The night after I heard about Robin Williams’ death, I re-watched “World’s Greatest Dad,” a film by Bobcat Goldthwait. Williams plays Lance Clayton, a nice guy who reminds us how much “nice” leaves to be desired. Clayton is selfish, deceptive and weak — a man who exploits his teenaged son’s death to indulge his own failing dreams, win back his fickle sort-of girlfriend, show up a handsome colleague who got a humor piece published in The New Yorker and generally save himself from his nebbish middle-aged obscurity.
It’s a risky and interesting performance: One scene in which Clayton has a near-breakdown on a ghoulishly compassionate TV-psychologist’s show, pretending he’s trying not to cry while actually trying not to laugh, is the kind you have to look away from and then re-watch. At the film’s end, Williams literally bares himself, stripping naked onscreen, his character flaying himself in the ecstatic mortification of finally telling the truth. Watching those scenes took on an unwelcome resonance in light of the actor’s suicide — a reminder that hilarity and grief can look disturbingly similar, and that being honest often involves forfeiting everything else.
I was shocked when I heard that Williams had killed himself, but I wasn’t shocked shocked, the way I’d be if Bill Clinton or Madonna or Donald Trump, one of those personalities who eat fame like maggots eat gangrene, had committed suicide. It is a truism that comedians are not happy people: angry, depressed, disproportionately drawn from historically despised ethnicities and given to excess and addiction. You don’t need me to list the roll call of hilarious people prematurely dead by suicide, overdose, drunk driving or misadventure. There are plenty of counterexamples to the sad clown stereotype, of course — happy, successful comedians who live to old age (Don Rickles is now 88, still slaying them onstage, happily married, a grandfather and by all accounts a prince) — but the depressed comedian remains a truism because it’s at least partly true. Even tragedians have a lower casualty rate.
I used to be professionally funny myself — though not world-class funny like Williams. I could never get any mental health professional to diagnose me as clinically depressed, but I did seem to feel unhappy about 85 percent of the time. (I am no longer funny, but do not worry — I am still unhappy.) Still, there’s something distasteful and self-congratulatory to me about the Romantic stereotype of artists as more tormented than ordinary folks, comedians all Pagliaccis sobbing operatically on the inside. All the evidence of this correlation seems to be anecdotal, not empirical. (One recent study did find that comedians share a lot of personality traits in common with psychopaths, but it’s also been pointed out that psychopaths are not exactly hilarious themselves and don’t have much capacity for appreciating humor.) Maybe comedians aren’t any more afflicted with angst than librarians or real estate agents or welders; maybe they’re just more exhibitionistic.
Or maybe we’re reversing causality: It’s not that funny people are depressed, but that only depressed people can be really funny. It’s not true that only depressing things are funny, nor that the phrase “black comedy” is necessarily redundant. But comedy, no less than tragedy, is cathartic, and catharsis requires us to delve deep into the barest and bloodiest facts of our existence — what funnyman T.S. Eliot called “birth, copulation and death.”
Of course, there is plenty of humor that’s light and inoffensive, that aspires to gentility — but it’s just never all that funny. At least, not funny in the way that leaves you laughing ‘til you weep, pleading weakly for it to stop, feeling giddy and rinsed out and a little younger. Nice humor is not the kind of humor that helps. It’s easy to be funny about funny, nice things; the people who do this are called humorists and are valued members of our society, like caricaturists in theme parks and people who fold balloon animals. It’s a different proposition altogether to be funny about the most serious things, like slavery, or the Second World War, or cancer. The people who can do this, we call something else.
So maybe it’s this “helping” that’s key to understanding the high attrition rate among comedians. Humor is an antidote to — or at least an analgesic for — a condition we’re all suffering from. I would call this condition clarity, not depression; humor and depression are two different, but not mutually exclusive, responses to it. I know we’re told to regard depression as a disease, its victims no different from people who succumb to cancer or diabetes. But because it’s a disease whose symptoms take the shape of ideas, it can get hard to parse out pathology from worldview. The Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert once told me that “there are people who have no delusions; they’re called clinically depressed.” Depression’s insights aren’t necessarily invalid; they’re just not helpful. Depression uses clarity as an instrument of torture; humor uses it as a setup. Comedy tells us, “But wait — that’s not the good part.” Depression condemns the world, and us, as hateful; laughter is a way of forgiving it, and ourselves, for being so.
Someone I know once said, in talking about Robin Williams, that comedians could be so funny because they themselves didn’t find anything funny. (A friend who used to write for a famous animated comedy show told me that comedy writers never actually laugh at each other’s ideas; they’ll just agree coolly, “Oh, yeah, that’s funny.”) An analogy for this might be the way in which representational painters need to be able to see the world as flat abstract shapes in order to convincingly render the illusions of form and depth. Maybe to make others laugh, you need to be able to see through to the essentially unfunny facts. Which may be why so many comedians feel a sort of contempt for their audience.
“World’s Greatest Dad” is marketed as a “comedy,” even though it’s mostly not laugh-out-loud funny. There are a few scenes in it that are overtly absurd, but most of the movie is writhingly uncomfortable. It mocks one of our most sacrosanct American institutions: the impromptu communal shrine of lies erected in memoriam of a young person’s death. Williams’ character cashes in on his thoroughly unlikeable teenager’s accidental death by autoerotic asphyxia by forging a soulful suicide note and journal, both of which acquire a cultish “Catcher in the Rye”-like following among the young. There’s a sequence showing the deceased teen’s ghostlike figure appearing as a projection of his classmates’ own selves — the defiant goth, the lonesome nerd, the closeted jock — everyone’s idealized best friend and confidant. It now seems to prefigure the mass reaction to Williams’ own death, with all its sentimental misremembering, solemn, cautionary op-eds about mental illness and substance abuse, and opportunistic little think-pieces about comedy and depression.
Certain works of art are labeled “comedy” not because it is an accurate description but because categorizing them this way performs two important, and related, functions: First, it allows us not to take that art seriously (which is why comedies are never really in the running for Oscars or Pulitzers) and second, it exempts the work from the normal prohibition against ever saying anything unpleasantly true. “World’s Greatest Dad” is called a “comedy” not because it makes you laugh or has a happy ending (although it does, believe it or not), but because it tells us things that are unacceptable to say outside the "just-kidding" confines of that genre: that some tragedies, and some lives, go unredeemed; that we’re all secretly excited and revivified by the death of someone we can pretend to know but didn’t really care about; that we prefer maudlin lies and bad poetry to the truth; and that almost everyone — possibly not excluding you, and most definitely including me — is completely full of shit.
The sanest possible response to all of which is, of course, to laugh. Because Williams’ absence reminds us all of the unspoken answer to the rhetorical question: What else can you do?