And Sometimes It’s Not Even Funny

127135aMy blog space is becoming sort of maudlin, isn’t it, with all these elegies: my beloved professor earlier this year, and my perseverations on Dave Wallace that have preceded the class I’ll begin next week on him.

Maybe something brighter can come of remembering Robin Williams, even as news of his death is still settling in. I like to think he’d prefer that.

There was an unexpected treat in the (unremarked but still pretty wonderful) 2009 Kevin Spacey vehicle Shrink. Robin, uncredited, plays “Holden,” a thinly veiled version of himself who’s a client of Spacey’s celebrity therapist. Holden crosses one of Spacey’s pro bono clients in the lobby, the hard-as-nails Jemma, played by Keke Palmer, with eyes as old as the wide wide sea. She fixes him with a hard stare, and they have an exchange I remember like this:

Jemma: Aren’t you…?

Holden: Yes.

Jemma: (after long pause) You should make better movies.

Holden: (after slightest beat) Yes, I should.

It’s one of the sublimest little moments I remember of Late Robin: a willingness to take the air out of himself, as easily as he would do the same to you.

Not that I was much of a student of him, though he was unavoidable for most of my adult life. Some of his grown-up work really affected me. His part in the bewildering Terry Gilliam fever-dream The Fisher King, for sure – and of course Good Will Hunting, where he finally grounded the manic humanities-crossed savior of Dead Poet’s Society that showed me the teacher I wanted to be for the first five years or so. (No point linking any of those movies – they are ubiquitous, part of the culture.)

He did a lot of forgettable grown-up stuff, too, to my eyes, and a lot of humor too broad to be pardoned. We found the barely-middling Man of the Year in our rented beach house this summer and suffered through a lot of it. Especially his continued willingness to do ethnic and sexual stereotypes that really can’t be countenanced in 2014, when so many others have moved past him.

He seemed game throughout that turkey of a film, though, up for anything. I was touched by the extras feature that showed him working the crowd in the debate scene between takes, performing as his own warm-up man, apparently out of nothing other than the compulsive desire to complete himself through others’ laughter that seems to lie at the heart of so many durable comics’ drive. (Plenty of amateur psychiatric ink will be spilled on this point in the coming days, to be sure, so I’ll spare you any more.)

I can’t see him as a grown-up, though. I have to be the fan I was of him first. That is, he was – apart from Donny and Marie, obviously – probably the first famous person I was a true, fall-over fan of. And by “him,” of course I mean Mork.

Mork who I met when I was nine, the alien who talked like another nine year-old. So fast, so silly, apparently so tuned to nothing other than the rattling possibilities in his head and the response he was getting from the people around him of laughter but also shock, surprise, disbelief. I didn’t think you could do that on TV. I didn’t think anyone else talked like that except my friends and me in the back of the car coming home from church, revving through jokes and Muppet Show skits and – now – Mork and Mindy sketches, best as we could remember them pre-VHS, pre-anything. Mork gave us permission to be silly, over-the-top-hurts-to-laugh-anymore silly. And we were, to the dismay of all grown-ups who witnessed us. Way beyond what grown-ups could countenance as silly enough, loud enough, for long enough. Me and Brendan and Tim and Ian, terrorizing the world with our mouths and hands and our faces and our staggering capacity for uncut, industrial-strength silliness.

He blew my nine year-old mind. I had rainbow suspenders, just like him – even had the courage to wear them to school, once. My kids received a box set of the first season of M&M a few years ago, and it’s been in heavy rotation with them ever since. The show itself hasn’t worn well; the reliable 70s sitcom rhythms were pretty hard to slip, and are almost unwatchable post-Seinfeld and everything else. But there he is, doing the same thing he just did, and did, and did. The cast stands agape for many of his ad-libs. They must have become tiresome. Compulsively funny people are sometimes. Tiresome. Like nine year-olds.

I tried to find a clip of Robin and Jonathan Winters to post, but couldn’t find any that were consistently funny. Which seems to be, perhaps, one of Robin’s legacies: that comedy isn’t pretty, and sometimes it isn’t even funny. But there is much to be said for continuing to throw the spaghetti against the wall until something sticks, isn’t there. “You should make better movies.” True…and, sometimes, he did.

In lieu of that absent clip, I’ll link to Hyperbole and a Half’s perfect, agonizing take on depression, drawn by one who knows. May we finally get it through our collective heads that depression isn’t a character flaw, but a vicious, merciless disease that grinds down so many of the finest and fairest among us. May our culture learn at last to treat mental illness, its victims, and its survivors with respect and research and compassionate policy, and insurance to match. (Addiction too. That’s another post.)

So, what’s this all offer readers of an education blog? Maybe something about the power of connection to youth: a celebration of the call to openness and risk-taking that youth trades in and that adulthood, well, tries to stamp out too frequently (at least in school). Maybe gratitude for the invitation Robin left us to take risks, to be not funny sometimes in the name of doing what we have to in order to be there for when the funny shows up.

And when it showed up for him, it was dazzling. Thanks, Robin.

Image from TicketMaster.

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