“O There You Are Peter!” What Robin Williams Taught Me About Funny Serious People

I got a little teary-eyed today when I remembered that part in Hook where the little lost boy plays with Peter Pan’s face, takes that grownup frown and tries to force it back into a smile. He sees the happy smiling boy he once knew.

It’s one of the most touching children’s movie moments I’ve ever witnessed. It still gets me.

I feel like we’re all doing that now, trying to take the face of this man and smooth back the memory to the happy thoughts that made him as magical as we remember.

Peter Pan is a mythical character, a boy who never grew up. He taught us that happy thoughts help you fly. That and a little pixie dust. Early in his career, Robin Williams was an engine running on “pixie dust” and happy thoughts. You wouldn’t have guessed that a deep sadness lingered beneath. It’s a very serious thing to deal with.

Mrs. Doubtfire may have been my earliest memory of Robin Williams. It was one of the first times I saw a divorce play out on screen. It was a hilarious movie, but the idea of childrens’ parents splitting was dark to me. I remember how sad the ending was for me, because I didn’t think it would we happy unless the family got back together. It felt real. The pain in the movie made it real. It was honest. I didn’t grasp it that way as a kid, but it made an impact as more than laughter. His performance touched at the heart.

Something about every one of his humorous performances ended up not only making me laugh, but making me hurt. Confronting the oblivion of his childhood joy in Hook; pining for freedom from a communist frown in Moscow on the Hudson; sharing a story of abuse in Good Will Hunting; mourning over the death of his girlfriend/classmate in Patch Adams or the death of his son in World’s Greatest Dad. For a comedian, Robin Williams seldom played a role that was purely comical. There was always a somber element that made the entire performance inspiring.

When you saw that man’s eyebrows ruffle and his face pout and his voice drop, you felt the gravity of whatever was going on inside him in an act that was almost too good. You almost wanted to say, “you’re supposed to make me laugh, funny man. Stop doing this to me.” But it was too honest and raw to dismiss. It all seemed so improvised it might have been adlibbed straight from his own emotions. It was necessary. He gave you a portrait of a human with emotional range in all of his roles.

Robin Williams taught me that some of the funniest people were deeply troubled inside. Deeply alone, deeply sad, deeply anxious. If you were funny, you didn’t have to be a one dimensional character.

Even the Genie taught me that. And as the Genie, he taught me that if people just keep coming to you for wishes, you aren’t free. If people keep coming to you for laughs, you’re not free either. Those are the people that make you feel the most alone, the ones who expect you to be one type of person all the time. We should not be surprised that this can happen even to a celebrated celebrity, a small population of people who deal with social and personal struggles in their own way, “apart” from a society that often elevates them too high.

Williams’ career was haunted by characters—his own or others—who suffered depression (Patch Adams, Fisher King, Good Will Hunting), who were suicidal (Dead Poets Society, What Dreams May Come, World’s Greatest Dad). Even Capt. Hook, who suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder, contemplated the existential philosophy of suicide with dramatic flair, as trapped in adulthood and sadness as was his nemesis. It seemed to gravitate Williams in one way or another, either by script choice or casting choices. It was natural to him to take roles that blurred the lines between comedy and tragedy. His tragic death sheds a different light on how he seemed so fit to play such complicated roles exhibiting great humor and deep woe, roles where the human psyche is tormented and fighting for happiness. He spent a lifetime teaching us about deep sadness and “excessive happiness”.

As Patch Adams, he taught us that medicine is about treating the soul. But for a man who played a man known for being “excessively happy”, Robin Williams was often excessively depressed. It was a battle we were shocked to find out he had fought. It shouldn’t surprise us merely because we remember him as funny. He was able to be both, as a person and as a character. But characters we can put aside. Real people suffer real issues.

Since I was little I liked being funny and making people laugh. I learned from Robin Williams that when I was sad, there wasn’t something wrong with me. Being sad went with being happy as part of being human. Being funny went with being depressed.

I never suffered from clinical depression. At least I assume I haven’t. I am not speaking as someone diagnosed with it or exhibiting the symptoms. But for a person who has gotten a lot of attention in my life for being funny (or trying to be funny), some of my saddest and loneliest times were times nobody knew I was sad or lonely. Sometimes it was because I didn’t want people to break the image they had of me, or spoil their fun, or because I thought I had a duty to be happy, or appear happy. Sometimes being funny was a way to suffocate sadness. I don’t feel that makes me too different from countless other people who struggle to cope with the human condition. If being sad is hard enough for me, I can only imagine what it is like for someone battling depression.

You can find a lot of famously funny people who suffered from depression or other emotional conditions that need treatment. In some way, Robin Williams has been communicating what it’s like to be funny and depressed throughout his career. The tragedy is that as an audience we may not have noticed until he was gone. His movies have a new dimension to them that he may have wanted us to see all along, not as a cry for help, but as a plea for understanding. Excessively whimsical and bubbly humor is not a guaranteed sign of a mind at ease with its own feelings.

“Excessive happiness” is not a personality type. It’s a feeling. And happy people do not feel it all the time. Let’s not forget that the real life Hunter “Patch” Adams made several attempts to take his life before becoming a doctor, and if you had met him you would have been surprised to hear it as well.

Robin Williams taught me that funny and sad are not unlikely pairs. Many of his characters were variations of self-portraits. This made for memorable comedy and inspiring drama. It also makes for a call to consider the assumptions we make about people based on the emotions they inspire in us. Depression may surprise us, but it shouldn’t.

Practice excessive happiness from time to time. Inspire it in others. You might help save a life. But know that everyone around you has their battles, and it is good for the soul to be aware of how you can help others fight theirs. Sometimes those who gift the world with happiness are in desperate need of that same gift.

Doctors can become ill. Counselors need counseling. Clowns can frown. Genies have wishes too. And sometimes even Peter Pan needs help finding his happy thoughts.

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