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But Doctor, I Am Pagliacci: The Passing of a Clown

08/14/2014 04:06 pm ET | Updated Aug 14, 2014
  • Arthur Chu 'Jeopardy!' champion, voice-over artist, actor, comedian
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I wish I could take credit for #ButDoctorIAmPagliacci, but it seems like quite a few people had tweeted a reference to that old saw, most famously quoted in Watchmen, in response to Robin Williams’ death yesterday. I’m just the first one to turn it into an ironically unwieldy hashtag, probably due to my unhealthy fondness for ironically unwieldy hashtags.

It’s a predictable response to a comedian taking his own life, and the whole “Tears of a Clown” shtick is a predictable cliché enough now that most stand-up comedians I know kind of bristle at it. No one wants to be stereotyped as a superficial goofball just because they make their living telling jokes, but the opposite stereotype that all comedians must be tortured self-loathing depressives isn’t much better.

I’m hesitant to write this piece when there’s so many people better qualified to talk about memories of Williams, people who actually worked with and knew him. Because to talk about the life of a beloved celebrity who took his own life is to touch on the subject of mental illness, which is dangerous ground to tread for the know-it-all layman.

And because, to be honest, snarky Internet jackasses like me giving tributes to Robin Williams feels hypocritical. I said the same thing about how many of the gushing tributes on June 25, 2009 to Michael Jackson were from people who, on June 24, 2009, had been happily tweeting crude jokes about plastic surgery and pet monkeys.

And I’ll be completely honest—if you had asked me my opinion of Robin Williams on the weekend before he died, I’d probably have thrown out some snark about how his job was playing dead presidents in feel-good films (Teddy Roosevelt in Night at the Museum, Dwight D. Eisenhower in The Butler) and thrown some shade at him for ill-considered ’90s decisions like Bicentennial Man or Patch Adams.

I do not think I am alone in this. Like any giant in the field, mocking Williams for his success and nipping at his heels and playing the hipster card of being into edgier, more subversive comedians than the old sell-out was de rigeur for a certain subculture of young wannabe comic, a subculture I will gladly cop to being a member of.

And I don’t say this to mean that I think the tributes pouring out now are insincere. Quite the opposite—fans and critics are, as anyone who has them can attest, spoiled children, and the “What have you done for me lately?” disease endemic to our society can turn fans into critics with dizzying speed.

All too often we don’t really appreciate our giants until they leave us. Michael Jackson turned into embarrassing tabloid fodder and we forgot how the man held the entire music industry in the palm of his hand for a decade until he passed, and we realized the epic comeback was never going to happen.

I think about that side of grief a lot, how callously dismissive we can be to the people and things we love until we lose them, and it’s why I remind myself to say “I love you” to my wife every time I get in the car in case today is the day I die in a flaming wreck. (I do live up to certain stereotypes about Asian drivers.)

But I don’t think the way people were jerks about Williams’ legacy until the day he passed is entirely just about that. I think there’s another reason for it.

I think Robin Williams really was our Pagliacci.

A comedian is not necessarily synonymous with a clown. The weird thing about the Pagliacci story is the idea of going to see a comic in order to be cheered up, to feel better about life.

Most of the time that’s not why I go to see comedy. My favorite comics aren’t there to cheer me up or make me feel better. They’re there to berate me, chastise me, make me squirm with discomfort, throw harsh truths in my face that force me to laugh just so I don’t cry.

The idea that there’s any irony in the “Tears of a Clown” feels obsolete. Nowadays “dark comedy” is basically the standard for comedy. The lady who wrote this epic viral article about being a comedy groupie didn’t serially hook up with comedians because they were lighthearted, fun guys who could cheer her up, she did it because they were dark, tortured loners who shared her sense of how dysfunctional and unjust the world was. (Yes, we live in a world where stand-up comedians are now attracting the same type of groupies once reserved for slam poets and lead singers for garage bands.)

The pioneers of this kind of comedy were people like George Carlin and Richard Pryor; the current standard-bearer for this comic voice and critical darling of the comedy-hipster masses is Louis CK, whom Robin Williams compared to Carlin and Pryor shortly before guest-starring on CK’s show in 2012.

I adore Louis CK. His style is the essence of comedy without comedy, the equivalent of Bruce Lee’s “fighting without fighting.” He talks like he’s just randomly musing about something over a cup of coffee—sometimes his voice rises due to excitement, sometimes due to anger, but he never seems like he’s going for a laugh, and affects surprise when people interrupt him by laughing.

And there’s always tears in the laughter. There are very few of his bits that don’t, to some degree, involve laughing while recoiling from pain (with this moment probably being the Ur-example).

Louis CK doesn’t do voices. He doesn’t do impressions. He doesn’t do a lot of physical comedy or slapstick. He doesn’t, even in the metaphorical sense, put on the white makeup or the red nose—he doesn’t appear to be anyone but himself, a schlubby guy with a lot of random thoughts and a lot of insecurities.

Louis CK is a comedian, but he is not a clown. And Robin Williams was the consummate clown.

You can feel the adrenaline whenever he appeared onstage or onscreen with his (usually metaphorical) clown makeup on. He was larger-than-life, spastic, explosive. He seemed to reach out and grab you by the shoulders, desperate to make you laugh, willing to do anything for your laughter.

That sounds like a criticism but it’s not. When reviewers say that lesser comedians are “desperate for a laugh” they mean it as a criticism, because those comedians tend to fail. Williams usually succeeded. He had the rapid-fire wit and unshakable confidence of a veteran improviser. He could read a page from the phone book and find a way to riff on it to make it funny.

There’s probably no other comedian in the world where a Hollywood writing staff would feel safe leaving a blank spot in the script saying “Robin improvises here”; the staff of Mork and Mindy did it all the time. It was, in fact, the one thing that made their show a hit. Disney’s house animation style has rarely soared to the heights of pure creative anarchy they reached with the original Fantasia; the closest they came was in Aladdin, when they had to keep up with Robin Williams.

Louis CK is the best friend who finds out you’re dying of cancer and sits there, holding your hand, grimly agreeing with you that life’s a bitch and then you die. He comes up with gallows-humor bon mots that harshly encapsulate your situation but give you enough perspective to laugh at them. And you appreciate that.

Robin Williams is the wacky uncle who sees you in your state of depression and despair and just starts making goofy faces, doing silly voices, indulging in pure, meaningless absurdity because his goal is to make you crack a smile. And hokey as it is, obnoxious as it may seem, usually it works.

He gets you to chuckle, not by staring down the grimness of your situation but by looking in a different direction entirely, at pure lightness and absurdity. You laugh, and in the moment that you laugh you forget your sadness.

And you appreciate that, too.

This is not to say that Robin Williams was a superficial artist, an artist who lacked a message, or an artist who was apolitical. He was none of those things.

But compare this extended takedown of George W. Bush from 2008 with, say, Stephen Colbert’s famous speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006.

Colbert is on the attack. He is brutal and cutting and not, strictly speaking, all that funny. People gasp in admiration or in horror, but they don’t laugh.

Williams isn’t any kinder to Bush but you can’t help but laugh. He fully agrees with Colbert about Bush’s crimes, Bush’s incompetence, but everything he says about it is filled with that same lightness, that same airy absurdity. To watch Williams is to feel a certain kind of relief, to not have to rail against Bush as an enemy but to simply laugh him off, as silly.

That was Williams’ gift. To take sorrow and suffering, injustice and perfidy, all the worst things in the world—and laugh them off.

I find it telling that a recurring theme in Williams’ roles—his best and his worst—was that of fighting to keep some terrible truth at bay. Losing himself in ancient legends of knights and the grail after the death of his wife in The Fisher King. Cracking wise and rocking out amid flying bullets in Good Morning, Vietnam. Maintaining childish optimism in the face of a disease that will kill him before he turns thirty, in Jack. Desperately searching for the happy thoughts that will let him defy gravity, defy age, defy the cruel realities of the grown-up world, in Hook. Defying the court order telling him he’s an unfit father, no matter how ridiculous the costume and accent he needs to put on to do it, in Mrs. Doubtfire. Defying the full force of despair at its darkest depths in the Warsaw ghettos, armed with nothing but a half-baked tall tale, in Jakob the Liar.

I remember most vividly the massive backlash to Williams “using cancer patients as props for slapstick humor” in Patch Adams, and Williams’ bewildered, hurt reaction to the backlash. Yes, from the outside, it looked insensitive—it was insensitive.

But I have no doubt in my mind that in his own life Williams found slapstick to be his most potent weapon against terror and despair. That if you were his best friend and he found out you were dying of cancer he’d pull out all the stops to clown around, coax a laugh out of you, make you forget your grief for just a second, give you a brief, precious moment where everything was okay.

And it would work. Because he was Pagliacci.

Pagliacci wields absurdity against darkness not because, as some insultingly argue, he underestimates darkness but because he knows darkness all too well, knows how unbearable it can be.

Louis CK preaches a quasi-Buddhist message in his rant against smartphones, arguing that seeking distractions from pain is toxic, that the way to conquer pain is to face it head-on and let it wash over you.

That’s a noble message. I don’t disagree with it. But it’s a hard, hard discipline to endure.

Williams gives me the impression of a hyperactive mind constantly looking for distractions. His manic stand-up style evokes someone running, running, running at full tilt, running too fast to even breathe, running until his feet bleed and his lungs burst.

The kind of running that is its own kind of courage, that’s braver than turning around and letting yourself be caught—not because you are weak, but because the thing chasing you is strong, and inexorable, and unutterably cruel. (You can catch a glimpse of the darkness dogging Williams’ heels, I think, in his performance as the blank-eyed villain in Insomnia and One Hour Photo.)

That is the gift and the burden of the clown. To steadfastly look away from the abyss. Even when the abyss is all around you, to keep running, running, looking for any glimmer of light.

When kids grow up we feel like we outgrow clowns. We acquire an edgier taste in comedy, we sneer at the white face and the red nose. We want scruffy straight shooters who tell it like it is, who’ve given up on that elusive glimmer of light, who embrace “dark” as their calling card.

So no wonder a lot of guys like me dismissed Robin Williams’ shtick as hokey and cheesy and outdated, and his clownish style of comedy seems to be on the wane. (Who else is there? Jim Carrey, maybe?)

But he stuck around, one of those seemingly immortal Hollywood icons with an indefinite career shelf life. Always ready with a goofy voice, a wacky face, your adorable dorky uncle who won’t leave you alone until he sees you smile.

In a world filled with cutting satire and brutal parody and subversive deconstruction, he was one of those comics who really believed the purpose of comedy was to make people happy, to help people forget. In a world where comedy seems all too often about pointing accusing, mocking fingers, he was always the one ready to tell you “It’s not your fault."

We were depressed. Life seemed harsh and cruel. We felt all alone in a threatening world. And the treatment was simple—the Great Clown Pagliacci was there for us.

But there was no one to be Pagliacci for him. And one day, he couldn’t run anymore, and his strength ran out, and the thing chasing him finally caught up.

We didn’t realize how much we needed our Pagliacci until he was gone. I think we’ve only begun to realize it now.

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