressed in army costumes like it was Halloween, aimed assault rifles at the citizens they were sworn to protect, shot rubber bullets into the crowd, fired tear gas into people’s yards, and arrested journalists and local politicians.

There’s also Iraq, where everyone continues to pay for the mistakes made over a decade ago.  And there’s Gaza, where admittedly horrible rocket attacks have prompted a wildly disproportionate response, killing thousands of people, many of them children.  And there’s a civil war in the Ukraine that continually threatens to expand, even claiming the lives of hundreds of passengers on a civilian airliner.

Here in America, the original motto E pluribus unum—out of many, one—seems like a joke.  Cultural, economic, and political divisions are more stark than at any point in my lifetime, and our social interactions are increasingly punctuated with hostility and rage—mostly directed at one another—while corporations grow increasingly more powerful.

We even see these problems in the geek community, where we’re supposed to be bound together by a common love for pop culture, creating a safe haven for misfits and outcasts.  But this past year we’ve seen too many examples of sociopathic behavior and intolerance—particularly directed toward women.  And in addition to this behavior—some of which is clearly criminal—we’ve even seen rage over the most inane and trivial of subjects.  Chris Hardwick, host of The Nerdist, recently said on Real Time with Bill Maher, “The real power of the nerd set is to understand something more than any other living creature to a molecular level – then use that information against people.”  That’s sad … mostly because it’s true.

So yeah, I guess there are a lot of things on my mind.  Few, if any, of these problems have simple solutions, though all of them deserve serious engagement.  But in my more fanciful moments, at the simplest, most child-like level, I wonder if we couldn’t find an antidote to all this poison in the air—something that could crowd out some of the hostility and in a Gandhi-like way, promote unity rather than division.  That’s when I think of laughter, the involuntary expression of joy.  In a lot of ways, I think we need laughter.

But then I’m reminded of that final, ironic line from Watchmen #1, when Laurie says no one seems to be laughing anymore and Dan dryly responds, “Well, what do you expect?  The Comedian is dead.”

And so he is.  Robin Williams was many things to many people.  One generation remembers him as a madcap sitcom star while another sees him as a dramatic actor and stand up comedian.  And for yet another, he was a children’s entertainer.  In truth, he was all those things and more.

Everyone seems to have his or her own connection to his work.  For someone like me, an English-major-turned–teacher, Dead Poet’s Society was life altering.  I don’t think I’ve ever walked into a classroom without thinking, at least for a moment, about John Keating ripping out pages from a textbook or whispering “Carpe Diem!”  I’ve only watched that movie one time, which is a compliment.  When a movie profoundly impacts you, sometimes repeat viewings can be counter-productive.  I got everything I needed from Dead Poet’s Society the first time I saw it.  I got my life changed.

But as much as I love that performance, what I think I’ll miss most is his gift for improvisational comedy, that ability to take whatever was nearby and use it to create laughter.  Unlike the dark magicians of old, he actually cracked the code for spinning ordinary metal into gold—an alchemist of joy.

Many comedians did things better.  Jerry Lewis took better pratfalls and Woody Allen wrote funnier one-liners.  Mort Sahl was better on politics, Lenny Bruce on social commentary.  Bill Cosby told better stories.  George Carlin was more clever with language, and Richard Pryor was more personal.

But no one in modern history has been better at creating humor out of a vacuum than Robin Williams.  With all due respect to Jonathan Winters and Mel Brooks, it’s not even close.  Most of us came to take Williams’s spontaneous, rapid-fire improvisations for granted.  After all, he started introducing people to his riffs as far back as Mork and Mindy, and some of his films—particularly Good Morning Vietnam, The Fisher King, and Aladdin—were structured so as to show off this magical skill.

It was particularly apparent at live events—not just his comedy concerts but also his appearances on awards ceremonies and talk shows.  He would walk on set, leaving behind his prepared material like an ancient warrior walking unarmed into the middle of a battlefield to face the enemy’s champion.  You could sense he was testing himself, seeing what he could make of … well, anything.  His seminal television moment, both for me and for many others, was an epic appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio.  It was supposed to be an interview, but instead of sitting down and answering a series of questions, Williams provided an exhibition in improvisational comedy—a tour de force by the world’s greatest virtuoso.  When he came on stage he was on fire—so much so that it took nearly five minutes before the host, James Lipton, could even interject his first question.

It was classic Robin Williams, transforming what was essentially nothing into magic.  In fact, he often thrived at finding people in the most bleak situations imaginable and making them laugh, whether it was visiting his tragically-injured former Julliard classmate Christopher Reeve, calling Steven Spielberg in Krakow during the most emotionally draining moments of shooting Schindler’s List, or making unannounced stops to entertain terminally ill children at St. Jude’s.

Despite Williams’s own personal struggles, his career was almost entirely defined by this notion of “giving” his comedy in service to others.  His humor was rarely ironic, jaded, or cynical.  It seemed to spring spontaneously from his fertile imagination and creativity, fearlessly open, unapologetically sincere.

That’s why I keep wanting to make a connection between his comedy and all the anger that we seem to be feeding ourselves today, where the air is toxic and we find ourselves being drawn towards pettiness and judgmental attitudes, each of us riding on our own Nietzschean “Will to Power” trip.  It feels like we could all use some more of Williams’s special alchemy—something to help crowd out all that poison.

There’s a line from The Secret Garden that says it best:  “Where you tend a rose my lad, a thistle cannot grow.”

Nobody could plant roses like Robin Williams.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for RogerEbert.com and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer


1 Comment

  1. Brent Holmes says:

    Greg, for me it was his talk show appearances. Whatever the show, I’d tune in if Robin Williams was on because he’d turn it into something else for every second he was on. Something unexpected, improvised and very funny. It was like watching Gretzky or Jordan perform with some well-intentioned second stringers.

    And Dead Poet’s Society and Good Morning Vietnam straddled humour and drama in ways I consider unmatched. Nanu, Nanu, Robin, you will be missed.

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