August 12, 2014

Goodbye, Robin Williams

Yesterday evening as I was logging off for the last time my phone beeped. A friend in West Virginia had posted a new Tweet with a link to an LA Times article announcing that Robin Williams had been found dead, apparently a suicide. My first thought was it had to be a hoax of some kind. After all, Robin Williams had already been the target of one internet hoax claiming he was dead. Someone had probably just resurrected the old hoax links and started passing them around again. So I stopped my log off procedure, opened Chrome back up to Google, typed in his name, and searched the news feeds. Hundreds of West Coast newspaper sites were carrying the same story and there was even a link to the official press release by the Marin County Sheriff. This time, it was no hoax.

I was stunned. Now, the next morning, I am still stunned. So many times the funniest, happiest people around us hide the deepest, darkest pain and there is nothing we can do to comfort them. I am 53 years old. I have seen many celebrity deaths. Never once have I felt a personal loss like this. It truly is as sharp and immediate as if I had lost a family member. Robin Williams has been an icon in my universe since I was old enough to realize I, like everyone around me, walked through life in the center of our very own universe of emotion and experience. "Jumanji", "Toys", and "Good Morning, Vietnam", are three of the finest movies Hollywood has ever produced and the key to their success is the energy and power of Robin Williams. Disney's "Aladdin" would not be half the masterpiece it is without Robin Williams as the Genie. Everything he touched became magical. His more serious movies like "The Fisher King", "Good Will Hunting" and "The Dead Poet's Society" became cult classics that shaped the worldview of an entire generation. Robin Williams was the last of the great Hollywood comedians. The only masters he could possibly be compared to equitably would be Lucille Ball and Sammy Davis, Jr. No one measures up to these three. Too much of comedy, both stand up and scripted, is rude, crass, grotesque mockeries of core human values. Robin Williams, Lucille Ball, and Sammy Davis, Jr. stand apart because their comedy did not mock the powers that civilize us. Rather, they reinforced and strengthened them.

People often tell me I have no sense of humor. And, to be honest, they are probably right. Life is a very serious business. Stumbling through life with no foundation and no goals leads directly into the most horrifying and brutal self-destructive behaviors. The only way to leave this world a better place than you found it is to be serious and focused on proactively finding ways to improve it. Yes, stereotypes and oversimplifications are the bane of human existence, but this one remains true: In this life there are only two kinds of people, those who make the world a better place and those who don't. Robin Williams spent his life looking for ways to make the world a better place. He was one of the shining lights that make the world a better place and there is nothing in life more important. Nothing at all.

I have struggled for a way to express my heartbreak at the passing of this great performer. A friend of mine, Sharon Lyn Stackpole, wrote a beautiful eulogy comparing Robins Williams to Joseph Grimaldi (Grimaldi's Tears). I could never write something so concise, so moving, and so complete. Twitter has exploded with outpourings of love and grief using #RIPRobinWilliams. Twitter hashtag responses always range from the bizarre to the inspiring but this time the vast majority are filled with positive responses from every corner of the globe and through every generation alive. True artists, no matter what media they work in, always strive to touch the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be human and through that touch, to bring us together across the barriers of culture, religion, and prejudice. No one in the past century has achieved this as completely as Robin Williams. No one at all.

And so it is, that I can find no more fitting tribute, no more moving analogy, and no better metaphor to encapsulate the power of Robin Williams and the crushing heartbreak of his passing than the one that has lit up every corner of the Twitterverse:

Genie, you're free!