When Robin Williams died on August 11, 2014 he took a little bit of us with him. All of us. I’ve never seen this many people so upset about a star. I’ve never been this upset about a star. Just when I think the time for mourning has passed another memory or clip catches my attention and the tears reappear.
When I was a child I remember watching people cry on the anniversary/birthday of Elvis, JFK, Martin Luther King, John Lennon and to be honest I thought they were foolish. They didn’t even know that person! How can you feel that connected to someone you’ve never met? Don’t get me wrong, I respect these individuals immensely. It saddens me that they’re no longer with us. I also miss Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain, Farley and Belushi. I miss their ideals, talents and guidance. Especially Belushi. I LOVED John Belushi. But like I said, I was a child. I was only 11. I wasn’t mature enough to connect with him yet. If he would have passed when I was in my 20’s I probably would have felt differently.
I also remember being VERY sad and crying for a couple of days when Richard Pryor, another huge influence, died on Dec 10, 2005. Accelerated by the fact that I was performing at a comedy club in his hometown of Peoria,IL when it happened. At the risk of sounding morbid, I felt blessed to be working there when he passed. I carry that as a badge of honor which shows you how everyone disgustingly personalizes tragedy.
Other touching moments include the passing of George Carlin and Rodney Dangerfield. I loved them. I respected them. I always wanted to meet and work with them.
Robin’s death is lingering with me. I can’t shake it. This isn’t a ME thing either. I’m not the only person having a hard time letting go of him. It seems a big part of the planet is having the same problem.
I know a big part of it has to do with him being a fellow comedian. We lost another one of our own. Some would say our Captain. Even if he isn’t yours it’s a fact that all comics, male and female, have an unspoken kinship. Every night we bare our souls to strangers. It’s an addiction. We need it and it connects us. Any comic can walk into a bar full of people and immediately spot another comic. (It’s usually the quiet person sitting by their self.) Nothing is better than sharing horrible road stories with another comic. It let’s us know we’re not alone.
I also know it’s because he showed us his sensitive side. Much like Pryor, he opened up his world and put it on stage. Not to the extent of Pryor but you couldn’t help but feel like he was part of your family. “Hurry up Dale! Robin’s on!” I’ve heard that sentence a thousand times.
Maybe, like most people of my generation - I can’t remember a time without Robin. I recently found out that he influenced me before I even knew what that word meant. In the early 70’s he was on a tv show called “Laugh-In”, wearing a fireman’s hat and he said “I’m so happy I could lay a log.” I marched into the kitchen and repeated that to my mother when she asked me how i was doing and was confused by the look of shock on her face. I had no idea what I had said, I just knew it (and the strange man who said it) was funny. Twenty years later I ran across an infomercial for “Laugh-In” and watched Robin deliver that line. It all came rushing back to me. This person had been with me from the age of 4-5. I thought my first memory of him was “Mork & Mindy”.
I know this sounds ridiculous but consider the source -
As a child I was constantly picked on at school. Relentlessly. Even Kindergarten. I lived everyday in fear. “Is that person going to hit me or just make fun of me?” “Please don’t throw me down today. Just flick my big ears, laugh and move on.” “Why can’t I be bigger?” “Why doesn’t anyone like me?” “What’s wrong with me?”
My father worked second shift which basically means when I was awake he was asleep. My mother was the caretaker of the family and when I was 6 she moved us in with her parents so she could take care of her mother who was bedridden and dying of cancer. I can’t imagine how hard that was for my mom. Her mother had no clue who she was. Every day she would tell her she was a nice lady for helping her. For years, I don’t remember anyone laughing. Just overwhelming sadness.
My grandpa did his best to keep me occupied. He probably did it for his own sanity too. He was my best friend. My only friend. When grandma died in 1977, he should have climbed in the casket with her because I watched the flicker dim in his eyes. I was only 7 yrs old but I understood what was happening. We would be playing in the yard and all of sudden he would sit down and stare at something I couldn’t see. It was like a coma. I knew he was thinking about grandma and I remember holding his hand and waiting patiently until he came back to life. Not long after that he remarried, out of sheer loneliness. His new bride’s hobbies included emptying his bank account and a flair for all things dramatic which of course made his life a living hell. Less than a year after his 2nd marriage, he died of a heart attack. That’s what the doctor said. I was only 9 but I knew better. He died of a broken heart. My heart broke that day too.
At the funeral I refused to sit down. I didn’t make a scene, I just stood by his casket and stared at him. Wondering if his eyes would open. People would come by and talk to him and then look at me with tears in their eyes. I never cried. I just waited. Hoping for a miracle. Finally my mother gently made me take my seat so the preacher could start the eulogy. She has told me several times over the years that watching me stand there next to grandpa’s casket was the saddest thing she’d ever seen. I can only imagine. I was too deep in the rabbit hole to understand.
After that I was completely lost. No friends. I tried several times to play with the kids down the street but they were so mean it always ended in torment. I was an easy target and they reveled in it. All I had was the television and my imagination. And the latter went wild. For hours I would sit and play. Creating my own scenarios with Hot Wheels and Star Wars action figures. Voices and characters swirling in my head. When the arguing in the house got too unbearable I would go outside and climb my favorite tree until no one could see me. And the imagination would start flowing again. My mind became my new best friend taking me away from all the hurt to my own private resort where everyday the “soup of the day” was funny. No pain just laughter.
This is the exact moment in my life when everything became a joke. I had hurt enough. I didn’t like it and didn’t see the point. Why be sad? It’s not necessary and it doesn’t solve anything. Everyone should be happy.
It’s important to know that I was not a smart ass or a trouble maker in school. My goal was to be liked. No, LOVED. Which is why I got away with as much as I did, because I always took it right to the line and then backed off. Also, I never picked on anyone. I was always the butt of the joke. If I’m picking on me then YOU CAN”T. I’m in control.
So no wonder I attached myself to a crazy alien on TV. He was funny, weird, lovable and childlike. An outsider. He was everything thing I was and everything I wanted at the same time.
I think the real reason everyone is having a hard time with Robin’s death is because it was a suicide. We feel as if something evil has taken him. No warning. BAM! Gone.
A man who brought 40 plus years of joy to so many lives was hurting and none of us knew it. I feel selfish. I feel as if I took from him and never gave back.
But the comedian in me knows that isn’t true. All I ever want from an audience is laughter. I don’t need them to take care of me. The laughter does that. I just want them to laugh until it hurts, say “Thank You” and then go on their merry way. That’s not completely true either. I don’t expect anyone to say “Thank You”. As long as you’re happy I have achieved my fix.
However everyone is different. Some comics never want the show to end. Because that’s when the loneliness sets in. The mind is amazing but it can also be your worst enemy. I’ve always thought the biggest toughest prison in the world is your brain. You have to learn to control it. Not the other way around. No matter what your circumstances are, you can always decide if you want to laugh about it or cry.
Knowing what I know now, I’m not looking forward to the passing of Steve Martin, Bobcat Goldthwait or Howie Mandel. And when Bill Murray goes to the other side it’s going to rip me in two. I just hope they go peacefully. A comedian’s soul is tortured enough. No more suicides. Please.
So here’s the awful truth. My generation’s heroes are dying. It’s a fact of life. No one lives forever. But I’ve realized you don’t have to be a “star” to be a hero. We are all capable. So here’s the big question - Who will you influence? Who’s day will you change for the better? It doesn’t matter if you know them or not. You want to change the world? Be someone’s hero.