Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Death Of A Funnyman

Ok. Where do I begin sorting out my feelings about this?
I guess we'll begin with the facts. Two days ago, Robin Williams killed himself. What kind of world are we living in where Robin Williams, the cuddliest fucking madman there ever was, the capering court jester, the man born to play Puck (did he ever play Puck? He should've done), just can't take it anymore? Anyway.
Recently, due to my rekindled obsession with comedy, I'd gone back and watched some of Robin Williams's standup.  Listened to the brutally honest interview he did with WTF. Found myself thinking, Man, I like that guy. I'm glad there's a Robin Williams in the world. As little as three days before he died, I was thinking that thought. You ever seen his bit about the creation of golf? Holy cow. A mini-masterpiece of escalation and deconstruction.
I realised, after I heard the news, that he was one of the first standups I watched obsessively. Actually, I think he was the first. I must've been 8 or 9 years old. My parents had recorded Live At The Met off the TV and I remember us all watching it and falling around laughing, and many of the lines from it became family catchphrases. I remember making my mother laugh by pulling my lolling head up by my fringe and slurring 'Don't change the channel', aping Robin's joke about housewives on Valium, years before I knew what Valium was. I remember telling kids in my primary school his jokes about cocaine from that special, mimicking the delivery as best as I could, and every single kid laughing hysterically, until the laughter died down to sighs and hiccups and the first brave soul asked, 'What's cocaine?' So I told them, feeling the warm glow children feel when they're imparting forbidden grown-up knowledge to their peers, which was only possible because I'd done exactly the same thing they had: laughed myself stupid at the jokes, then later, tentatively asked my parents what cocaine was. I'm still not sure how he managed, or how I managed with my awful 9-year-old facsimile of his routine, to make people laugh at jokes when they have no real understanding of the premise. Isn't that like magic or something? I think for us it was about that combination of high energy and lunatic imagery,  ninjas on the golf course and all that. I haven't re-watched it. I think it might make me too sad.
So as soon as he was gone it occurred to me what a presence he was in my childhood. I watched Live At The Met countless times, I watched Good Morning, Vietnam countless times (my parents never censored the movies my brother and I watched; I remember us all sitting down as a family, me about six, my brother ten or eleven, to watch that heart-warming family favourite, ReAnimator), and like I said, his punchlines became in-jokes for the family. Then I hit adolescence, he started making movies like Patch Adams, and Robin and I drifted apart for a while. Not that I ever held any of those saccharine weepies he did against him, and the reason why is because at no point in any of those movies, no matter how treacly and manipulative they might become, with their sweeping string scores and their clunky dialogue, at no point did I feel like Robin Williams was being dishonest with me. This film may be a piece of shit, I'd think, but look at Robin's eyes; he means it.
Another one of his movies that sprang quickly to mind was One Hour Photo. Robin as tragic and increasingly unhinged loner, a photo kiosk employee who becomes obsessed with a family who develop their photos with him. Probably that comes to mind because of what's painfully clear now; that Robin Williams, seemingly, really did share that kind of fierce loneliness with his character, Sy.
I can't stop thinking about what it must have been like for him. In those last few minutes. The utter and devastating conviction that death is preferable to this. That people would be better off. Maybe because I've been there. I tried to kill myself, years ago, nearly succeeded. My mother woke up at three in the morning, went to use the bathroom, saw the kitchen light was on, found me blue on the kitchen floor after a massive overdose. Died for six minutes in the ambulance. In a coma for three days. Woke up enraged. How dare you fuckin save me? But I remember sitting in my bedroom in my mother's house, with all the boxes of pills I'd been hoarding on the bed next to me, smoking gear off foil and downing pill after pill after pill with a bottle of whisky (Jim Beam, not one of your hideous blended malts, I'm not some kind of animal; this was, after all, The Big Goodbye. Couldn't have them finding my vomit-stained corpse clutching a bottle of cheap gutrot, I'd never live it - oh.) and thinking, this is good. I am doing the right thing. Everything will be better for everyone. I won't be in any more pain, and no-one will have to put up with me anymore. And after a few more boxes of pills and some more heroin and some more whisky, and more syrup-voiced and subtle encouragement from the whispers in my head, I suddenly became flooded with contentment and a strange sort of joy that had nothing to do with the drugs. I'd said goodbye, and this was the right thing to be doing, and I'd accepted my death.
That's the last thing I remember. The next thing I remember is exploding into consciousness on a hospital bed with screaming white noise where my mind should be, being held down by doctors, nurses, my dad, and my right arm shot out and grabbed a nurse by the front of her uniform, and from my prone postion, I lifted her off her feet. I'm not a strong man; this was the circus strength of the temporarily insane.
Sometimes, now my life is so much better and I don't do drugs anymore and I don't think about suicide anymore and I've got two mindblowing and beautiful children, the thought will intrude that I did die that day, and everything since has been a Jacob's Ladder-style hallucination. How could it not be? It's so much better than that other life I had. They're like two separate lives. If the multiverse theory is correct, in countless universes I did die, and my children will never exist. And every time I think this thought, the feeling it leaves hangs around for a while, making life feel dreamlike and spiderweb fragile, and every time without fail I think, how lucky I am that I didn't manage to kill myself that time. What a fool I was.
Well, the odds were not with Robin Williams. All the little variables that have to be in place for a successful suicide were obviously present, not least his choice of method. Which is something else that perturbs me; during my attempt, I got to feel that rush of acceptance, got to black out with no pain. Robin Williams didn't get that. Due to the subpar jobs most people do of hanging themselves ( hanging, after all, used to be a considered a craft and a skill, if not exactly an art. A good hangman was much in demand), I doubt very much Robin's death was of the quick and clean variety. Nope, he probably had a good fifteen to twenty minutes to swing there and feel the life drain out of him in between spasms of agony. Long enough to think in horror Oh God I've made a mistake someone help oh God I can't breathe - picture it. Now picture how utterly desolate he must have felt, knowing this pain was coming and going ahead anyway because the emotional pain he was already constantly in was far worse. This bearlike, funny, warm, beautiful man, brought so low and isolated so much by his demons' ceaseless whispering. I'd like to think he went quickly, but like I've said, the odds were not with him that night.
I know that sense of despair and finality and grim determination, and it's breaking my heart to think of Robin Williams going through that, and all the variables being in place - no-one else in the house, check, ferocious self-hatred, check, recurrence of substance abuse issues, check, randomized and oppressive guilt, check - for his attempt to be successful. It's bothering me that he'll never get the chance to look back and say, Jesus, I was so depressed then, but how lucky am I to be here now? Which is something he no doubt thought many times in his life, after a life's peaks and troughs, but he'll never think it again, and a man who seemed to be plugged into the comedy mains, a man who could not help but entertain people, his last moments were pitch dark and painful and despairing and lonely and so fucking senseless.
I dunno. I never expected his death to affect me this much. It has, though. I've cried about it at least three times. I never cry when famous people die. I didn't cry when Zappa died when I was 14. Kurt Cobain, nada. Bill Hicks, nope. Hunter S Thompson, not a drop. But Robin Williams death has left a gap in the world that for some reason I feel keenly. All those other guys are people I loved and admired growing up, but none of them are renowned for being nice guys. Robin Williams, from all reports, was one of the most genuine, kind-hearted, generous and humble folk ever to grace a stage. You can hear it in that WTF interview; slightly shy, brutally honest, someone you could respect as a human being as well as admire for his talent, because of his basic decency. It makes it worse, somehow.
Anyway. I'm not even sure what I'm trying to say any more. It's just too fucking sad. His poor family, living with the aftermath of this. I know some people say suicide is selfish, but those people have never dealt with crippling depression. Suicide isn't selfish; suicide is unfortunate, like hitting snake-eyes on a roulette wheel. You know the percentage of suicide attempts that are successful? It ain't big. Even people who really mean to finish it all sometimes survive, even if they try hanging themselves or shooting themselves or throwing themselves off high structures. One guy survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. We're resilient fuckers, humans. So the metaphorical stars really have to be in conjuction for your suicide attempt to be successful. That's one of the reasons it's so tragic when someone kills themselves; it could so easily have gone the other way. A phone call and a kind word at the right moment, the gun misfires, the light fitting comes out of the ceiling when you kick the chair away...or in my case, your mother just so happens to need a pee and finds you dying on the kitchen floor just in time to save you. If the ambulance had been a few minutes later I'd be dead now.  But no such last-minute reprieves for Robin. Everything went according to plan.
People have been saying Didn't he know how much we'd miss him? That he could've asked pretty much anyone in the Western World for help, and they'd have helped him, because hey, he's fucking Mork! Gooooood Mooooooorniiiiiing Viiiieeeetnaaaaaaaaam! Remember that? We loved that guy!
And the answer is no. When it counted, he didn't know that stuff. He might have known it on better days, but on that day that particular information didn't exist for him. That's what depression is. It's like a version of hysterical blindness brought about by trauma, where the only thing you can't see is any reason to still be breathing.
I'll miss Robin Williams. I'm gonna watch some of his movies again, and watch all his standup again, and listen to that WTF interview again, and try and concentrate on what a gentle and funny and talented soul he was, in the hope that it'll keep me from thinking about how painful his last moments must have been. In the meantime, my daughter just woke up and she wants a bowl of Cheerios, so I'm gonna go do that for her while I think about how lucky I am that the odds were in my favour that night, and how grateful I am to be getting all these extra moments of life, even if they are a hallucination I'm having as the lights go out.