Comedy’s Cost

Matthew Hennessey in City Journal:

RobinComedy, they say, is tragedy plus time. It may take a while for the world to laugh again at the comic genius of Robin Williams, who died this week, apparently at his own hand, after what he himself called a long struggle with addiction and depression. This sudden and tragic ending seems at odds with the joie de vivre that he brought to his work. Manic, magical, incandescent, uncontainable—there aren’t adjectives enough to describe Williams’s improvisational talent and the role he played in American popular culture over four decades.

He was the Keith Moon of comedy, barely believable, a sweaty mess yet somehow right on the beat, a size XXXL figure with almost no earthly point of reference. It seemed as if he’d arrived fully formed, in an interstellar egg-ship like his first, wholly original creation—the now nearly non-translatable icon of the late 1970s, Mork from Ork. Then it seemed as if he’d always been here, as Popeye, as Garp, as the tweedy English teacher you never had but always wanted, as the zany and improbably Scottish Mrs. Doubtfire. He was a slam dunk on Leno or Letterman. In fact, he was a slam dunk everywhere. There were no half-assed Robin Williams appearances. He never phoned it in; you got the sense that he couldn’t. Like any comedian, some of his gags didn’t land, but not for lack of trying. Williams was all-in to make us laugh. The price, it seems, was paid mostly by him. His public exuberance masked private anguish. And in the end, tragedy won out of over comedy, as it does for many who strive to make us laugh.

More here.