The day my dad came home with a VHS copy of Mrs. Doubtfire is a day that is forever implanted into my memory. It was a typical Saturday. My brother and I were sitting in the living room, trying to stay out of our mom's way as she cleaned the house. My brother was lying around, teasing me, and I was trying to get him to laugh by putting on skits and singing into our karaoke machine, making silly voices and making up stories.
My dad walked into the room and said he had something for us. He put the film into the player and sat down with the two of us, and for the next several months every Saturday would be spent like this, with me sitting with my chin in my hands, leaning in as close to the television set as I could, studying every move, gesture, voice, joke, and facial expression that Robin Williams made. I could not believe that there was this person who seemed so familiar to me. The scene where Robin's character meets up with his brother, played by Harvey Fierstein, to try on the various versions of drag to become Mrs. Doubtfire filled me with excitement as I recognized that this was something I could do. I was teased in school for doing just that, and here was a grown man making up characters, and people who watched it laughed.
This implanted in me the desperate need to make people laugh. If they were laughing at something I was doing to make them laugh, they weren't teasing me. If I could create the joke myself instead of them making the joke about me, I could fit in and be a part of the social norm. I became the class clown, hiding my feelings of loneliness and isolation by creating characters.
Some years after this I picked up one of my mom's Reader's Digest magazines, and there was an article on Robin Williams. I was probably around 12 or 13 when this article came out, and I remember reading about how Robin had grown up feeling lonely and depressed and would create his various voices and characters to fit in with those around him. I read that he would create voices just so that he would have people to talk to. Growing up on a farm in a county that boasted only 17,000 residents, I'd found that this very tactic came in handy for me on long summer days when I was alone.
Weekends were filled with not only Mrs. Doubtfire but Hook and The Birdcage. As I watched, I was unknowingly stockpiling information for my future as a comedian.
When I moved to New York at 17 years old to study musical theater, these tools I had picked up studying this iconic man throughout my childhood came in handy when it came to making friends and morphing into characters within my class. I became comfortable being the funny guy.
After about five years of living in the city, my life took a turn after an engagement was broken and I was left penniless and without a job. My life became encased in a deep alcoholic depression fueled with bouts of cocaine use and anonymous sex to fill the voids of loneliness. The need to make people laugh became more intense as I would go home and drown myself in a box of wine or a bottle of vodka.
I landed a job working as a drag performer and started to dabble in telling stories onstage. These stories eventually morphed into some weird and absurd form of standup comedy -- loud, vulgar, politically incorrect. Then reality sunk in that the queen on stage was beginning to resemble not the upbeat and humorous performer but a sad and lonely clown desperately wanting to be loved and needing help but not knowing how to ask for it.
Friends stepped in, and since that moment I have been sober for almost four years. Within sobriety I have found a way to find laughter again. Making a full-time career as a drag comedian has been a roller coaster of emotions, but it's a career for which I am deeply grateful, and by which I am deeply humbled.
We always hear of celebrity deaths and weigh in with our feelings or our two cents as spectators from the outside. I usually make jokes about them during my show. Whitney, Michael, and Amy are just a few of the celebrities whose deaths I have made light of during my performances. It is part of the shock comedian's job to get a laugh from the audience. But this celebrity passing feels different. It feels real and not just some story on the news or on Twitter. This feels personal, as if I have lost an old friend, someone I grew up with, or a great mentor.
Those who are close to me in my life, off the stage, know that my comedy is deeply rooted in truth a lot of the time. It's self-deprecating humor, poking fun at my own insecurities, but then I go home and feel an onset of depression and lonely isolation. There is no greater high than a room full of people laughing along to the stories you are telling onstage. The validation and hugs and handshakes and reassurances of "oh my god, you are so funny" are better than any drug I ever did when I was using, but the crash and comedown can be just as hard.
Reading the reports of Robin Williams' darker side and the demons he faced has hit home for me: the clown and entertainer just wanting to be loved and make people smile while he himself felt isolated and different. The sad clown.
I hope the suicide of this great comedian will teach us all a lesson to be kinder to one another and know that every person is fighting his or her own battles.
Performing and making people laugh is a privilege and an honor. I don't want this blog post to be a pity party about how depressed I can get, but I want it to be a lesson to people to know that everyone has obstacles in their lives, but there is hope out there. I only wish Robin had seen the silver lining and known that there was hope out there for him, and that he could have seen past the darkness to know that millions of people were touched by his humor and his heart.
Robin Williams, I thank you for showing me as a child that it is OK to be different and weird, that is is OK to be yourself. Robin, you have shaped me as a performer, but most of all as a human being. Thank you for being you and paving the way for comedians like me.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It can help to talk to someone. It really can.