Friday, August 15, 2014

Mourning the Death of Greatness, Lamenting the Lack of Its Rebirth -- On the Passing of Robin Williams and Other Legends

Just past 6:00pm on Monday, my friend Dave texted me:

Most shocking death since Michael?

At that point I had not yet heard the news, and though I correctly assumed the gist of Dave's query--that a really famous person had died, perhaps more shockingly than anyone since Michael Jackson in June 2009--for a moment I wondered if maybe he was just posing a question without imminent relevance, as Dave and I often text each other seeking recollections and opinions about music, movies, sports, etc.

When I looked and found that it was Robin Williams who had passed, the news was certainly unexpected, but whatever the delineation, I would say my reaction was more one of surprise than of shock.

I knew that Williams had had heart issues, and even in reading that suicide was suspected--and has since been confirmed and detailed--I recalled that the legendary comedian and actor had spoken of suffering from depression and struggling with addiction.

So--as I conveyed back to Dave--in terms of pure shock, the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman earlier this year came more completely out of left field (based on what I knew at the time) and hit me with more force. 

Truth is, that unlike Hoffman, I hadn't paid much attention to Robin Williams in recent years.

I only made it through a few minutes of one episode of The Crazy Ones, his sitcom with Sarah Michelle Gellar that was on CBS last season before being cancelled.

In looking at his credits on IMDB, it seems the last film in which Williams had a starring role that I saw anew was 2002's Insomnia, and though I very much like several of his earlier movies, I hadn't recently revisited them.

Although I believe it apt to call Robin Williams the best talk show guest ever, I can't recall a specific appearance of late, and remember thinking at some point that his manic stream-of-consciousness shtick had become a bit over-the-top and repetitive on late night TV.

And while I enjoyed seeing him live at the Chicago Theatre in 2008--on his now even more painfully titled Weapons of Self-Destruction stand-up tour--I didn't think he was nearly as good as in 2002 at the same venue.

That 2002 appearance was one of the most memorable of the 1,500+ live performances I've ever seen. (Williams was part of another in doing a stand-up set at the 1986 Conspiracy of Hope concert at the Rosemont Horizon that also featured the Police, U2, Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed and Bryan Adams.)

Not only was Williams fantastically funny at the Chicago in 2002, but I've never had a better seat for any show.

Rather amazingly.

You see, I typically select the cheapest ticket option for any show I attend, for I would much rather go to more shows with cheap seats than fewer shows with good seats.

I had purchased four tickets to one of Williams two shows at the Chicago Theater that February, which sold out instantly. 

The other three were for a co-worker who was a good friend at the time, his now wife and his mother, none of whom would have likely gone otherwise had I not been able to score tickets as soon as they went on sale.

The tickets I bought were over $60 apiece with Ticketmaster fees, but were in the very last row of the Chicago Theatre. I was perfectly fine with these as I usually sit in the nosebleeds, the venue isn't that big, I always bring binoculars and I was seeing a famous guy telling jokes, not a chorus line of beauty queens.

My friend understood the situation, but when we got to the theater and climbed to the top, let's just say his mom was doing a whole lot of kvetching about our shitty seats.

Miraculously, for no known reason, a woman who legitimately turned out to be a representative of
Robin's--we were rather skeptical of being scammed--came by our lofty perch and offered to exchange our tickets for four in the front row.

For free.

We wound up in the very first row, dead center. I swear I could see Robin Williams' nose hairs, and I'm sure plenty of his saliva landed on me as he excitedly told jokes with his trademark fervor.

But it was well worth it; not just to be that close to a living legend who was truly remarkable that night--with largely the act performed in his Robin Williams on Broadway HBO special--but because of the way it shut up my friend's mom.

So for reasons that also include liking Robin dating back to Mork & Mindy in my childhood and many of his movies--Good Morning Vietnam, Awakenings, Good Will Hunting, Patch Adams, Aladdin and Insomnia being among my favorites, with several more that I will watch or re-watch soon--I am quite saddened by his death, especially at his own hands.

As I posted on Facebook, it's heartbreaking that depression can be so crippling, even for someone who brought the world so much laughter. 

Thursday's revelation by his wife, Susan Schneider, that Robin was in the early stages of Parkinson's disease, only added to the sorrow for a man who was clearly suffering more than the public ever knew.

Since Williams' death I have read, seen and heard many tributes to his brilliance as a comedian and an actor, recaps of his best movies and great roles, recollections by his friends and peers that almost universally convey what a nice guy he was, stories decrying the ravages of depression, articles encouraging those who need help to seek it and urging America to do a better job addressing mental illness, a TIME piece on the connection between Parkinson's and depression, and sensitive thoughts on the topic of suicide--which, like substance abuse, often isn't prevented by one's wealth, intelligence, renown, talent and even supportive family life.

There have also been horrifying stories about how Williams' daughter Zelda was driven off Twitter by assholes, and a shrewd piece by the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones about the ubiquity of social media mourning by celebrities and the public alike.

If you've wanted to, you've read--or can--much more astute pieces on any or all of the above than I'm capable of writing. 

So although my regard for Robin Williams is certainly high enough for me to do so, I am not writing this simply to pay tribute to him nor to comment on the circumstances surrounding his death at age 63. (I did write such a piece about Philip Seymour Hoffman.)

Rather, while it is certainly secondary to the grief, sorrow and loss Williams' family, friends and fans are feeling, I can't help but also see his death as yet another example of the erosion of artistic greatness that doesn't seem likely to be replenished in equal measure.

And it reminds me that along with rock and roll, jazz, painting, movie acting and many other creative idioms, stand-up comedy is another art form in which the ratio of here-and-gone (or at least greying) to up-and-coming is seemingly 100-to-1.

That I, and likely you, can't name another comedian--especially a living one--with a style and wit comparable to Robin Williams' is one thing.

Illustration by Tom Richmond, (c)2014

But neither I nor Dave could come up with the name of a current great or really well-known stand-up comedian under the age of 40. 

People are still paying good money to see Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Jackie Mason and Bill Cosby, all well beyond 75.

Sadly, two of the greatest ever, George Carlin and Richard Pryor, didn't make it that far.

Jerry Seinfeld is now 60 and Steven Wright 59. I was surprised to learn that Chris Rock--who I still think of as a young comedian--is now 49, and even relatively big names like Dane Cook and Joel McHale are over 40. Jimmy Fallon will be in a month.

If you know of anyone of a younger age who you consider comparable to comics like those above, please let me know.

But to my awareness, or lack thereof, the dearth of brilliant comedians who are reaching the masses is one more reason to rue not only the passing of Robin Williams, but that of David Brenner and John Pinette earlier this year. Plus comedy legends Sid Caesar, Harold Ramis and Rik Mayall, even if they weren't really stand-ups.

And while I certainly do not mean to disparage the undoubtedly vast number of talented and dedicated young artists who may not deserve to remain under-the-radar, my lament goes well beyond the realm of stand-up comedians.

How many actors or actresses under 40 do you perceive as being or likely ever becoming as legendary, iconic or accomplished as Williams, Hoffman, Lauren Bacall, James Garner, Mickey Rooney, Elaine Stritch, Ruby Dee, Eli Wallach,  Maximilian Schell, Bob Hoskins or Shirley Temple? Or even as beloved for character roles as Ralph Waite, Ann B. Davis, Russell Johnson and Dave Madden?

Yes, there are many great writers out there, including rather young ones, but it's doubtful we'll see the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Maya Angelou again.

If you've perused this site for any bit of time, you'll likely have noted that most concerts I see are by musicians over 50, 60 or even 70, for as I've often lamented, there aren't many new rock artists I much care for. And I want to enjoy the legends I love while I still can.

Though I never did see Johnny Winter, Bobby Womack, Pete Seeger, Phil Everly, Tommy Ramone or jazz legends Horace Silver and Charlie Haden other than on screen, I don't sense that their ilk is being regenerated anytime soon, nor a pop lyricist on par with Gerry Goffin.

Even though great athletes, coaches and broadcasters will likely always remain relatively plentiful, the likes of Tony Gwynn, Jack Ramsey, Ralph Kiner and Jerry Coleman were all rather unique.

And with nothing but esteem for all the brilliant doctors and surgeons who better the world, and the world of sport, Dr. Frank Jobe had an impact that very few will likely ever have again.

There are many reasons to be saddened by the untimely passing of Robin Williams, and others who adorn the Chicago Tribune's notable deaths of 2014 photo gallery that expands almost every day.

Excepting any with whom we have direct relationships, our sorrow for celebrities who die typically involves admiration and appreciation for the work they did, regrets that there won't be more of it, a wistfulness for our eroded youth, a universal sense of sympathy for their loved ones and/or a reminder of our own mortality.

For me, add to that a frequent feeling of artistic brilliance being erased from the world at a far greater rate than it is being added.

So in saying "Farewell, Robin Williams" with an acute sense of sorrow, I also more broadly bemoan the probability of almost never again saying "Nanu Nanu" to anyone of his kind.


Ken said...


Methinks somehow that Robin would have appreciated your review of his life's work. More important is your tribute to him as a good human being. What other performer treats back row fans to front row seats? It says something about Robin as a person doesn't it? If it wasn't for your willingness to tell us, how many of us would have every known about his unheralded kindness? Certainly something to commemorate.

As to the accelerating decline of burgeoning cultural I'm depressed! Sad, but true.

nora said...

Have you seen Bill Burr do stand-up? He's quite original and talented--I can't wait to see what he comes up with next. (However, I think he is over 40, unfortunately.) A comedian who is young and I think is really going to go places is a young lady named Amy Schumer. I think her target audience is comprised of young women, but you might find some truth and humor to her insightful observations!