Reality, What a Concept

RIP, Robin Williams. When my wife and I were driving to an early dinner this afternoon, the DJ on one of the local FM stations said somewhat cryptically as a song was fading out, “If you’d like to express your thoughts about Robin Williams, please visit our Facebook page,” before going into a commercial. My wife and I looked at each other said, “Uh-oh.” I fired up my tablet, and saw the news:


According to police in Marin County, California, Williams was found “unconscious and not breathing” just before noon Tuesday inside his home in Tiburon, Calif., following a 911 phone call. He was pronounced dead at 12:02 p.m. after emergency personnel arrived. They added that the actor was last seen alive at 10 p.m. Sunday.

An investigation into the cause of the death is under way, but “the Sheriff’s Office Coroner Division suspects the death to be a suicide due to asphyxia.” A forensic examination is scheduled for Tuesday, along with a press conference that will be held at 11 a.m. in San Rafael, Calif.

Williams’ publicist Mara Buxbaum told The Hollywood Reporter: “Robin Williams passed away this morning. He has been battling severe depression of late. This is a tragic and sudden loss. The family respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time.”

In the 1980s and the naughts, Williams relied upon reactionary GOP bashing in his stand-up routine, but the memories of his initial apolitical manic appearances on Johnny Carson, on Mork and Mindy, and on his first comedy album, Reality, What a Conceptm are indelible, as Williams, Steve Martin, and Saturday Night Live defined the late 1970s comedic zeitgeist. Sadly, that album isn’t online, and currently goes for fur sink money on Amazon, to mix a metaphor from Williams’ peer, Steve Martin. (I wore the grooves out of the album when it debuted; a few years ago, I downloaded it from YouTube; I can pretty much do the routines word for word when I listen to it), but this later standup routine from the early 1980s is online — and possibly prophetic:


[jwplayer player=”1″ mediaid=”74952″]

Williams “suffered a lifelong struggle with depression, alcohol and drugs,” Nikki Finke writes:

After starting his battle with addiction in the 1970s he once explained it this way: “Cocaine for me was a place to hide. Most people get hyper on coke. It slowed me down.” He went on and off treatment for the next two decades, then he quit cold turkey. But then he fell off the wagon and famously went to rehab in 2005. In late June of this year, he checked himself into the Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center near Lindstrom, Minnesota, to avoid falling off the wagon again. “After working back-to-back projects, Robin is simply taking the opportunity to fine-tune and focus on his continued commitment, of which he remains extremely proud,” the actor’s rep said at the time. Williams died with four movies coming out: Boulevard, The Angriest Man In Brooklyn, Night At The Museum 3, and Merry Friggin’ Christmas , for which his co-star Joel McHale told the press in July that Williams was fighting to get his life back on track: “He wore his struggles and sobriety and was very up front and candid about what he has gone through. I know he is a man who likes to win and be healthy. So him going back to rehab, I pray it all works out.”

Williams’ career spans several decades, but he reached superstardom in the late 1970s, the very end of the era of mass media, when there were still only three broadcast TV channels; as we move further into the 21st century, there will be fewer and fewer performers who aren’t in a narrow-casted showbiz niche.


It’s difficult to understand what demons could lead Robin Williams to suicide, given that while Williams’ TV series on CBS had been recently cancelled, between standup, movies, and TV, he likely could have made an extremely good living for himself for as long as he wanted. I remember hearing an interview 20 years ago with business consultant Dan Kennedy, who had just shot an infomercial featuring Joan Rivers. He said Rivers used a Yiddish analogy: if everybody could hang their problems on a communal washline as if they were laundry, you’d gladly take yours back and let the rest of the world keep theirs. I’m eager to hear what drove Williams to suicide, given that he had already achieved legendary status in TV, movies, and standup comedy.


As Moe Lane writes, “Depression is a horrid thing, and it’s hard to see somebody else succumb to it. If you suffer from it, please don’t be afraid to seek treatment. All human life has worth.”

More: Damn straight (to both tweets):

Oh, and don’t ever change, you ghouls at the House of Stephanopoulos and Rosie O’Donnell.

Update (8/12/14): According to Radar Online, Williams had severe cashflow issues, related to leading the showbiz lifestyle and his multiple alimonies. And while I know that Williams has had a reputation dating back to the late 1970s or early 1980s of “borrowing” other comedians’ riffs, Kathy Shaidle links to I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era at Google books. According to author William Knoedelseder, even the title of Williams’ first album, used in my headline above, was lifted from fellow comedian Charles Fleischer, who would later become famous in his own right as the voice of Roger Rabbit.



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