24 hours on in a Robin-Williams-less world. Misunderstandings, sharings, tributes and mistimed jokes.
As for many, much of my breaking news comes from the Twittersphere. I probably read an online tribute before I even saw a news story about the death of comedian and actor Robin Williams. Though I knew of his struggle with drugs, alcohol and depression, I hadn’t realised the toll it had taken on him and that suicide was now the only antedote to his pain.
Suicide. This was the element of the story that lingered. Robin Williams, a man who brought so much laughter was, himself in so much misery.
I sat quietly in bed reading the tributes, obituaries and articles that social media was already awash with. It was overwhelming to see how loved, all over the world, this comic genius was.
Later that morning, I heard my mum stir (I’m staying with her while back in the UK). She follows the news keenly so I knew she’d want to know this latest information.
“Mum, Robin Williams has died” I called out. “Oh no. So sad” she said, a genuine melancholy in her voice. I said “Yeah, suicide. He was so young too. Only 63”. A moment of silence then “63? I thought he was 40 something” she continued “Well, how is old Gary Barlow?”. I sat bolt up right in bed “Robin Williams the actor, mum not Robbie Williams”. “Oh!” She said. “It’s still sad”.
I smiled at her innocent mistake and thought that Mr Williams would have approved at the humour of this silly misunderstanding. Sometimes, laughter is the only way to contend with tragedy. It washes away the maudlin fog that can take perminant residency if we let it.
At a funeral of my dear friend, Gail I found myself in hysterical fits of laughter in the car on the way home because one of the ladies reading a dedication had said of Gail's generous gardening prowess “She would come to my house and help me trim my bush and I would help her trim hers”.
Gail had a particularly Carry On-esque sense of humour and would have laughted along too had she heard this unfortunate choice of words. The hysteria was probably an apt counterbalance to the deep sorrow we’d all experienced earlier that day.
Humour around death must be dealt with sensitively but, correctly used, can be appropriate and sometimes even cathartic. Unfortuntely not everyone gets it right as one comedian discovered this week. A joke about the death of someone so widely admired and loved was never going to get a warm reception and whilst I defend every comedian’s right to make a joke about any topic, equally, said comics have to take any resultant backlash on the chin. Personally, I learned an important lesson from the on-line interactions and justifications around the joke in question. When it comes to news events, particulartly those that illicit high emotion, unless you can say something intelligent, profoundly funny or helpful, it’s best just to keep quiet. Not everyone feels they must adopt this policy but as someone who has probably rather thoughtlessly waded in with “too soon” jokes on social media, this latest incident made me realise that making this brand of humour is not how I want to represent myself in the world. As a great teacher pointed out to me recently, our social media posts are an extention of our voice. Are poor taste quips about the recently deceased, what you really want to say? Personally if I have 140 characters to say something about Robin Williams, I'd rather it was kind than tasteless.
Finding powerful, hilarious, moving, thought-provoking or downright zany clips of Robin Williams’ work from his almost 40 year career is not hard. There’s rich pickings and many of them were shared online.
I shared a couple. I didn’t want to flood my timeline with it but there was so much great footage and photos that it was hard not to. Another reminder of the power and reach of this great man's work.
As I hopped onto the tube, I saw the Evening Standard headlines about Williams and grabbed a copy, reading all the articles about him. The sadness I’d felt in the morning, had not subsided. It had stayed with me like a quiet hum throughout the day.
Why was that, I wondered. I didn’t know the man.
I’d been lucky enough to see him live once in a tiny comedy club in New York a couple of years ago and whilst he was good it wasn't his material that was electric, it was his presence. His legacy filled the room like the glow of a crackling fire.
I’d seen many of his films, from Good Will Hunting and Dead Poet’s Society to the comedies Mrs Doubtfire and Good Morning, Vietnam. I’d seen clips of his stand up, grown up on Mork and Mindy but was that enough to experience this deep sense of loss that was with me today?
Well I guess it was because that was how I felt. I believe one of the things that makes and maintains an actor's success is when we, the viewer can observe consistant and clear themes in all their characters. For example Tom Cruise in pretty much every role, is Maverick. He is a loner with father issues who refuses to play by the rules and is stopping himself living up to his potential, perhaps for fear of not meeting his father’s standards. In some form or another you see that in everything he does. Most actors have clear threads and Williams was no exception. His was an otherworldly quality, a seer, a clown with a powerful intuition for the human condition, a soft, sweet soul that sometimes felt like it was simply passing through this world, providing us with the tools to grow and be happy and then simply moving on. With that in mind, it’s no wonder he won the role of the alien, in Mork and Mindy. And in Mork's reports back to Orson on human life, he would marvel at the strangeness and idiosyncrasies of human behaviour. I wonder if there were echoes of that in William’s own life.
Without getting too deeply into spirituality, I do believe that we are all simply an expression of the One (interpret as you will) which made me continue to ask, why, if I believe we all come from and go back to the same thing, the great Oneness (what ever that is) why was I so affected by his passing, and I think it’s because each individual may well be a part of the One but they are still unique and irreplaceable. There has never been and never will be someone quite like him and it is this that makes me sad. We are all expressions of the whole and the sadness is in the fact that that particular expression, that specific candle has been extinguished never to flicker again. That’s why we cry for people we don’t know, for celebrities that have passed. For though they’re not aquantances, we do still have a relationship with them. Sometimes, we know deeper secrets about their lives than people in our circle of friends.We know of the battle with drugs, drinking, the marriages, the divorces, the rehab, the career highs and lows. I realised though we may never have spoken to a person, it is possible to still be in relationship with them so that, when they pass, it is a real and genuine loss.
My friend, Seb, a television editor and blogger, posted a piece this morning. It was about a man who’s mother had commited suicide and how he used Robin Williams’ passing to explain this to his young daughter, something he had wanted to do for sometime. Read it here.
As I read the blog, I thought, that sounds exactly like what happened to Seb… hang on, Seb has a seven year old daughter… and he’s married and it slowly dawned on me that this eloquent and touching piece he’d shared had been penned by his own hand. Tears slowly flowed down my face as I read his beautiful account of the conversation he had with his young daughter on this most difficult of subjects.
Those tears were for the beauty and candor of the piece, for my friend’s five year old self who lost a mother and for Mr Williams so loved, now gone.
Later that morning, at my mum’s house, after I’d clarified that it was not Robbie Williams that had died, my mum, out of the blue said “Now, is he a judge on Dancing On Ice?”. “No, mum” I said. “That’s Robin Cousons”. RIP Mr Williams, whoever you are.