When Chris Gethard performed his stand-up at New York City’s The Stand comedy club on Monday night, less than an hour after hearing about Robin Williams’ suicide, his jokes initially fell flat. Distracted by Williams’ death, he went on autopilot, trotting out lines that had worked in the past, all the while thinking, “I bet Robin Williams never once had a crowd as quiet as this. I bet he never let them be this quiet.”
Gethard shared some history with Williams. They once did improv together at New York City’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. And, like Williams, Gethard has battled internal demons.
As Gethard’s set progressed, he eventually rallied, “And for a nearly imperceptible window, and to a fraction of a degree, I realize I am forcing them to have a good time like I once watched Robin Williams do,” he wrote in a piece published on vulture.com on Tuesday.
“I didn’t know Robin Williams well, or at all, really,” Gethard wrote. “But I stood on a stage conversing with him in front of a crowd, and I got to feel a monstrous energy emanate from him, a runaway train that remained positive and inviting and intriguing; and I got to feel a crowd respond to it, and when I think about what I learned that night, as a performer and a fan and a guy, I realize it’s that Robin Williams made people laugh for all the right reasons.”
The “right reasons,” he said, were that Williams could make people laugh despite “darkness and awful situations and separated families and cancer-stricken kids and even aliens who feel alone in the world because no one else will ever truly know what it is to be him.”
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For Gethard, that achievement is the takeaway from Williams career. It overrides the dissections and deliberations about the manner in which he died, which have consumed the airwaves and the Internet since his suicide Monday.
Within 24 hours of Williams’ death, after the 1.5 millionth hit on Google for “comedian” + “depression” on the Web, the idea of connecting humor and suicide has been so thoroughly flogged that there was an inevitable recoil. Even staid Scientific American weighed in, arguing that Williams’ suicide was a result of mental illness -- not comedic genius.
Everyone, it seemed, had something to say about the topic. Implicit in the public debate was that in taking his own life Williams had essentially handed over the mic to anyone who wanted to speculate about his tortured soul or to deconstruct anything that any funny person, including him, had ever said or done. He had added his own name to the list of comic geniuses who had self-destructed, joining Richard Pryor, John Belushi and Chris Farley.
Running through the accolades and lamentations about Williams' suicide was a thread that some comedians found discomfiting: the notion that their craft was in some way rooted in the kind of tragic worldview that killed him. Comic writer David Wong wrote in “Cracked” magazine on Tuesday that “suicidal thoughts are so common among our readers and writers that our message board has a hidden section where moderators can coordinate responses to suicide threats.” He added, “while I don't know what percentage of funny people suffer from depression, from a rough survey of the ones I know and work with, I'd say it's approximately ‘all of them.'"
Some comedians, including Gethard, question the idea that being comfortable with dark humor -- and even darkness itself -- indicates that one is at risk. But it's unlikely that many audiences will hear the idea discussed in a comedy club. And it would be seen as both disrespectful and unfunny for a stand-up comedian to incorporate Williams' suicide into a comedy routine. Among those who performed the first show at The Stand on Tuesday night, only one mentioned Williams at all -- the comedian who goes by the stage name Godfrey, who knew him.
Godfrey frequently tweeted about Williams on Tuesday, at one point urging, “Every comedian around the world should give a shout out to Robin Williams during or right after he or she exits the stage!” He dedicated his own set at The Stand to Williams, with whom he had worked many times, and said he had never met a nicer, funnier guy. Then, after a round of light applause, he moved on to his own jokes. The show went on.
In his commentary, Gethard, who has suffered from severe depression, sought to discount the supposed link between comedy and tragedy. “Do comedians have to be depressed to be funny?" he asked. "The answer is no. All kinds of people get depressed -- comedians just happen to be people that professionally deal with the manipulation of happiness, laughter, and other positive emotions, so maybe it stands out more or gets more pronounced.”
Comedian Seth Herzog shares that view. He noted that a documentary exploring the topic, “Comedy Loves Misery,” directed by actor and comedian Kevin Pollak, will be released later this year, but said the stereotype of the comedian battling demons has gained resonance primarily because comedians' battles tend to be high-profile.
Those battles also tend to be highlighted because they seem so incongruous. Williams’ reported depression is given the imprimatur of fact in most media accounts, though it was never diagnosed. Though he spoke frankly about his drug and alcohol addiction, about having had open-heart surgery and about having once considered suicide, he never acknowledged a diagnosis of clinical depression.
He did talk about being insecure, and said he believed it was a common condition among comedic performers. In a 2010 interview with fellow comedian Marc Maron that was reposted Tuesday on Maron’s website, Williams asked, “How insecure are we? How desperately insecure are we that makes us do this for a living?” He told Maron he had been given many second chances in life, including through open heart surgery, during which surgeons had physically “cracked the armor” by opening his rib cage, which he said had a profound effect on him emotionally. And he acknowledged having once considered suicide, while on a drinking binge; he then launched into one of his signature imaginary dialogues, this one between himself and his conscience over whether he should do himself in. Ultimately, he said, he decided to, “Put that over here in the WTF category.”
As Gethard pointed out, Williams was not alone in exploring life’s foibles, including evidence of his own emotional vulnerability, as comedic fodder. The list of comedians who have battled addiction, clinical depression or some other form of mental illness is long, and includes Charlie Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, Jonathan Winters (Williams’ comedic role model), Richard Pryor, John Cleese, John Belushi, Chris Farley and, more recently, rising star Maria Bamford, many of whom have incorporated their troubles into their routines for comedic value and perhaps as a way to work through their pain. Bamford even jokes about her suicidal tendencies, though she discourages any audience member who shares them from following through.
The act of following through, of course, is about as far from comedy as one can get, which is one reason no one at The Stand joked about depression or suicide, though they made light of Ebola, Gaza, date-rape and racism. Herzog said it’s unlikely that many comics would mention Williams in their routines, simply because his death is so sad.
And as for the supposed link between depression and humor, Herzog told International Business Times, “I don’t think it’s real for everyone. We end up talking about it because a lot of the ones who are depressed are the ones who end up dying. The ones who aren’t grow old in Hollywood.”
Herzog conceded that there may be “a slight correlation,” but said he doubts depression is much more prevalent in comedy than in, say, the banking or fashion industry.
“It just gets more press,” he said.