TIME Comedy

Brains Behaving Badly: Why So Many Comedians End Up Self-Destructing

Robin Williams Death
"Na-Nu Na-nu."
Mork (Mork & Mindy)
JIim Britt—ABC/Getty Images

The comic and Simpsons writer explores why so many stand-ups get into staring contests with the abyss

This article originally appeared on Rolling Stone.

Being a professional comedian brings with it a set of unintended consequences. For one thing, you develop an uncanny familiarity with the nation’s airports. “Where are you, St. Louis International? They’ve got a pretty ripping Oki-Dog in terminal four.”

Additionally, stand-up comedians have to ask for their paychecks. Did you know that? At the end of the week, when performing in a club, we actually have to track down the club owner and ask to get paid. In all fairness, most of them are cool about it. But as I’ve said before, when it comes to club owners, it’s hard to believe the occupation that gave the world Jack Ruby could produce some unsavory characters.

Lastly, being a comedian means knowing a lot of people who’ve committed suicide.

MORE: Ben Stiller Remembers Robin Williams: ‘He Represented What it Meant to Be Funny’

My count is now up to five. Five of my friends and fellow comedians have taken their own life. It ‘s shocking, but, sadly, not surprising. Non-comedians — or as we call them, “civilians” — are always surprised. And I am always surprised they’re so surprised. They have yet to realize the Two Big Things all comedians know.

Firstly, the same brain that makes the good stuff makes the bad stuff. Is it really so shocking that an engine that can propel a car from zero to 100 mph in six seconds can do pretty much the same thing in reverse? Comedians dwell on things. They ponder, stew, obsess and spin out scenarios for comedic effect. The more inventive the mind, the funnier the scenarios. The genius of a great comedian is the ability to stride onstage and make it look like all of those amazing ideas are flowing naturally, in the moment and off-the-cuff. But don’t be fooled. A lot of after-hours thought, poured into notebook after notebook, goes into that stuff. Late nights alone with a hyperactive imagination, however, is also when you can get into a lot of trouble.

Into this mix, one has to consider brain chemistry. A lot has been written about the actual, physical chemistry of the creative brain, and I’ve read none of it. That said, it’s obvious to even the casual observer that our greatest minds were housed in brains that behaved very badly.

MORE: Robin Williams: Chevy Chase, Danny DeVito and More Pay Homage

Charles Darwin suffered clinical depression, yet he managed to come up with the theory of evolution. Mozart, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway all lived in prisons of their own thought. The roll call of contemporary artists who have suffered a depressive disorder is so long, they could save time by just printing up the list of those who haven’t.

Some of that list makes sense. It’s easy to believe that Elliot Smith suffered from depression. Or Bob Dylan. Or Anthony Hopkins. But David Letterman? Jim Carrey? Or, as we so recently and tragically learned, Robin Williams? Really, Robin Williams? And that leads us to The Other Big Thing.

Being funny is not the same as being happy. This is an area to which I can speak with some expertise. False modesty aside, I have always been pretty funny. My elementary school report cards cite my “hyperactive imagination,” and my “proclivity towards being talkative.” I was also insecure, terrified and so crammed full of anxiety that I could barely function. Why? Because of my “hyperactive imagination.” One day I came home from school and could not find my mother. She had gone next door to visit our neighbor and lost track of time. How did she know I was home? Because she heard me screaming.

Having my mother not answer when I called her name, at eight years old, did not mean I had license to watch cartoons and stuff my face until she showed up. It meant something had happened. She had been taken away and I was now alone and defenseless in a hostile world. How would I eat? Who would take care of me? Was she dead? Who killed my mother?! Was I next?! Of course I screamed. I screamed and screamed and scr – “Oh, hi, mom. There you are. I was just wondering where you’d stepped away to. No, I didn’t piss myself, I accidentally spilled a glass of urine on my underwear before slipping my pants on and it must have soaked through. Say, what did you make of the President’s speech last night?”

MORE: Robin Williams’ Life in Photos

How to deal with this free-floating and oft-visiting, inexplicable panic? I became talkative, in general, and funny in particular. After all, if you’re going to run your mouth all day, you should at least be entertaining. Like many comedians, I put my nightmare machine of a brain to work in a creative capacity. Being funny allowed me to contextualize my anxiety and, also, allowed me a little relief from it.

Laughing and screaming are physiological cousins; both used by the body to release anxiety and tension. In terms of comedians, when the chicken-and-egg question of, “which came first, the sad or the funny” is raised, I can, with authority, say that the egg of acute anxiety begat the rubber chicken of inspired hilarity. In other words, I literally laughed to keep from crying. As do so many.

One of the comedians I fell in love with as a kid, and who remained a lifelong hero, was George Carlin. In 2005, Carlin released his 13th HBO special, entitled Life Is Worth Losing. If you’d like to see a skilled stand-up comic using his creative muscles to get some distance from a raging storm of emotional turmoil, you will find no better example. Performed on a set depicting a cemetery in winter, the show is a meditation on the futility of life, the savagery of man, the fallacy of religion — and forever circling back to the topic of suicide, as if it were some mordant motif.

MORE: The 50 Funniest People Now

Suicide is an undeniably fascinating subject, and one that has been well pondered by our greatest minds, comedic and otherwise, most probably because it hits so close to home in our psyches. In our worst moments, it’s there, like a firehose behind a glass case, waiting to be busted out should the shit get too thick. In lieu of that, we must learn to cope.

Those of us whose emotional states are stable and manageable, and who haven’t condemned ourselves to the hell of addiction in our clumsy attempts at self-medicating, do the best we can, by trial and error, to live a regular life. We try our hardest, every day, to masquerade as a normal person. A civilian. All the while poring over our faults and failings through our work. For money! It’s a symbiotic system that can really pay off if you play your cards right. Not that material success is important.

This is another lesson you need to learn if you desire to go beyond just coping, if actual happiness is one of your goals. In fact, not long ago, I was sitting in the kitchen of a fellow comedian where I saw a sign that brought that point home. It sat atop his cabinets, and read, “Forget What You Want, Look At What You Have.” I remember thinking that this man, who had a career like no one could ever hope to dream of, stand-up success, sitcom success, movie stardom, he’d even won an Oscar, and yet, he was humble, gracious, sincere, caring. He knew where happiness lay. He, who had so much, still knew what was important and what was not. “This guy,” I thought, “he’s really got it together.”

I miss him.

TIME public apologies

It’s Time for Celebrities To Apologize—For All Their Apologizing

Henry Rollins
Henry Rollins Ben Horton—WireImage

Can we please stop embarrassing ourselves by pretending these apologies mean anything and admit they are simply a bloodless way to satisfy our bloodlust?

I am disgusted with Henry Rollins. How could he be so insensitive? What he said about Robin Williams was extraordinarily offensive and hurtful. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in free speech, but the things he said were way over the line. He definitely owed everyone an apology.

Okay. Thanks for indulging me. I just wanted to see what it felt like to actually write those things: fairly shallow and ridiculous, as I expected. But it seems like if you want attention in 2014, all you need to do is demand an apology from someone, for something.

The predictable cycle of outrage and apology is Western Civilization’s newest craze. Since Robin Williams’ suicide, Todd Bridges has apologized for calling it “a very selfish act”; Shepard Smith has apologized for having the nerve to question whether it made Williams a coward; Rollins apologized for his opinions on suicide in general; Gene Simmons has gone back and apologized for things he said about depression and suicide in an interview that had nothing to do with Robin Williams whatsoever.

All four of these men made the critical error of giving opinions on suicide that didn’t fit a polite narrative. Which in 2014 means each of them must bow their heads and apologize—or suffer the witch-hunt consequences of having an unpopular opinion. Questioning or criticizing someone’s decision to commit suicide is not insensitive or unfeeling. It’s a part of the open and honest and difficult conversation we claim to want.

We cannot continue to delude ourselves into thinking we value such conversations when what we really value is publicly flogging anyone who contributes something to the conversation that we find disagreeable. Or—brace yourselves—offensive. For a country that claims to want an open dialogue, and to treasure free speech, we sure seem to enjoy mob justice against people who give an opinion contrary to the one we are comfortable hearing. Instead of physically beating someone to death, we feign shock, outrage and emotional anguish, until the person (or more likely the publicist) breaks down and begs our forgiveness.

Can we please stop embarrassing ourselves by pretending these apologies mean anything to anybody and own up to the fact they are simply a bloodless way to satisfy our bloodlust? Why exactly is it such a social crime to talk about the selfish nature of committing suicide? Why do people respond to such points by angrily stating how much pain the individual was in? Can’t both opinions be valid? Being in pain and behaving selfishly are not mutually exclusive.

I am not an expert in depression or suicide. What I know about suicidal feelings comes only from what I’ve experienced, not case studies or statistics. But I can tell you what it’s like to look over the edge of a cliff and convince yourself that jumping is the only option. In those moments, I saw only my own pain and was convinced that I would be doing nothing more than wiping a valueless person off the face of the earth.

Just because I was in pain doesn’t mean I wasn’t also thinking selfishly. That’s not to say that anyone who commits suicide is selfish, but it’s an observation one shouldn’t be crucified for making.

Which brings me back to apologies. Our cultural obsession with them isn’t about actually being offended, or simply needing to hear, “I’m sorry.” It’s not really about right or wrong. It’s about wanting to throw a rock in the dark and hear something break.

In the increasingly deafening and constantly morphing conversations on social media, it becomes more and more impossible for an individual and his or her opinions to stand out or to be heard. Going on Twitter or Facebook to gently voice dissatisfaction about something that someone said garners the same results as walking into a New Year’s Eve party and muttering to yourself in the corner. No one hears you or cares; it’s the ultimate form of social emasculation. It feels small and helpless.

But if you can get a few people at the party to scream with you at the same time, the rest of the people, who are enjoying themselves, will be forced to stop their revelry and take notice. And if, God forbid, you loudly announce you’ve been wounded, not only will everyone forget what they were saying and focus all of their attention on you; they will rally around you. They’ll listen to you. And most importantly, they’ll want to punish whoever hurt you.

No longer will you be the quiet person in the corner who has to live with the fact you heard something you didn’t like, you’ll be the one everyone is listening to and responding to and paying attention to.

Yet your offense at someone’s opinion should not be a precursor to further action. “I don’t like what you just said,” should end with a period, not a semicolon. When a celebrity offers a prescribed public apology, I feel nothing for them, and strangely embarrassed for the rest of us for requiring it. Even those of us who didn’t encourage the groveling are at best complicit because we watched the vultures circle instead of making some sort of effort to shoo them away.

We have become a country of voyeurs and rubberneckers who love nothing more than provoking a situation solely for the gratification of eliciting a response, then we convince ourselves we’re outraged so we can stand and watch the fire burn. A mouth full of broken teeth has been replaced with a tearful mea culpa in front of a bank of microphones.

The onslaught of fake outrage and insincere apologies is doing nothing to make our society a more compassionate, forgiving or understanding place. We are simply being trained to doubletalk and lie to avoid trouble. If we can’t think of a good lie or acceptable middle ground, we are taught to play it safe or say nothing at all.

And that makes me truly sorry. For all of us.

TIME Television

Watch Billy Crystal’s Moving Tribute to Robin Williams at the Emmys

Billy Crystal: "Robin Williams, what a concept"

 

The past year was a tough one for Hollywood when it came to saying goodbye to all the great talents who passed away. While pop star Sara Bareilles sang a touching rendition of the Charlie Chaplin classic “Smile,” the Emmy Awards acknowledged James Avery, Maya Angelou, Lauren Bacall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Casey Kasem, Don Pardo, Harold Ramis, Mickey Rooney, Elaine Stritch, Shirley Temple and many more before ending with a special tribute to Robin Williams from the late actor’s friend Billy Crystal.

“He was the greatest friend you could ever imagine,” Crystal said in the tribute. “It’s very hard to talk about him in the past because he was so present in all of our lives.”

Above, watch the Emmys’ heartfelt tribute, which certainly improves upon the unexpectedly brief 23-second tribute the MTV Video Music Awards threw together last night.

TIME Television

The VMAs Tribute to Robin Williams Was Exactly 23 Seconds Long

Yes, seriously

 

The VMAs tend to be highly organized, with introductions for every award and every act. But Robin Williams’ tribute went unannounced, lasted only 23 seconds, consisted of a few pictures and ended immediately without applause or explanation. Also, it was set, somewhat inexplicably, to Coldplay.

Expect the late comedian to get a much longer tribute at the 2014 Emmys.

TIME Appreciation

Mara Wilson Pens a Beautiful Tribute to Her Mrs. Doubtftire Dad Robin Williams

Kobal
Twentieth Century Fox

"Robin Williams, as I knew him, was warm, gentle, expressive, nurturing, and brilliant"

Former child star Mara Wilson, who memorably played Robin Williams’ daughter in Mrs. Doubtfire, said she was too devastated last week to talk openly about the actor’s shocking death. Three days after the fact, she posted a “quick update” on her blog, briefly explaining that she was felt “shocked, confused angry, regretful, and above all, sad.”

Now, having had a week to process her emotions a bit more, the 27-year-old has posted a beautiful, thoughtful tribute.

“He always reminded me a little of my father,” she begins. “Robin Williams, as I knew him, was warm, gentle, expressive, nurturing, and brilliant. While it can be hard for me to remember filming Doubtfire, I’ve been flooded with memories in the past few days.”

She recalls his brilliant comedic mind and his ability to relate to kids without ever being patronizing or condescending. But she also remembers seeing a more vulnerable side of his personality:

Robin was so on so much of the time that I was surprised to hear my mother describe him as “shy.” “When he talks to you,” she told her friends, “he’ll be looking down at his shoes the whole time.” I figured he must have been different with grown-ups. I wouldn’t see that side of him myself until a few years later, when I was invited to be part of a table read of What Dreams May Come. … Robin crossed to me from across the room, got down to my level, and whispered “Hi, how are you?” He asked how my family was doing, how school was, never raising his voice and only sometimes making eye contact. He seemed so vulnerable.

Read Wilson’s full blog post here.

TIME Television

Watch David Letterman Pay Tribute to Robin Williams on Late Show

"I had no idea the man was in pain"

David Letterman returned to the Late Show on Monday and paid tribute to his friend, the late Robin Williams, who had died while the show was on a summer break.

Letterman had known Williams for 38 years. They met at the the Comedy Store in West Hollywood, where Letterman says he watched Williams’ first set at the club.

During his tribute, Letterman lamented Williams’ passing and his depression. “I had no idea that the man was in pain, that the man was suffering,” he said.

TIME robin williams

Hook is Hulu’s Top Film of the Week

Robin Williams in Hook in 1991
Robin Williams in Hook in 1991 Sony PIctures Entertainment

Fans turn to a family favorite in the wake of Robin Williams’ death

At least in Neverland, Robin Williams will always be with us as Peter Pan.

Fans of Robin Williams have turned to the beloved actor’s work in the days since his death of an apparent suicide, sending the movie Hook, in which Williams plays Peter Pan, rocketing to the top of Hulu’s most-watched list.

The streaming service confirmed to TIME that four clips including Robin Williams were among the top 25 most-watched clips of the week. With Hook the most popular film of the week, another Williams classic, Moscow on the Hudson, was the 9th most popular. The Best of Times was high on the list as well.

Even Williams performance in the television show Mork and Mindy, which broadcast in the 1970s and 1980s, rocketed into the top 80 most popular TV shows.

It’s no surprise that Hulu watchers are binging on some of their favorite Robin Williams flicks available on the site. For millienials, who are particularly likely to watch online streaming services like Hulu and Netflix, Robin Williams was the face and voice of some of the age group’s most cherished childhood characters.

Dante Basco, who played “Rufio,” the punk kid who takes over after Peter Pan leaves Never Never Land, said it well in a blog post after hearing of Williams passing.

“With Hook and so many other films, I, like millions of others became a fan and was always delightfully surprised by the performances he managed to produce. But with his passing, I can’t help to feel, along with my generation,” Basco said, “I can’t help feeling like it’s the death of my childhood. I guess we can’t stay in Neverland forever, we must all grow up.”

– with reporting by Ashley Ross

TIME Appreciation

Pizza Place Honors Robin Williams With Awesome Themed Specials

For example: the Pork & Mindy pizza and the Good Will Hotwing

People around the country have been finding all kinds of ways to honor Robin Williams following his shocking death Monday. In Brooklyn, the employees of Vinnie’s Pizzeria created a tribute that was a bit tastier than the rest. They named their specials after some of the actor’s most memorable works and displayed them on a whiteboard next to some lovely illustrations:

Vinnie’s is known for its pop culture-themed specials and corresponding illustrations — seriously, check these out, because they’re really great — but this one definitely stands out as a lovely tribute to a fallen star.

(h/t Grubstreet)

TIME Pictures of the Week

Pictures of the Week: Aug. 8 – Aug. 15

From the tragic death of Robin Williams and violent riots in Ferguson, Mo. to a balloon festival in Bristol and a dog show in Helsinki, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

TIME celebrities

Robin Williams Was Battling Parkinson’s Disease, Wife Says

Susan Schneider and Robin Williams
Gilbert Carrasquillo—FilmMagic/Getty Images

Says "sobriety was intact" when he died

The wife of Robin Williams revealed Thursday that at the time of his death, the late comedian was not only battling depression and anxiety but the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease.

“Robin’s sobriety was intact and he was brave as he struggled with his own battles of depression, anxiety as well as early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, which he was not yet ready to share publicly,” said Susan Schneider, in a statement.

Parkinson’s affects nearly 10 million people, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. The National Institutes of Health cites that “for people with depression and Parkinson’s disease, each illness can make symptoms of the other worse.” Research linking the two has focused on depression following a diagnosis, but it can be assumed that the actor’s depression predated his Parkinson’s diagnosis.

Schneider was Williams’ third wife. Read her entire statement below.

“Robin spent so much of his life helping others. Whether he was entertaining millions on stage, film or television, our troops on the frontlines, or comforting a sick child — Robin wanted us to laugh and to feel less afraid.

Since his passing, all of us who loved Robin have found some solace in the tremendous outpouring of affection and admiration for him from the millions of people whose lives he touched. His greatest legacy, besides his three children, is the joy and happiness he offered to others, particularly to those fighting personal battles.

Robin’s sobriety was intact and he was brave as he struggled with his own battles of depression, anxiety as well as early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, which he was not yet ready to share publicly.

It is our hope in the wake of Robin’s tragic passing, that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing so they may feel less afraid.”

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