On Wit, Depression and Robin Williams
Robin Williams killed himself yesterday. This probably didn’t come as a surprise to people who knew him well. He’d been in and out of rehab several times and endured a life long struggle with substance abuse and depression.
I have thought about wit many times. Mostly because so few people have it. Many quote jokes, smile, laugh as a form of social engagement and enjoyment and have occasional witty moments, but chronic wit is rare and those afflicted live troubled and conflicted lives. Groucho Marx destroyed most of the people close to him. He couldn’t turn off his scathing humor regardless of any love he might have felt for the people at whom it was directed. The joke, barb, the surgically precise observations continually burst through, shredding anyone in its path. He made several wives miserable and died a lonely and exploited old man.
Richard Pryor, a first class wit by any measure was miserable, angry and violent. There would have been no “Blazing Saddles” without Pryor—Mel Brooks, as funny as he was, was bolstered and advised throughout by Mr. Pryor. Those of us who witnessed his stand-up in its heyday remember being shocked into speechless insensibility as he talked about his past in whorehouses and on the streets, turning the fact that he grew up under miserable circumstances into a brand new kind of comedy. Richard Pryor rarely pulled a punch and he made us laugh like hell. He also eventually set himself on fire then proceeded to die miserably over a period of twenty years.
The ability to see the world, to remain intimate with the horror and cruelty of it devoid of sugar-coating, then spin it into something that makes us laugh, comes at great cost. Most of us filter realities' harshest barbs with conclusions, belief, mindsets and philosophies thereby remaining at least partially buffered. Dawn Powell said, “wits are never happy people. The anguish that has scraped their nerves and left them raw to every flicker of life is the base of wit—for the raw nerve reacts at once without any agent, the reaction direct with no integumentary obstacles.”
True wit is a razor’s edge. Rosanne Barr was funniest when she’d just got out of the trailer park, the same goes for Whoopi Goldberg when she was on welfare. Both situations were exceedingly painful: children, no money, desperation saddled with roaring intellectual acuity that never stops collecting information, sharpening it, and presenting it back in particular brands of stark relief. But this stark relief provides both insight and pain. The act of turning the pain on its head is the very thing that makes it funny.
One of the most quoted lines of Groucho Marx, that he’d never want to be a member of a club that would have him as a member, isn’t what people think. Back in the 1930’s the best and most exclusive social clubs disallowed Jews. That’s what Groucho was talking about. As a Jew, no matter how famous or rich he was he could not get into the best social clubs. Anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, these are all the rich veins from which comedy comes.
They’re also extremely painful.
Dave Chappelle walked away. Everybody thought he was nuts. In truth, he was probably the sanest comedian ever to come down the pike.
I don’t know what Robin Williams’ personal demons were. I’m sad that he’s dead. He made me laugh more times than I can count. But maybe what killed him was a function of who he was, the way he saw the world and spun it into humor as told to us. And maybe for all he said, it’s the things he didn’t say that killed him, the leftovers, the things we were spared.
How very tragic that he could not spare himself.