Tears of a Clown

A few words today about actor and comedian Robin Williams, who died yesterday in tragic circumstances. He was a fixture of my entertainment landscape since childhood, a mercurial clown who seemed to pop up everywhere with the right quip on the tip of his tongue, the funniest and smartest guy in whatever room he happened to occupy. I didn’t enjoy all his work, but when he was good, he was very, very good. He made me laugh, and he made me think, usually at the same time, just trying to keep up.

This is a moment I particularly enjoyed, from the film Dead Poets Society, in which Williams portrays a teacher with a singular talent for inspiration:


Robin Williams was a man blessed with a genius for assuming a thousand identities in rapid succession, at a moment’s notice, but it seemed to me as I watched him over the years that he was unmoored from his own identity—a brilliant chameleon struggling to remember the original color and pattern of his own skin. He battled addiction and depression, common hazards of his chosen profession.

Here’s another humorist who was battered by depression, and an image of how it might have felt:


masksComedians, in their private lives away from the spotlight, are often profoundly unhappy people. Not always, but often. Part of what gives comedy its satiric bite is a keen awareness of all that is fundamentally wrong with the state of mankind. The injustices. The petty indignities. Promises unkept and expectations unmet. Routine evil and casual horror. The savagery lurking beneath our thin veneer of civilization.

It’s no accident that the iconic symbol of the dramatic arts pairs comedy with tragedy.

Comics are the little child who, alone among the multitude, ridicules the naked emperor. They’re the Shakespearean fool who deals in snide, ugly insights the king’s advisors could never dream to utter. They’re the wild-eyed eccentric standing on the corner in tattered clothes, waving a dirty square of cardboard with a greasy black scrawl: Repent, for the End is Nigh.

They force us to confront that from which we turn away, covering our eyes. They dispense harsh realities in tiny, colorful pills, candy-coated with laughter. We’ll comprehend the bitter truth later, after a season of digestion, but it will do us good. The best comedians lift a measure of life’s burden from our shoulders for a moment, even as they open our minds and prick our consciences, and we love them for it.

But who bears their burden after the show’s over, after the crowd’s gone home and the floor’s swept, when they’re left alone in the darkness and the silence on an empty stage to contemplate this broken world they see all too clearly?

Who offers laughter to the clown?


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