When I heard the news that the great Robin Williams was dead, I was shocked. I could not believe it.
Growing up, I loved watching stand-up comedy. I was way too young, but most evenings I would stay up till midnight watching A&E's Evening at the Improv and soak in the art of telling jokes. And I always looked forward to HBO's comedy specials. I videotaped their standup marathon fundraiser Comic Relief year after year. There were some comedians who were funnier than others.
But Robin Williams was something special.
His Evening at the Met is one of the funniest shows I have ever heard. I still laugh every time I listen to it. I can't tell you the accumulated hours of laughter I experience because of Robin Williams. And that is his legacy to me.
There are a lot of tragedies in this world. Christians are being killed in Iraq today for their faith. Hundreds of poor souls have succumb to the ebola virus. Many of our neighbors are probably right now suffering through their personal heartache. But the death of Robin Williams makes me particularly sad.
St. Augustine once pondered how he could be moved to tears by actors with fake problems in the theater, but not sum up that same compassion towards the real suffering of his fellow man. While Robin Williams' tragedy is real, it is, for most of us, distant. I have never met him and I don't think I know anyone who has. And yet I feel as though I have lost someone I knew.
This isn't uncommon. But I think with him it is different than when celebrities like Princess Diana, Heath Ledger, or Kurt Cobain die. It wasn't just that he was a good guy, which he was. He had his faults and his struggles to be sure. But you can read about a lot of the good he did off stage here. Yet it wasn't just for this that his death feels different. And I think that difference has to do with the laughter.
Robin Williams made us laugh. And from what I've read, that was the one thing that was constant throughout his entire life. He never stopped trying to make people laugh.
Laughter is one of those special human pleasures. It is a simultaneous pleasure of the mind and body. Your thoughts go giddy and your body gives itself over to it. It is also, somehow, always a kind of surprise. It feels like a sudden burst of sweet rain that we cannot make fall or make stop. For that reason, laughter truly is a gift.
We gravitate towards people who can make us laugh. I never laugh so well as when in the company of old friends with private jokes. And so I always seek that company. Robin Williams always made me laugh so I always sought his company.
Robin Williams making us laugh was different than other people doing so. Actors in movies and TV tend to be simply reading lines and playing parts. Stand up comics also are playing parts and are reading lines rehearsed over and over. I'm not saying Robin Williams didn't do that too. But it wasn't the same.
His act was full of odd vulgarity, but it never seemed pointed or mean. Even when he took on his political punching bags, it was always done with such goofball enthusiasm that you couldn't resist. I remember him saying, "Ronald Reagan was like Disney's last wish! Right before he died he was like 'Make a President!'"
I remember he did a bit on the idea of God getting stoned. "Have you ever seen a platypus? I really think He might [get stoned]. Imagine God saying 'Okay, let's take beaver… and put on a duck's bill! Hey, I'm God, whattaya gonna do? And let's see… it's a mammal… but it lays eggs. Hey, Darwin!' [gives the middle finger]"
But even through all the salty language it didn't feel cynical or angry. There was always a mischief in his eyes like a little boy who says the f-word for the first time and can see that it makes the adults laugh because of its inappropriateness.
If you've ever watched his standup, there was something different about it. Rick O. pointed out to me that Robin Williams always put his heart in his performances so you always felt like you were seeing the real him. That is especially true of his stand up.
When Robin got on stage he engaged the audience in a way I've never seen. It wasn't just that he would sometimes go into the crowd, but it was that he made you feel special. It was as if you weren't there to see him. It was as if he was there to see you. And he wanted nothing more than to make you laugh.
Watching him with his wild energy, jokes, improv, and every other talent was amazing. On stage, Robin Williams wasn't performing.
He was playing.
And he wanted you to come and enter his sandbox and play with him and get lost in the mirth that made you forget about the world. Robin Williams shared not just his jokes or his talent, but himself when he performed. From everything I've read, that man we saw on stage was not a character or a persona. It was a person. It was Robin Williams inviting us to play.
But now recess has ended. Play time is over.
He will be providing no more new laughs for me. I will have to go back to the ocean of laughs he has already given and swim in those pleasant waters. Robin Williams has given me the gift of laughter and done it more than most artists I have ever seen.
So in return, I will give him the only gift I can give him now: my prayers.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and all the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.