When a 60 Minutes reporter asked Robin Williams what he had learned from the nearly incomparable improv comedian, his hero Jonathan Winters, Williams replied, “Jonathan has taught me that the world is open for play—that everybody and everything is mockable… in a wonderful way.”
I write “nearly incomparable” above because it’s easy to compare the two late comedy geniuses both for their lightning quick wit as well as for the psychiatric issues both encountered. Winters was once confined to a sanatorium after suffering a nervous breakdown; while drunk and naked, he had climbed to the mast of a ship moored in San Francisco harbor to bellow out in the voice of one of his characters. Williams, also a relentless comic mimic who struggled with bipolar disorder, and who on and off revved up on another dangerous drug (cocaine), succumbed recently to an episode of depression possibly augmented by early stage Parkinson’s disease.
What we make of these two at a distance probably says more about us and our cultural style than it does about them. And so it makes sense to observe the lessons that commentators extract from their lives. Chiefly, I’ve noted that so ingrained is the stereotype of the comic who is “laughing on the outside and crying on the inside” that Williams’ suicide seemed not much of a surprise. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tweeted in this vein while recalling one of his great performances, “Genie, you’re free!” Were they talking about a drug habit and depression? Or did they really mean to be telling us that he was free from the creativity and exuberance that must have driven him to suicide?
And thus the popular narrative tends to diminish these performers, relegating their comic achievements to symptoms instead of celebrating the imagination that sustained them. Underestimating the sustaining effects, too, that came from fan approbation. According to one commentator, a psychologist, Williams’ death is “a tragic reminder that … humor—especially humor—can be used as a mask that shields both the wearer and those around him, from the pain underneath.” A drama-therapist wrote, “in his most manic performances, I felt that I saw the man. And I didn’t want to watch.” The CEO of a treatment facility in California wrote, “the thing is, depression and brilliance and addiction can so often be part of the same package.” And summing up this line of thinking, a clinical professor of psychology wrote, “energy and creativity come with a terrible price.”
I hope, though, that despite the drumbeat of inevitability, we remember these two best when they were most alive, when they, deeply at play, would swarm happily over a comedic moment.
Carrie Fisher, the actor and Williams’ friend, said that a “rampant empathy” enabled his many impersonations. Another friend, neuropsychologist Oliver Sacks, said that Williams’ genius stemmed from a kind of “voluntary Tourettes.” (Consider his high-spirited performance in the animated film, Aladdin, where he voiced the Genie mentioned above, a character who could magically make anything happen.) Winters, also a feverishly funny impersonator, could channel Princess Leilani-nani (the world’s oldest hula dancer), or the football coach for the State Teachers’ Animal Husbandry Institute, or a grumpy furniture mover, or Maude Frickert (the stingingly sweet old lady from Ohio).
Jack Paar, the original TV talk show host, would pass an ordinary stick to Winters and in the comedian’s hands it would in rapid succession become a fishing pole that hooks the fisherman’s wife, a golf club that invites the hushed announcer’s narration of a perfect shot, or a giant “feeler” that a clueless bumpkin and believer in UFO’s figures is evidence of the invasion of “one of them beetles.” For the delighted audience, accustomed to enduring the long-practiced jokes of professional television funnymen, Winters was the extraterrestrial. Paar said of Winters, “if he’s ever accused of anything he’s got the perfect alibi—he was somebody else at the time.”
In a recent exchange with the psychotherapist, author, librettist, artist, and fractal geometer Terry Marks-Tarlow, (who has thought deeply about play, creativity, and sanity) I raised the issue of this narrative string, the tendency to reduce comedy to symptomatology rather than enrichment. She observed that comedy is “always play at its deepest structure,” and she acknowledged that as such it can function as a mask, a retreat from reality. But Marks-Tarlow points out that it’s important to note that the opposite may also be true. In the ordinary way and when set free, the play of childhood usually becomes the expression of the secure self, a portal into reality and a measure of psychic integration in a successful adulthood.
Few of us will ever be as sharp-witted as either of these comedians. Still, if we find that the world and its characters are mockable but wonderfully so, as Williams put it, we’ve redeemed one of the chief dividends of play, the talent of rolling with life’s punches.