The sad clown cliche

People are often quick to see depression as a byproduct of good comedy, but a more throughtful, more helpful conversation has followed Robin Williams’s death

Comedy genius: Robin Williams. Photograph: Jay Paul/New York Times

Comedy genius: Robin Williams. Photograph: Jay Paul/New York Times


Shortly after news of Robin Williams’s death broke, on Monday night, a joke went viral. It’s from Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen, and it goes: “Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world. Doctor says, ‘Treatment is simple. Great clown, Pagliacci, is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.’ Man bursts into tears. Says, ‘But doctor, I am Pagliacci.’ ”

Many people who commented on the joke on social media said it was the first thing they thought about when they heard about Williams’s death. A man who had fame, fortune and the love and admiration of millions seemed to be a Pagliacci in our midst, a chronically depressed man with continuing alcohol issues.

A lot of people posted information about mental-health helplines and websites. Stephen Fry tweeted a link to a beautifully written essay about dealing with depression. The English comic Jason Manford simply wrote, “If depression can kill Robin Williams, it can get any of us at any time. You, your child, your friend or your work colleague.” He was retweeted thousands of times. Dara Ó Briain wrote: “There are people who can offer help without judgement or obligation.” A service-update board at Earls Court Tube station, in London, on Tuesday was erased of travel information to carry a poignant quote from World’s Greatest Dad, a film Williams appeared in in 2009. “I used to think that the worst thing in life was to end up alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel alone.” It reduced some commuters to tears.

Not everyone has been supportive. Twitter has promised to change its policies after the actor’s daughter, Zelda Williams, reported that some users had harassed her with cruel tweets about her father’s death and disturbing Photoshopped pictures of him.

That can only have made it harder for the family in the context of details that his widow, Susan Schneider, gave on Thursday. Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, “which he was not yet ready to share publicly”, she said, adding that “Robin’s sobriety was intact” at the time of his death and that they hoped, “in the wake of Robin’s tragic passing, that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing so they may feel less afraid”.

The normal trajectory of sadness and grief after the death of a well-loved figure has not been followed here. There was a sense of defiance as colleagues, celebrities and fans marked the actor’s death with personal confessionals and practical advice.

Jeffrey Lieberman, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, in New York, said, “Robin Williams was such a charismatic and beloved figure that if his death can galvanise our society to act, instead of just grieve, it will be a fitting memorial to him.”

The Irish psychologist Stephen Joseph, a professor at the University of Nottingham, cautions that this consideration of mental-health issues may last no longer than the week-long news cycle.

“To very many people Robin Williams would have been seen as a high-functioning star of screen and stage, and any episodes of depression he talked about would have been put down to his artistic sensibilities,” he says. “But as much as we must consider how the reaction to his death may help awareness and understanding, there are people with severe mental-health issues whom we walk past every day as they are begging on the street.”

We are quick to equate manic depression or bipolar disorder with comedians; the Watchmen joke is just one example. And, historically, the geniuses of comedy – Williams, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor – have had mental-health issues that they turned to alcohol to cope with. But some of the biggest names in comedy today – Chris Rock, Eddie Izzard, Michael McIntyre – all appear to be functional, relatively sober and balanced individuals.

The Dublin comic Paddy Courtney used to do a routine about how he retired from comedy “just before it turned me into a manic depressive”. Now working as an actor and writer, he says that “stand-up is perhaps the only job in the world where when you get off work someone puts a drink in your hand. All comics starting off and breaking through are routinely not paid in cash but in free drinks by the promoter. This can set a pattern. If you have a bipolar condition, the comedy world will reward you. If you feel, however wrong it may be, that drink and drugs help to ‘even you out’, you will find a happy home in comedy. Robin Williams was, to the end, addicted to being a stand-up.”

His fellow comic Kevin Gildea says, “Watching Robin Williams perform live, I was always struck by how audiences viewed him as almost a godlike figure, such were his capabilities. When you become accustomed to being able to tear up an audience the way only Robin Williams could, your life and the way you view the world is distorted. The rhythms of everyday life were not for Robin Williams. You cannot go with ease from reducing a roomful of people to hysterical laughter to dealing with the banalities of day-to-day living.” is screening Good Will Hunting in Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin, tonight; 9.30pm (gates 7.30pm); €10. Proceeds go to mental-health charities

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