Monday, August 11, 2014

Robin Williams, 1951 - 2014

I remember the first time I heard “Reality...What a Concept.” I’m not sure how I got my hands on it, but I know I was not quite 9 yet because I hadn’t seen “Aladdin.” Obviously it was not age appropriate, and I knew it at the time. I remember listening to the cassette in my bedroom with the door shut. About 60% of the content went way over my head, but that which didn’t left me laughing, hard. It was my first experience with stand up comedy that I really liked. I remember looking at the cassette and thinking 2 things: 1) This was Robin Williams, that guy from that Nick-at-Nite show, “Mork and Mindy,” and 2) I wanted to hear more stuff like his stand up and less “Nah-Nu, Nah-Nu.”

Like every kid my age in America, I saw “Aladdin,” “Fern Gully,” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.” I begged my parents to let me see “Toys” and “Dead Poets Society,” but I wasn’t allowed. See, I was just a kid. A kid who knew great jokes about Village of the Damned People.

I remember when I saw “Hook” for the first time, and I was one of the Lost Boys. “You’re playing with us, Peter!” He portrayed a man who, as it turned out, never really grew up. Not really. And it seemed even then that maybe Steven Spielberg might have been typecasting. Because I don’t think for a minute Robin ever grew up, and maybe that was why it hurt so much to be him at times.

When I was 13 I used Napster to download “A Night at the Met.” It was one of the first things I ever downloaded. I still have the CD I burned it onto. And being older, I started to get a lot of the jokes and references, even though several of them were, again, above age appropriateness. But I was hooked. It was intelligent humor, a display of a genius at play, and the funniest thing I had ever heard in my young life.

See, for me, Robin Williams was more than an actor or a comedian. He was the man who introduced me to my sense of humor, my particular preference for smart comedy that went beyond the juvenile humor of my peers. He was topical and playful; smart, yet not above a crude joke. A master of characters and play, he seized upon every opportunity to adlib and improv, exploited irony, and used history and facts to delight and make you think at the same time. His humor made me feel validated and less alone because even though I didn’t laugh at the same things as my peers, here was a guy who represented that which I found hilarious. He made me laugh in times when I was so very much alone and sad as a kid. He taught he how to make jokes that elicited laughter from adults and eventually kids my age, and it was through humor that I learned how to fit in and deflect the worst parts of being a kid and teenager.

As I got older I saw many of the movies he was in and loved them. I’m nowhere near having watched everything he’s ever been in, but I guess I need to apply myself more. I won’t go through the full list, but there are so many bright spots and very few ‘wrongs’ in his career, as far as I’m concerned. Except for “Death to Smoochy.” *shudders*

His HBO specials, “Live on Broadway” and “Weapons of Self-Destruction” were nothing short of brilliant, and I frequently reference and quote both in everyday conversation. I had the privilege of seeing him live TWICE: Once in Richmond,  while he was on a stand up tour, and once on Broadway in the production of “Bengal Tiger at Baghdad Zoo.” It was after the latter that I met him.

They say don’t meet your heroes, and I’m betting there’s some truth to that, but thankfully not on this occasion. The crowd around the railing was pretty thick after the show, but I had somehow managed a spot at the front. Everyone was taking pictures with him and getting his autograph. I got my program autographed as well. As he was signing it, I stammered, “I am such a huge fan. You taught me about comedy when I was only 8. I think you’re brilliant. Thank you for all you do!” He murmured a ‘thanks,’ and then posed for a picture with me. He was really tired and there were a lot of people around. The only problem was the woman who took the photo didn’t understand camera phones and got a shot of my elbow. She asked if I wanted to try again, and I said, trying to keep the note of sadness out of my voice, “I don’t want to take up anymore of Mr. Williams’ time. Thanks though.” He immediately turned back to me and asked, “Would you like to try again?” I beamed, “Yes sir, please!” And he did! He gave me a smile and shook my hand, giving my hand an extra squeeze. I remember walking back through Times Square like I was on a cloud. I couldn’t wait to call my parents and friends and tell them I met Robin Williams, my hero and favorite comedian.

There’s a movie that sometimes gets poorly reviewed and regarded, but I love it. However in light of today’s events, it’s gone from one of my favorites to possibly the most tragic: “What Dreams May Come,” a film in which his character, who has died and gone to Heaven rescues his wife from Purgatory after she commits suicide, out of grief.

Robin Williams left the world this morning, most likely at his own hands. He left behind three children, a wife, numerous fans, and unfinished, brilliant work. I won’t speculate on the hows or the whys, but we can all surmise that he had to be in a very dark place to do such a thing.

I have been crying off and on since I heard the news this evening. To those who think I might be overreacting, boo-hooing over some celebrity, I say this: Robin Williams was more than a genie, a nanny, a cabaret club owner, a doctor, a bat, or an alien. He was, to my mind, my professor of humor and comedy, my hero and inspiration, and a man who taught me how to be me, starting at age 8.

I hope that he’s found peace, and a great reward for all the joy he brought to so many of us. I believe that the pain and pressures of life are gone and that he can finally let go. And I hope that when I reach the same place--wherever that might be--there’s a stage-side seat for me. Because God knows even he’ll be able to work up some amazing material about the afterlife.
You’ll be missed, Robin. Thank you for everything.


  1. Lovely....and so perfect an homage. Thank you, Jessica.

  2. Great tribute. I wish he had found some other way to relieve his pain. We need souls like this in our lives more than we need them in our memories.

  3. So beautiful, BabyBear! I have read a lot of tributes and yours is one of the best. His life taught us so many things. His death taught us that we need to hang on no matter what - because if we don't we devastate the ones we leave behind. We can never really know how much we mean to others or how profoundly we affect their lives. Thank you!