Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Opinionations: Nanu Nanu No More?

Actor and comedian Robin Williams has left this Earth for the last time.  While his talent was indisputable, more importantly we have lost the involuntary face that has championed many causes over the years. 

Most important of all, we have lost another to the mental health demons that plague too many.

I'm watching the social media explosion, and truthfully I can't quite recall another death that has swept my newsfeed in this manner.. ever.  We've lost celebrities young and old, many unexpected, but even I, a former pop culture princess, hadn't foreseen the impact Williams had on our generations.  My own post started off with "While I wasn't a huge fan..." but as the day slipped by and the news sank in, I watched the tributes pour in via stories, pictures and anecdotes (see below) not from the likes of Whoopi Goldberg or Steve Martin, but from all of the lesser known comedians and personalities who considered themselves privileged to have crossed paths with the prized Bay Area resident.  Perhaps that's why I felt a teeny tiny connection to the larger than life actor; his love for my homeland was immense, and his dedication to his fellow soldiers in the warzone of funny was clear.

I think I may have worn the rainbow suspenders back in the day, but don't recall.  I remember collecting trading cards and books and things that sported the zany face of Mork and his earthling cohort Mindy, but don't feel the sentimentality as my peers from what I'm reading.  I remember reading how difficult Robin was to work with - completely out of control, unscripted and untamable.  As I reflected today, I realized it wasn't the comedy I was going to miss, but the heart.  The first film I ever saw Williams in was The World According To Garp I was hooked on both him and Glenn Close from that moment on.  The characters felt like family to me.  Then slowly, over this latter half of my life, he indelibly left a mark of characters light and dark that if we looked closely, we saw the heart of a man who had walked all roads of a life. 

It wasn't an easy road.  Williams suffered mental health issues all of his life; bipolar, depression and addictions.  I've been wondering all day why it is we call out some celebrities for being "just another junky" when they die with a needle in their arm even when they display immense talent themselves.  I'm citing the recent death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who like Williams was a chameleon in his work, showing an underlying but heartbreaking brilliance in every single project, but he was just "another asshole who couldn't cut it" because he died of his addiction.  I'm not saying to slash your heart and bleed for every alcoholic and drug addict in the world, but have a little compassion for our fellow humans.  Especially when they are self-medicating to survive the world they didn't ask to be in. 

We put our celebrities on a pedestal, and then shred their dignity and humanity when they fall.  Robin went through his falling when it was splashed out in the tabloids throughout the earlier decades of his career.  Heinous behavior that was under an drug-fueled cloud.  The strongest performances come from the artist's burning desire to shout to the world while hiding from it at the same time.  I've been watching all day the reports of this "shocking death."  What the hell was so shocking?  Whoever didn't see this coming wasn't looking closely enough. 

My guess is that Robin was tired of being on that pedestal.  Some of us just can't handle being looked up at and adored and recognized for our gifts.  A deep and shattering fear of fame has kept me from ever wandering too far outside my little corner of the world.  Williams' talent was such a bright light there was no ignoring it, but perhaps it blinded us to the darkness lurking behind it.  Few realize just how many celebrities are who they are because they're driven by their demons.  This isn't always the case.  Comedian and actor Marsha Warfield said this:  "Comedy is not 'born of tragedy,' and comedians are no more prone to depression, addiction or anything else than anybody else.  Good comedians can find humor in even the darkest subjects, but then, they can find just as much funny in air, cheesecake, or hats.  That's what comedy is...finding the funny where most folks would normally never look.  Yet, comedians are human beings first, and the things... that plague, as well as those that sustain us are the same things that affect us all."

Mike Wallace was once asked by a friend to describe his decades-long battle with clinical depression. He said, and I paraphrase, that for him depression was akin to having two messengers arrive at his door simultaneously. The first messenger would tell him that he had lost his home, his savings, his job, and that his wife had divorced him. The second messenger would tell him he had just inherited $20 million. And for him, both messages carried the same meaningless weight. ~ Social media contributor Michael Cheetham

I'm asked all the time why I focus on the negative, succumb to the dark side, why I prefer cloudy days to blue skies.  Mostly, the don't get why something as benign as 'have a nice day' is offensive in some ways to me.  Ask me at the end of a day how it went, and maybe it was fine, but to tell me to set out doing so is dismissive of my struggles (even if they're not known) and setting me up for failure when I have to report back that my day in fact sucked.

I've been struggling lately with my own ghosts that want to drag me down to their graves.  See, I'm a trained crisis counselor and relatively knowledgeable in matters of the mind.  My head tells me to do things to get through the depression that overtakes me at times; speak out, seek things to fill the hours of each oh so long day, and try desperately to remember that it has passed before, but it's not easy.  It's really fucking hard. 

So, Robin tried.  Then today, he didn't. 

The sadness I feel isn't at the loss of another star in the Hollywood sky.  It's the reminder that we shine for a time, and then it's time to go.  It's not yet my time, but it was his.  In this tragic ending, he wasn't selfish; he was the ultimate champion for a cause we'd rather ignore.  We are a superficial nation, and it takes a distant fame to open our eyes to those right in front of us. 

I view my social media with eyes full of irony at times, because so many have posted all day and other days too with their cries of HELP when a disturbed kid shoots up a mall, or a mother kills her children for seemingly no reason other than she was twisted in the head.  "Don't judge!  We must pay attention!"  And yet, I'm trying my damndest to raise awareness, by throwing my freak flag up in the air and shouting HEY, PAY ATTENTION.  Some see it, sometimes unexpectedly, and every day those are the people I keep close, but the list is short.  I can't help but think I'm invisible and failing miserably in the blindness of others. 

No one is infallible.  All of his money may have afforded him the care he needed, but that didn't separate him from the homeless guy on the street in the end, now did it?  Dark is dark, and today his world eclipsed and the black won over the white.  None of us will ever know the last thoughts of a tormented man, but what we should remember is that it could be any of us tomorrow. 


"For those very few of us who made a career as morning drive personalities, 1987 and Good Morning Vietnam (regardless of it being a movie) truly offered a reaffirmation of sorts about the struggle of the magic vs. life. Robin Williams was brilliant and also spot on as a convicted morning personality which was so true about successful morning men. Mike and I had him on the Zoo and he provided liners for us as the guy was "real". One understood he would be brilliant at anything he approached.
What a talent, what a life, comedic and dramatic genius. It's sickening to think he could be allowed to leave this way.......RIP"  ~ Former Bay Area morning personality Chris Collins

I have no words for how I feel today. I have been in a state of shock after hearing that Robin Williams is gone. I would like to share a story that is very important to me to show my respect for this wonderful person and of course fabulous entertainer. A few years back I was lucky to perform with Robin at Comedy Day in San Francisco, I got to perform with him prior to that but never got to speak w...ith him. I was in the back awaiting my set and Robin was there and he said hello. I was so excited to not only meet, perform, but to speak with someone who has been an inspiration to me in so many ways. Also I was happy that my husband was there to share in this experience.
We spoke for more than 30 minutes, started with normal chit chat then began to speak about marriage. It was just us three, no one else came to interrupt us. He was going to marry his current wife a few weeks after Comedy Day. He asked my husband and I what the secret was to marrying a comic? My husband and I thought it was funny that he would ask us, but he really wanted to hear our answer. I won't share the answer, it was quite long. He asked so much about us and shared some personal information that made me feel so touched that he would share with us after just meeting us. He said he hopes that he and his wife would have as happy and successful of a marriage as we seem to have. Then he hugged me and told me to have a great set. I am happy to say I did have a great set. And Robin was waiting for me to compliment my set and to take a photo.
Sadly that photo was accidentally erased from my phone because on my our way to home we decided to stop at my mother and grandmother's house I gave them a call to say we were on our way and share what just happened. My grandmother was a huge fan of Robin's and was so happy and proud of us. Sadly, she passed away waiting for us to arrive and that is how the photo got accidentally erased. I was crushed by her passing and seemed to have forgotten how to use my phone to share the photo. But I am so happy that I got to share that with her via the phone before she passed. I cherish this memory so much.
He has always been an inspiration to me in my comedy and other areas of life. Any time I felt dismayed in my teaching career, I would pop in Dead Poets Society and his performance pumped me up and made me remember why I chose to be a teacher. As a child I watched Mork and Mindy and even wore the rainbow suspenders. I thought he was the most creative person I had ever seen. I may not have been a personal friend of his, but I feel as if I have lost a true compadre and someone who always made me smile and strive to go for what I wanted. I am truly saddened by what has happened today. I am sad that we will not be able to see what other gifts he had to share with the world. And I am so sad for his family. But I want them to know how truly magical he is and that I will forever cherish and feel privileged for my 30 minute conversation with him and a lifetime of inspiration and influence. I hope his struggles are done and that he has found a true peace. My heart is broken, but I will continue to remember him and his selfless talent that touched so many. He was a truly generous person." ~ Comedian Tina Allen Gallo
"A few of my FB friends have asked if I have any stories to share about Mr. Williams. The answer is I have many memories (I wouldn't call them stories) and they are all very much like most other SF comedians. Most are just memories of being in a club when he dropped by either to do some new stuff he was working on or just to hang out. I would like to think he knew me by name but in truth in the ma...ny times we were together, either in a green room, outside a club, or in a few rare cases hanging in the backroom at The Holy City Zoo I believe he only said "hey, Jimmy" twice. -- A friend of mine posted on FB last night that with everyone posting pics with him that he must have been a very approachable person and indeed he was.
The example i can give is the first time we met. It was at Comedy Day in either '90 or '91. It was the first time I was invited to hangout backstage (back then it was more exclusive) even though I was not performing. I went into the food tent to get a hot dog and sat down to eat. A moment later a person walks up and say "Is this chair taken?" referring to the chair next to mine. I looked up. It was Robin. "No, please..." I offered. He sat and then after said "Odd, huh?" He was talking about what is the craziness of Comedy Day. I was just thinking "yeah, Robin Williams just asked if the chair next to mine was taken and we are both sitting here eating hot dogs"... I just said "Nuts"... we chatted for about ten minutes, he asking if I was performing (I had no need to ask the same question) and he was curious who I liked on the scene. We mostly talked about Jim Samuels, a beloved comedian and co-owner (or sole owner - I can't recall) of The Holy City Zoo and who had passed away from cancer earlier that year.
He finished his dog and said he should get ready. As he walked away i thought to myself "That was the most amazing thing that just happened. And here was the thing it was extraordinary in that there was nothing extraordinary about it. It was just two comics (one new, the other not) talking shop.
I realized without knowingly doing so he taught me something at that first meeting -- and, i believe did so with so many -- be an equal to others (even if you know you might be greater) and humble. Since that day I have tried to be that way, particularly with younger comedians. It was a good lesson.
There is no need to go into the sadness. We are all -- and by all I mean Everyone who knew of him, not just knew him. Many comics well carry and cherish their Robin memories." ~ Comedian and actor Jimmy Gunn
"A great Robin Williams memory - my daughter Natasha was infatuated with everything "Peter Pan." From the Disney animated feature to Mary Martin's stage performance and when "Hook" came out with Robin and Dustin she watched the video everyday after school for a month. We played Peter Pan in the backyard. We had Peter Pan games and coloring books. (Sort of like me with The Stones). I'm doing a gig u...p in San Francisco and I called Robin and said my daughter really wants to come over to the house to meet him. We hung out for about an hour and I don't think I've ever seen Natasha before or since that fucking quiet. She was enthralled listening to him. She was in the same room as Peter Pan. When we were leaving she yelled out - "I can't wait to tell all my friends I met Peter Pan!! "'Robin said - "Don't do that. Nobody will ever believe you." Natasha Just called me in tears from Australia where she's touring with her band to remind me of that story. So cute. So sad. RIP my friend. My best to everyone in Neverland" ~ Comedian Bobby Slayton

"Talking with Robin's closest friends who are shattered today. What's coming in over the phone are numerous stories about Robin showing up unannounced at children's hospitals and going from room to room cheering up kids with no press, no entourage, no publicist. From our mutual friend, the great comic Johnny Steele a moment ago: "Robin was a very kind and giving man. Not a terribly common trait ...in this business. Years ago he really liked a joke I did about Marin being full of 55 year old men on 65 hundred dollar bicycles. He asked if I rode and I said, 'How could I? The bikes are 65 hundred dollars.' Next thing I know he had a custom-built titanium bike made for me. He said riding was 'mobile therapy' and he wanted me to experience it. We rode together many times through the hills of Tiburon. Our last ride together was a week or so ago and he rode faster than he ever had before."  ~ Comedian Johnny Steele

"Doing stand up in San Francisco I saw Robin so many times over the years at Comedy Day, Cobb's and the Throckmorton. He was always generous with his time and loved riffing with the other comics. Nothing was cooler than making Robin laugh. In 2004 when Dan Dion started up shows again at the Purple Onion and he asked me to host them. I happened to be talking to Robin at Cobb's and told him we were kicking off new shows at the legendary venue and his eyes lit up and he said he'd drop by some time. About 6 months later Robin popped in to one of our shows and sat in the back of the room. I asked him if he wanted to go up and he said no, he just wanted to watch. After a couple of comics he found me and said this is the best room in town..can I please do some time. I feel bad that I had to bump Joe Klocek back a bit, but Robin went on and did the most amazing set I ever saw him do. He riiffed on North beach, The Beats, Columbus, San Francisco and did whole sections in true Italian which had Mario the owner doubled over. I saw Robin so many times over the years but that was my favourite of all the shows I saw him do." ~ Comedian Jim Short


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