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When I heard tonight that Robin Williams had died, apparently by suicide, the thought that jumped into my mind instantly was the last line of Cyrano de Bergerac, the defiant claim that the hero would sweep heaven’s floor with his hat and make his “panache” immortal. Whose panache (or “style,” in the often dumbed down English version of the word) was as big as Williams’? To be honest, I hadn’t seen his work in years. Maybe I thought it had become watered down, or that he was pandering too much to broad tastes. Or maybe I thought his “panache” had been created already and needed no constant witness. Style is deathless, says Cyrano. Williams was around and still lurking in my jaded hipster heart, whether I was watching his movies or not. Always I could catch his breathless, voluminous jokes spilling out in a cameo appearance or some talk show. And I thought he’d always be there for me to go back to, so maybe I took him for granted.

In any case, it’s for that reason—his vitality—that a lot of people will say his death feels unreal. As unreal as the sadness in him that only insiders seemed to acknowledge. He was not a suicidal icon. He was the human Jaws of Life. He’s the guy who reportedly talked a disabled Christopher Reeve out of suicide. He’s the guy we turn to when we’re down.

The comic crying on the inside is a cliché. But when you turn it over, you can ponder how great artists become estranged from their own talents, how their ability to summon brilliance in words or movement might become a blank or banal experience for them—a horrifying idea, especially to the audience that craves a connection to the people who bring them joy and perhaps dreams of somehow giving it back. I think of a Williams movie, “The World According to Garp,” a movie I saw when I was perhaps too young because, despite its flaws and weirdness, it had a very strange grip on my heart and even influenced the course of my life. I think of the short story “Magic Gloves” described in the movie, about a man who can make people happy by touching them, yet can’t feel them, and dies trying, and I’m sad again, because today that seems appropriate.

The comics of the ‘60s redefined their art as philosophy, examining the mundane, questioning what language was, what nature was, in an appropriate revolutionary spirit after Vietnam and Watergate. Williams came up a bit later and reflected something very different: the aesthetic experience of life as television. He was as fast in his patter as the boob tube—probably one of the few people who was faster in associative thinking than teenage channel changers—and could synthesize weird cartoon voices, hippie wisdom, unconscious horrors, puerile boy fascinations, feminist critique and political schadenfreude all at once into one experience of being the way the Beatles could synthesize “Blue Suede Shoes” and Fluxus. Williams was the living remote control for the 80s. He didn’t merely give voice to ideals of the time; he showed the experience of all the information noise and offered possible transcendence of it. His style was such that he was like the rocket once described by Louis C.K.: something that sucks everything up into it, including flowers, trees, lakes and (according to a few comedian detractors) maybe other people’s jokes.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Williams’ career and cable TV developed together. Here at once was the benign Mork who offered you “nanoo nanoo” on Channel 5 side by side with Robin Williams the cocaine animal spirit on Home Box Office talking about bawdy sex and the dangers of toot, the red and the blue side by side, the barriers between our Vaudeville silliness and our dangerous private compulsions exploded. (Before that, comedians kept their risqué stuff for when they were “working blue” off camera.) The convergence of 24-hour TV, HBO’s premium content and the unity of light and shadow in Williams’ characters allowed straight culture and the underground to feed off each other and offer us the best (the beast?) of the two.

What did this mean for me as a kid going through puberty? A lot. I almost hate to admit it, but probably one of the reasons I moved to New York when I was 25 was that T.S. Garp told me in 1982 that that’s what real writers did. (OK, Woody Allen helped, and later Lou Reed, Sonic Youth and Thomas Pynchon.) But Robin Williams and other comedians pondering the unconscious on pay cable also offered me a glimpse into what sex was, at least if you joked about it, what religion really was, if you joked about it. There’s a lot that kids ought to learn in school but don’t because there’s no point of view on it. From Williams (and Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and George Carlin) you got a viewpoint, and thus a narrative, and thus a reason to remember all these confusing dates and places and rituals. Honestly, I only remember what the Edict of Nantes is because Anne Beatts once told a joke about it.

For a not very intellectually curious kid (me circa 1982), Robin Williams offered explanations of who Alexander Haig, Charles Manson, William F. Buckley and P.W. Botha were, and by the way, they were ridiculous.

And it was a talent whose sweep was broad enough for horror. Garp witnessed two assassinations and succumbed to another. Williams did not buckle as an actor in confronting these developments. Instead, his face registered the pain of watching idealism die (those fake assassinations were about real ones). If you were young and watched Mork confronting existential terror, you realized finally that there was a way to reconcile it to your innocence and maybe even your optimism and go on. The comic who had showed you what style was in the postmodern era, was there to show you all the facets of what’s comedy and horror and comedy again.

But ultimately, a lot of his routines were life affirming, inoffensive to the powerful, interested in shared humanity rather than fraying human bonds with acid, which is why the love for him today is largely apolitical. He could joke about childbirth. Joke about generation gaps. Joke about cats having sex (and being offended by the dog watching) in a way that the president or a 5-year-old could laugh at. Sometimes I wonder if that’s the best mark of greatness in art there is—something accessible to a child that you grow to love more as an adult.

Today we have to confront Robin Williams’ sadness, and to assume a man so beloved by millions had no one to talk to about his despair, even to his family and children. Depression, like genius, wants no company. (I think of the wife in Mrs. Doubtfire, who was tired of being in the shadow of such a staggering personality, having all the style sucked out of the room before she could use any, and wonder if any of that happened in Williams’ real life personal relationships.) Both depression and genius reflect, if nothing else, a brain talking to itself, trying to find satisfaction in itself. Depression is both a psychological and neurochemical problem. Whether you’ve seen it work directly or indirectly through somebody you care about, you probably know that it’s a constant headache. A lack of motivation. A feeling of helplessness or a zombie-like feeling of being trapped in your body where you are forced to do things you don’t want to do—like be awake ever again. Pleasant physical sensations like laughter or sexual fantasy no longer succor this person. I would almost go out on a limb and say that the “reason” for being sad doesn’t matter to somebody who’s truly depressed. He or she will simply make something up to choir with the pain. (“The world is awful.” “I’m a fake.” “I’m worthless,” etc.) So as much as I’d like to think Williams simply forgot he was a genius for a brief tragic moment and that he’d made us all happy, what I really think he forgot was the nature of his affliction and that if he’d waited, not listened to himself, he might have emerged from the depths into the arms of those who truly knew and loved him. But what is an artist if not someone who goes on instinct? Could anyone stop him?

I’d like to think we could. Because how many more geniuses do we have to lose this year? Let’s let the kid in me talk: I grew up with Robin Williams, and I loved Mork, and “The World According to Garp” made me want to move to New York and be a writer. Even when Williams’ movies were bad, I often loved watching him make stuff up. A person who helped fill the creative ether with ideas for me to drink from is filling the world with his ideas no more. I hadn’t put him on a list of my artistic heroes in a long time, because I’ve never wanted to be an actor or a standup comedian. But he’s part of my subconscious in numerous ways, feeding my ideas, a guy whose talent I’ve probably at one point or another secretly wished I had. He’s always been an affirmation of life for me. That won’t change because of what happened today.

 

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Country star Mindy McCready died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound on February 17. What are we learning from Internet trolls about her life and music?

–*She was an angel.

–*No she wasn’t, she was a bad mom.

–*Yeah, she abandoned her kids.

–*No she didn’t, she tried to get them back.

–*Yeah, by kidnapping them. Drug addict!

–*Yeah, and her music blows.

–*This was a senseless tragedy.

–*If by “senseless” you mean everybody saw it coming a mile away.

–*You guys don’t know her pain. I know she kidnapped her son, did drugs, forged prescriptions for OxyContin, drove drunk, overdosed while pregnant, jumped bail, neglected her children and murdered a dog. But are those things worthy of judgment?

–*Rest in peace, Mindy.

–*Rot in hell, Mindy!

–*I don’t believe the hate I see on the Internet.

–*I don’t believe the hate I see on the Internet and I am only three years old.

–*Dean Cain is hot!

–*The church is very strict about suicide and she will not be saved. Love, Pope Benedict (ret)

–*The Second Amendment is the law and nobody can change that. Just try.

–*Look, Mindy never did anything to me personally, so I guess I’ll give her a pass.

–*I wish I could just hug those two children close to me, feel their little hearts beating against mine, fondle their hair, whisper to them, “It’s OK. It’s OK” while I explain to them that their mother was a drug-addled screw up.

–*Why does Roger Clemens get to be involved in EVERY scandal?

–*I don’t know. I trust Dr. Drew implicitly and I still think he can save her.

–*I do not trust the liberal media! Mindy is alive!

–*Whore whore whore!

–*You are an evil pig for saying that.

–*He’s just trying to get a rise out of you and her fans.

–*Don’t tell me who I can call evil.

–*Fuck you!

–*No, fuck you!

–*My sister looks like Mindy McCready.

–*Good, maybe your sister will kill herself.

–*You’ve got to be pretty messed up to make Tom Sizemore look good.

–*When I think of those poor children, it just gets me thinking about my own life and my OxyContin additions and the outstanding warrant I have and my constant fear that the police are going to break down my door any minute. And I just think of those poor, poor children.

–*When I got in an argument with my boyfriend about going out with the girls, I put on “Guys Do It All The Time” by Mindy to rub it in his face. And when we broke up and got back together, I had to play him “Ten Thousand Angels” to let him know I wouldn’t fall for it all again. And when we did get back together and broke up again I played “You’ll Never Know.”

–*Is there any question about why he left you?

–*I don’t know, I’m pretty smart about these things. I think this had something to do with the 9/11 conspiracy.

–*An ecclesiastical question: Is that dog going to hell?

–*I never met Mindy, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and blame myself for her death.

–*Death diminishes all of us. Even Mindy McCready’s death. I think.

–*Her Web site headline is “I’m Still Here.” Will somebody please do something about that?

–*Satin Satin Satin!

–*The spelling is “Satan” you dipshit.

–*Mindy, you were let down by so many people. Your mother, your father, BNA Records, the father of your first baby, the judges, Roger Clemens, the parole board, Dr. Drew, Vivid Entertainment, the father of your second baby, the Arizona police, the Tennessee police, Capitol Records, Dean Cain, Drake Berehowsky, The View, the makers of Darvocet. … So many people let you down.

–*You all need help! There is so much hate here.

–*I hate you.

–*I hope you rot in hell and Satan himself gives you a punji stick infection and drinks blood from your skull you impotent wuss. And I hope he pokes your eyes out and eats them like marshmallows that he roasts over licking hell flames before putting them down his gullet and then I hope you can still see with them as he shits them out into fire shit … We love you Mindy!

–*I hope for Mindy’s sake, comments are going to be disabled soon.

–*Comments disabled.

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