robin williams on sesame street
Three decades ago I was almost ready to be born. This means that I was six when I started screaming “BANGARANG” at random while pretending I could fly in my treehouse. I was seven when I first watched FernGully at two o’clock in the morning with my best friend during an epic slumber party. I was eight when I became utterly obsessed with Aladdin and nine when I sat in the movie theatre with my health-crazed mom watching Mrs. Doubtfire terrified that she would hate it because it started with an animated smoking parakeet and foul mouthed television executives. I remember feeling so grownup watching that movie, as Robert Prosky and Robin Williams drank scotch and Sally Field was so dramatic and stoic. I loathed Pierce Brosnan with the ire that only a loyal nine year old can have for a fictional character for stealing Field away from Williams and depriving lovely Lisa Jakob, Matthew Lawrence and Mara Wilson of their amazing Dad. These were four of my absolute favourite childhood movies, ones that I had on VHS with battered or lost cases: Robin Williams was at the heart of them all.
Later would come Jack and Patch Adams and Jumanji and my Uncle Don introducing me to Mork and Mindy when he and my aunt got a station on their satellite dish that played reruns of old sitcoms. Even later would come The Birdcage, Good Will Hunting and Dead Poet’s Society, and then staying up late watching Williams’ stand up on YouTube or countless hours of interviews from every talk show with every host over the last four decades. Most recently I was flabbergasted by how seamlessly he morphed into Dwight Eisenhower in The Butler. Yet, at his essence Robin Williams, for me, would always be a genie, a bat, a cross dressed dad and Peter Pan.
How is it that sometimes the loss of someone you have never met hits you in such a profound way? It feels as though I had Robin Williams there with me throughout those pivotal childhood years and all the joyous memories attached to them- not just on film- but in a vibrant and tangible reality. That was the magic of Robin Williams. His magnetic energy, his unpretentious wisdom, his genuine kindness— his shimmering talent and rollicking playfulness and his irresistible silliness shone a light inside of me as though he were standing right there. He spoke to children- to their sense of wonder and curiosity and justice- as peers, the way that only adults who still have a bit of Peter Pan in them can do. He spoke to adults the same way. He managed to connect like one does with an audience when they are standing onstage through the medium of film and through the medium of animation. He managed to dazzle us with the quickness and cleverness of his whirling dervish of wit, voices and exuberance, but also remain inherently vulnerable, inevitably human. His open heart met ours and always embraced it.
The World is often a difficult place for us to live: one need only watch The News for five minutes to be reminded of that. That is the reason why comedy is such an integral part of the human existence: because it provides us with a release. It gives us a reason to laugh when there are a hundred reasons for us to cry. Robin Williams was also a master at using comedy as a way to inspire his audience to laugh and think critically at the same time. Laughter is the other side of melancholy, they are intrinsically linked. In very few comedians was this so obviously the case, as with Robin Williams. He didn’t use his comedy to hide his sadness, he used it to explore it.
For many, myself included, the weight of this heavy world can sometimes be too much.I know what it’s like to wake up in a day full of sunshine and only see darkness and to be unable to will myself out of bed. I know what it’s like to worry, in a frantic panic, about my inability to cope with even answering the telephone or my emails, and despairing that I’m a wasted, useless, stupid, idiot who will never get out of her own way to accomplish anything worthy of merit or respect. I don’t know the specifics of Robin Williams’ battle with Depression and Anxiety, or how this was complicated by his troubles with substance abuse, but my heart overflows with compassion from my own knowing of what my Darkest Days were like. It is not an “understanding,” for these things are too personal and too complex to pin down into definitions, but it’s just an inkling of recognition. It’s a sense of awareness that, despite all that made Robin Williams truly one of a kind, the demons that preyed upon his sensitivity and creativity are akin to ones that haunt so many of us— perhaps even most of us.
Since I was born almost thirty years ago, I belong to a generation of North Americans that had almost identical childhood cultural experiences. Before Netflix and hundreds of cable options, most of us watched the exact same handful of television shows. We went to the same movies as soon as they came out in theatres and rented the same ones over and over from Blockbusters and our Public Libraries. I have seen so many people my age posting on social media in the past 24 hours about the loss of Williams being a gargantuan loss of childhood- a childhood that, it seems, for most of us, Robin Williams dominated with his silly voices and giant heart. I am not sure if it is because the taboos surrounding mental illness are very slowly fading away, or if it’s because we were raised as a generation who, with the burgeoning Internet, were encouraged to share and sometimes over-share our feelings and experiences with strangers, but there seems to be an overwhelming number of people in my generation who have personal experience with Anxiety and Depression. We are also a generation that is courageous enough to talk about it and one that I see is increasingly interested in reaching out and helping one another. We are a generation that has grown up slowly, many of us struggle to find meaningful jobs (or any job) and I think there is a uncertainty about what our legacy should be or could be, of how to emerge as strong and competent leaders when we seem so filled with our own doubts, often overshadowed by the generations older than us, and overwhelmed by the dire mess of our Global Society. Today, I felt us all connect in a way that was rare and beautiful. We were brought together in our grief and our shock, as we shared the loss of a Great Man who shaped us all individually and, yet, apparently also as a collective. Someone who made us all feel like we belonged.
I believe that Robin Williams wanted better for the World, and so he used all his incredible talents and his generosity of spirit and deep-seated kindness to create magical, better, sweeter, kinder places for us to experience through film and television. I believe that he helped teach my generation the value of silliness and integrity and the sweet and communal power of laughter and play, through characters like Peter Pan, The Genie, Mrs. Doubtfire and Batty Koda.
Robin Williams made this world a brighter place for us, and what a wonderful gift it would be for him, if all of us, the millions of people who were touched by him, who felt like he was our crazy uncle, our cherished friend, our magical Genie in the lamp, could work, as he worked throughout his life, to make the World a little easier for one another through laughter and kindness and compassion. We can shine some light into the darkness and hold tight to the divine spark of Madness inside us all. We’re all in this together: we can make a better place to laugh in.