Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Is laughter really the best medicine?

By now I'm sure the entire world has heard of the death of Robin Williams.  I've seen many people on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. give their condolences to his family, lament the tragic loss, and run through a roster of their favourite TV and movie moments.  I myself, like so many, have enjoyed pretty much every performance Mr. Williams has ever done.  Mork & Mindy is easily a childhood favourite of mine for example.
And yet, among all the heartfelt mourning, the great big scalely fire-breathing elephant/dragon hybrid in the room that alot of people are talking about is clinical depression, specifically the type that may have inspired Robin Williams to take his own life. It's got many people asking "why?"  He had Hollywood sized fame, legions of fans, many hit movies, a frequent favourite guest on talk shows (whether he had a project to push or not), an Oscar win, a loving family, and of course enough money to keep said family comfortable for a few lifetimes. What exactly could he be depressed about?

Well, first of all, I'll say that the "sad clown" is not exactly a new concept. It goes back as far as the Italian opera Pagliacci in the late 19th century.  Many many famous comedians have dealt with a deep depression of their own.  For instance, Jerry Lewis once attempted a grizzly suicide.  He even had a gun in his mouth and was ready to pull the trigger.  What saved his life, he claims, is that in the distance he heard some children laughing.  That was enough to inspire him to put the gun away and keep on living.  Another famous comedian with this affliction that I'll mention is Groucho Marx.  He never attempted suicide but he did accurately define a psychological complex that only he could fully understand.  Also, it did rather traumatize his children in any one of his four marriages.
One more comedian I'd like to mention is one that, like Robin Williams, gave into the demons inside his head and took his own life: Richard Jeni

Though not nearly as accomplished as Mr. Williams, he did have a nice career going.  He was always touring with his stand up routine.  He got the part of Jim Carrey's best friend in The Mask.  He also was the star of a sorely under-rated sitcom in the '90's called Platypus Man.  He even had a very supportive wife.  Here's a bit of this man in action:

Sadly, for some reason or another, this funny man woke up one morning, put a gun under his chin and pulled the trigger.  He was pronounced DOA at the hospital.

What on Earth could have possessed either of these men to commit suicide, especially in such a violent manner?  Richard and Robin were guys who clearly hated themselves.  How can anyone hate someone so funny and so willing to share his whimsy with everyone?
One clue I think can be found in something Mr. Jeni said at one point.  He said, "it's very hard to get over the rejection you experience when starting out as a comic".  It is true that you do retain negative stimuli more easily than positive stimuli.  Perhaps that's it (or at least a part of it).  No matter how much laughter and applause these artists received at the height of their careers, they couldn't feel fulfilled knowing that a few audiences didn't like them.  The memory of that one scowling face in Hoboken 30 years ago could not even be erased by a sold out crowd at Madison Square Garden rolling in the aisles with rib-bruising laughter.
But I'm sure even that is very small part of the larger picture.  The human brain is an intricate maze of mystery and we're not even close to finding everything it's capable of doing.  This type of psychology has many unanswered questions that we won't solve anytime soon.

Earlier I said that people all over the internet and TV were talking about their favourite Robin Williams moments.  Well, right now I'd like to bring up one of his LEAST liked moments.  I'm talking about that infamous Mork & Mindy episode that I do believe is ranked as one of the worst episodes of anything in TV history.  It's the one where Mork shrinks down into a parallel universe and gets mixed up in a battle between the Sillies and the Glums.  The basic story line is that the Glums (depressed people) have taken over the land and forced everyone to be miserable.  But, the ragtag revolutionaries known as the Sillies (happy people) are waging a war against the Glums to make their land happy again.
Besides being awkwardly written, directed, acted, etc. the entire concept is all wrong and easily demonstrates just how unfit the writers on that show were for TV or any medium.  In reality, within a comedian's brain, the "glums" and the "sillies" work together to create the comedy.  They've all learned to play with their pain.  Charlie Chaplain could do it.  Tina Fey always does it.  George Carlin and Richard Pryor were masters of turning their pent up frustrations into great comedic bits.  By separating the two elements in that episode they render both of them utterly useless for any entertainment value.  The Glums are just boring while the Sillies are just empty impressions of famous people.

Watch that episode embedded below and see what I mean:

While still on the subject of depression, I'd like to give a little tiny lecture to someone at Fox News, namely Shepard Smith, for referring to Robin Williams as a coward for his suicide.

Sir, that is rather unfair and uncalled for.  You don't know what he was going through.  You don't fully know or understand his struggle.  Be grateful that he remained strong for 63 years and gave us such wonderful entertainment in the process before he gave in to his demos.  Mr. Smith, your comment is like seeing a man carry his entire house on his back from Los Angeles to New York and then coming down on him for not taking it all the way to Bangor, Maine or maybe even Greenland.  Very shabby, sir.
*huff* *puff* I only did something extraordinary instead of something super colossally amazing.  Shepard Smith is right.  I am a failure.

This brings me to what the title of this blog post means.  We've all heard the saying that "laughter is the best medicine".  The theory is that a good laugh no and again will help shake any depression away.  If you're worried about any medical, financial, or relationship situation then laughter can help take the edge off and thus let you cope with said situation with a clearer mind.  Heck, that was the basic philosophy behind a Robin Williams movie Patch Adams.  So, in light of this recent suicide, the question needs to be asked: "If the king of merriment can't be saved from the torment in his soul, then what chance do we mere mortals have?"  I'd like to attempt to give an answer for that query in the hopes that it can help someone in some small way.
Since we are equating laughter to medicine, then it is important that we talk about it like a drug.  The  dosage of this drug depends on the size of the malady.  Remember that one's feeling of sadness is subjective and based on perception.  So, if you're feeling a bit irked because of a trivial "first world" problem, then a bit of humour is in order; a good knock-knock joke, a nasty Yo Mama joke, etc.  If the sadness is in more of the crippling category, then a good sitcom, possibly a marathon viewing of that sitcom would be a good idea.  Or, instead of merely watching something funny you can go ahead and write something funny.  Remember, that's how all of these comedians got started.  They kept using humour as a coping mechanism for their dark feelings and the next thing they knew they had their own HBO special.
It's also important to remember to keep up the doses regularly.  Keep those spirits up.  Maybe that's why Robin died on that fateful day, he had forgotten to take some of his laughter medicine.

Well, I guess that just about wraps up this blog post for me.  I know for me writing it feels very cleansing.  I hope all that read this feel the same way.

Although before I go, I will say that we can all do our part in preventing the next suicide.  Please keep in mind that artists of any medium such as stand up comedy, screenplay writing, comic book illustration,  song writing, song performing, etc. always put quite a bit of their own personalities into everything they do.  When they hear someone say "I don't like this bit of entertainment" to them it sounds dangerously close to "I don't like you".  That can weigh heavy on the soul.  I know it's important for artists to develop a thick skin and learn to tolerate negativity, but as we've seen, it can only get so thick.  If you feel the need to criticize any work of art you see just remember to keep it constructive and less like a knee-jerk just to be negative.

I will end this post with a video of Robin Williams doing what he did best, manic rapid-fire improvisation.  Enjoy!

And thank you for everything, Mr. Robin Williams.  Your divine impact on this world will not be forgotten.


MelMel said...

This was a great read, I loved Robin Williams since I was a kid! This sentence "If the king of merriment can't be saved from the torment in his soul, then what chance do we mere mortals have?" made be literally burst into tears. Its odd that I ran across this after rereading your Looney Tunes blog, because Someone I know just loss their son, and Im hearing it was a suicide :(

David Germain said...

Thanks for the kind words. Yeah, I was just as shocked about this as most of the rest of the world was. Making this post was my way of dealing with it.

I hope Robin is happy and comfortable wherever he is.