Robin Williams: Driven by Madness



"You're only given one little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it." -Robin Williams

Arguably, the single-most repeated question newcomers to stand-up comedy repeat themselves when watching a performance is "Was what he said true or is he making it up for the show?" Well, for Robin Williams, the argument can be made that, yes, most of it was true. The interesting aspect about Williams' life is that what drove him to the peak of both his intellectual and vocational career as a writer, producer, director, comedian and actor was also what slowly led him to his suicide; it was a case of bitter irony.

Robin Williams' comedic career began at an early age; his first stand-up appearance took place when he was only 20 years old at a local comedy club in San Francisco called the Holy City Zoo. Following that appearance, Williams was slowly influenced by great comedic minds such as Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters, Peter Sellers, and Lenny Bruce.

There were many red flags throughout Williams' career that point to the fact that he was living with depressive sentiments. He would always perform shows with his personal life as the comedic focus, stressing that bringing up such private matters was "cheaper than therapy." William's admiration for comedian Richard Pryor's ability to speak fearlessly about his alcohol and drug problems may also be interpreted as a red flag; perhaps Robin Williams was so fascinated by stand-up comedy because he saw it as a medium to vent about his personal problems in a socially acceptable manner.

There is a theory called the "sad clown stereotype" (or syndrome) that suggests that comedians are more prone to depression due to the nature of their work. This theory implies that because comedians often demonstrate characteristics that can also be found in persons with schizophrenic tendencies, they too are believed to be mentally unstable. Have you ever watched a performance in which the comedian flawlessly creates a dialogue between multiple imaginary characters? If so, you're witnessing that spark of madness, that schizophrenic behaviour scholars believe comedians share with mentally unstable patients.

However, to tie back into the opening of this article, can an argument be made that this newfound knowledge concerning comedians' stage-facades will affect public enjoyment? Would you find it funnier watching a comedian joke about his personal drug addiction or would you feel more at ease knowing he's simply making it all up for your enjoyment? Some audiences respect comedians and praise their genuineness and authenticity, arguing that doing so brings life to the show, while others advocate that it's a subtle cry for help.

For comedic genius Robin Williams, his depressive attitude is believed to have fuelled his comedic career. Will this news make acts less enjoyable knowing the majority of the content that is believed to be our enjoyment isn't really a façade or will viewers eat it up? I guess we'll just have to see who follows in the footsteps of this great comedic genius.

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It was a real shame the day he passed. We should re-examine how we look at mental illness so that others like Robin can get the help they need and still bring smiles to our faces.

Mental illness affects everyone at some point in their lives, either personally or through friends and family. It shows that everyone, even famous, happy people, can be subject to mental health. It was a shame when Robin passed away. He will be missed.

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