Robin Williams once likened his work to the daily jogs he took across the Golden Gate Bridge. There were times he would look over the edge, one side of him pulling back in fear, the other insisting he could fly.
When it was announced that Robin Williams took his own life on Monday, August 11, many stopped breathing just for a moment, hoping they had misheard. Tragically, they hadn’t.
Robin Williams had the magic of genius. And he had the chutzpah to use it. Sound familiar?
We’ve lost too many people, celebrities and non-celebrities alike, to depression, bi-polar or other disorders, along with the killer habits that “ease the pain” for a moment, then demand payback with a vengeance.
We mourn, we think “such a shame” or “so young” or “why didn’t they get help” or if they did, “why didn’t it work?”
With Robin Williams, many of us are asking the same thing.
In 1997 Williams was named funniest man alive by Entertainment Weekly. Perhaps more than any other performer, he resonated with each of us. He projected a humanity of spirit we loved, sought, and yes, personalized. The manic, unbridled little boy who was bullied as a chubby child, the wacky naïf, the hilarious stand-up, the serious actor, the risk taker – like Andy Kaufman without the outward anger – whose hero was another original, Jonathan Winters, saw doughnut holes instead of the doughnut and climbed through, unabashed. And with an aura of sadness amid the zany. It was fitting that in 1992, Johnny Carson chose Robin Williams and Bette Midler as his final guests.
Robin Williams had the magic of genius. And he had the chutzpah to use it. Sound familiar?
We Jews and Robin Williams
While he certainly portrayed Gentiles in the seminal Mork & Mindy, and films such as Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets' Society, The Fisher King, Mrs. Doubtfire, and finally took the Oscar in 1998 for Good Will Hunting probably more than any other icon, the Episcopalian from Chicago was often taken for being Jewish. He himself, seemed to delight in describing himself as an “honorary Jew.”
Yes, he used Yiddish words, and did Yiddish shtick, including transforming into an elderly Jewish lady or a New York Rabbi. As early as Mork & Mindy, he futzed with Yiddishkeit, saying to Mindy (Pam Dawber), "He stole your necklace, he stole your ribs; he’s obviously not kosher"
He also played Jewish roles like a virtuoso which included, for example: 1999’s Jakob the Liar, Tommy Wilhelm, in the film adaptation of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (1986), the hilariously restrained Armand Goldman in 1996's The Birdcage and an hysterical scene in Mrs. Doubtfire where Harvey Fierstein, trying to turn Robin’s character into an elderly woman made him look more like an old Jewish man mit a cup of tea. The two broke into the chorus of “Matchmaker” from Fiddler on the Roof. Just last February, on the set of his TV show The Crazy Ones, he tweeted a picture of himself wearing a yarmulke and saying "Too late for a career change? Rabbi Robin?"
While other non-landsmen have played Jewish roles Robin took on Yiddishkeit so seamlessly. He almost melded with Jews. There may have been deeper connections and similarities that bound Williams to us, and we, to him.
1. Difference and Passionate individualism, whether in laughter or tears.
Robin was the odd man-child out. No one thought, moved, or sounded like this wild, short, barrel-chested electric eccentric, who, like his hero Jonathan Winters may have had a sense of not quite fitting into a world where he thought crossing “I’s” and dotting “t’s” were a far more fascinating twist on life. Gentle, but impish and elfish, he evoked aspects of a humble Bart Simpson. Yes, Robin was a kind Tasmanian devil.
We Jews, throughout history have wandered throughout the world, looking, feeling, and being treated differently. Coming from exclusion we derived traditions and humor that is rich, complex, vibrant, quixotic, neurotic, contradictory, open-minded, and hysterical. Like Williams, we often laugh when it hurts, sob when we’re happy, and make jokes … when we’re running, from others or ourselves. And like Williams, we are antiauthoritarian, and often irreverent, defiant and unpredictable. Whether it involves creative reasoning, a special brand of savvy, sarcasm – or endurance – we have a unique perspective on just about everything – especially the joys and the oys which are inexorably tied.
In Good Morning, Vietnam, Williams plays an irreverent DJ, Adrian Cronauer who shakes things up on the US Armed Services Radio station in Vietnam. He and the censor have just had it out – again. The radio dialogue was improvisational:
Adrian Cronauer: [in control room] Good Morning, Vietnam! In Saigon today, according to official sources, nothing actually happened. One thing that didn't officially happen was a bomb didn't officially explode at 1430 hours, unofficially destroying Jimmy Wah's cafe. Three men were unofficially wounded, the fire department responded, which we believe to be unofficial at this present moment...
2. A Love of Wordplay
Whether Robin was growling from some deep source inside his soul, shouting like a kidnapped man who’d just had the mouth tape removed, fast and manic with the ability to imitate and mimic all manner of men, women, children, animals, real or imagined, he loved words. He loved playing with them: real ones, made-up ones (Na-nu, Na-nu), hyphenated non-words, strings of disjointed words. His verbal acuity and ear was a singular gift. Williams relied on the zany portrayal rather than the punchline.
We Jews are nothing if not in deep emotional love with language. In times of sadness, humor, anger or angry humor, we “express!” Our subjects are everything and the world is our anecdote. We can make a routine from the weather, the President, or the nudnik next door. Who knows – perhaps Robin had a Jewish ancestor who futzed with the word “yutz”.
3. Torment, Mood, Anxiety
Robin was open about his mental and emotional demons. Plagued with depressive disorders and substance abuse, while his genius wasn’t compromised, his life was. He was different. As a youngster he was bullied for being chubby, and would remain lonely, avoiding this tormentors, and trying out different voices to occupy himself. Eventually, he used laughter to gain respect from peers, yet in high school he was voted “least likely to succeed.” Said Williams in 1989: “You look at the world and see how scary it can be sometimes. Comedy can deal with the fear and … you can laugh and expunge the demon. That’s what I do when I do my act. You have an internal drive that says, ‘OK, you can do more.’ Maybe that’s what keeps you going.” Anecdotally, many comics and comedy writers will tell you "When the gods gift you with the kind of talent Robin had, there's a price to pay," said Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame. "It comes from deep problems inside. A concern, all sorts of fears. I think that comes with the territory."
We Jews stereotypically are the poster children for anxiety, fear, worry, depression. If something can go wrong – anywhere – it can happen here, or to us. Certainly in America, our grandparents and parents were Professors of Pain. Are Jews and/or are the “creative” more depressed than others? The literature is contradictory with professors babbling among themselves sticking computer info into mechanical devices to uncover what is still largely a mystery at this, still the dawning of civilization. Yet our history, an eye blink in time, filled with inexplicable torture and humanity has provided substantive reasons.
Those interested in humor almost without exception feel it’s been our salvation. Our skepticism and kvetching about life and ourselves through jokes can be deprecating, self-deprecating, critical, or self-critical. It’s been suggested that as outsiders, better to give ourselves a zetz (punch) first. By jumping in, not only do we defuse pain, but come out with the edge. Our ability to use our comedic gifts as a testimony to our background, our will, and our strength. And, particularly during the Golden Age of Comedy, Jewish comics and writers set much of the groundwork for humor to come, we, too have had our share of struggling geniuses on a high with the sound of laughter, and in the depths when their fortunes, audiences, or mood changed. Many who have opened up about their struggles include: Woody Allen, Irving Berlin, Lenny Bruce, Rodney Dangerfield, Larry David, Richard Dreyfuss, Sheckey Greene, Golde Hawn, Danny Kaye, Larry King, Oscar Levant, Richard Lewis, Joan Rivers, Roseanne, Neil Simon, Sarah Silverman, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, Amy Winehouse, and Sid Caesar to name a few.
Allow me to conclude with a quote from Robin Williams in the film Jack:
“Please, don't worry so much. Because in the end, none of us have very long on this Earth. Life is fleeting. And if you're ever distressed, cast your eyes to the summer sky when the stars are strung across the velvety night. And when a shooting star streaks through the blackness, turning night into day, make a wish and think of me. Make your life spectacular
People of all stripes, professions, and ethnicities struggle with these illnesses and abuse problems. I’ve noted that Robin Williams’ suicide has frightened many people, especially those who are depressed. Please don’t wait or suffer silently: If you are struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, please seek help.
You can call: Relief, a mental health referral agency (718) 431-9501. Suicide Hotline (718) 389-9608
Or Ohel Family: 800-603-OHEL