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Did we kill Robin Williams?

Posted by on August 16, 2014 – 4:00 pm

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A world without Robin Williams is one with a little less laughter. I’m sure I’m not the first, nor will I be the last, to type a sentence like that this week, but I do so to frame the following question: Did we kill Robin Williams?

I understand that question is provocative, and perhaps even perverse, but I pose it to explore my own fascination with celebrity, alongside our culture’s obsession with the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

As memorials and retrospectives have been posted online, I’ve discovered two clips capturing facets of Robin Williams that I never knew. The first was Marc Maron’s 2010 WTF podcast interview, where Williams discusses some of the issues from his early days of comedy that may have foreshadowed his recent passing. The other was a video clip on the blog Robot 6, where Williams shares his love of comic books, including the then released DMZ by Brian Wood. Both clips are relatively even-keeled, especially in contrast to Williams’ more verbose on-stage persona, yet Williams can’t help but embellish even the most somber moments with brief interludes of improv.

Normally, I would assume this was just the man himself, a personality prone to frivolity, but a comment in the WTF podcast has made me wonder otherwise. To paraphrase, Williams says that despite the depth of his various roles, he would still get an occasional “Hey, Mork!” in the street. That Robin Williams was first introduced to pop culture as an alien is ironic all by itself, but did we, the general gawking public, perpetuate that alienation by demanding that the man always be “on?”

Some might think that’s our right, that the actors wealthy from our outings to the movies lay eternally exposed as a result of their fame. Some would say it’s the price they pay, and online empires have been built on that sense of entitlement. I’m actually not going to argue that point, but I would like to push it to its natural conclusion, which isn’t as often explored: when we demand our celebrities always be “on,” how much more “off” are they in those rare, most private moments?

In other words, since Robin Williams was always an intense performer for the cameras, even when the subject didn’t need it, his most private moments must’ve been just as intense, if not more so due to how rare they were. For some of you that have read of Williams’ struggles with addiction and depression, that might be a “no duh” statement, but I’m just now realized the depth of the spectrum on either end. And I feel a little responsible.

That sense of responsibility comes from the fallout of Williams’ passing. Even though his family asked for privacy, the news defies their request, from offering aerial views of their home to releasing the gruesome details of the actor’s final moments. When I saw a headline yesterday about the gorilla Koko grieving for her departed friend, it finally occurred to me why these strange post mortem headlines exist. When we lose an entertainer like Robin Williams, pop culture instantly reacts by trying to fill the void with, well, more entertainment, which is perverted by our sense of mourning and loss. It’s a shallow attempt to keep the viewing public occupied with story, just as Williams’ career did, e.g. “just as he would’ve wanted.” It’s a stage of communal mourning that echoes from our very zeitgeist, with all the misdirected intentions mourning usually brings.

While I know my initial inquiry was provocative, I hope my exploration of its answer was a bit less so. Did we kill Robin Williams? Ultimately, every man is responsible for his own actions, even if they’re reactions to an unforgiving world. He did his best to react in the high spirits we demanded, even when he didn’t have to. So, now, a world without Robin Williams isn’t just one with a little less laughter; it’s one with a little less direction for the laughter we have left.

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