On August 11th, 2014, Robin Williams took his own life. He was one of the funniest people alive, perhaps to have ever lived. Who would say differently? Bitter people, and rocks, and things without backbones, but no one sad who needs light. If you are sad, you cannot be a monster. Robin Williams cried a clown’s tears, and drowned.
I discovered Marc Maron’s WTF podcast only this year. After a long conversation with a friend on the difficulty–perhaps futility–of creative work (at least in terms of getting paid for it), my friend suggested I listen to Maron’s interview with Will Ferrell. Marc asks Ferrell about the vast universe of opportunities opened up by the internet, and Will replies that yes, in terms of absolute opportunities to have your material accessible to others, the number is now greater. “But it’s harder than ever to get paid,” says the very successful Ferrell.
I knew nothing of Marc Maron and wish I had. He is the perfect angry man: honest, incisive, unflinching, vulnerable, self-destructive, the child become a man who realizes he is still a child wanting his boo-boos fixed. Self-knowledge is power and it boils out of him. His studio is his garage in his house in some hilly and unpalatable part of Los Angeles, and he opens most shows with an update on the neighborhood cats that come to his patio door. He gives them food and later reports their lengthening absences. No man that reaches through his bitterness to care for furry creatures can be bad.
The friend that turned me on to Marc Maron and WTF lives in Los Angeles. He has a dog and a very senior cat. If there is anything holy, it is the fact that my friend is good.
I haven’t sought out Maron’s recordings or his many TV appearances or his writings or checked on local appearances, but should. I don’t beat myself up about this. I don’t beat myself up about a lot of things these days.
I have read through his website, particularly the about page. At the top are sentences of wisdom so clear, concise, and relentless they have transubstantiated not into truth but the vast shining beauty that makes jewels of truth shine:
- The great philosophical question once was – What is the meaning of life? Now I think the great philosophical question is – How am I being used and am I okay with that?
- If it weren’t for the shame of the rich there would be no charity.
- In the American south there is an ignorance that runs so deep it actually has integrity.
- If you’re a talented person and you’re not successful there is probably something inside you that is stopping you from being successful, and sadly, it might be your talent.
- In most cases the only difference between depression and disappointment is your level of commitment.
The last two struck me when I first read them. They struck me again today, after having listened to Robin Williams and Marc talk, four years ago now.
I was eight or nine when Mork and Mindy was new. I remember a little of the show then: Mork in his suit at the close of each show, the three chorus members he addressed with the episode’s moral revelation having their backs to us in their strange helmets, the brilliant Jonathan Winters appearing as Mork’s son. It was a frenetic show, and I don’t understand why I didn’t glom onto it more. In middle school it was on every weeknight at 10, the half-hour before Star Trek. I seldom watched it. Star Trek was serious business then.
I have Williams’ first album, Reality…What A Concept, on LP, bought secondhand from Fort Worth’s Record Town. It went into my comedy album rotation with Monty Python, Bill Cosby, a Flip Wilson album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, and, I think, a cassette of Spalding Grey recorded off the radio. I bit pillows and towels at George Carlin specials, made available on VHS by the kids whose parents splurged on HBO. They can say that? was the primary reaction. There was that for me, sure, but then there was the adult reality Carlin and all the rest had seen, grabbed, gotten messy with, and were now reporting back to us. School wasn’t telling us anything. We really needed to know this.
Williams danced around TV and in movies. I didn’t fixate on him but appreciated him. Catching a Johnny Carson or Letterman appearance was a random gift. That he could play a dramatic character with nuance and sincerity was the revelation of Dead Poet’s Society. There is more to us that we know.
Marc and Williams talk for an hour, as much about their mutual dark times as good-time-hey-do-you-remember-this. How did you deal with the resentment other comics had at your success? Well, you just have to be Buddhist about it and let go.
Williams is quiet, almost whispering: I struggle to hear him over Marc’s relative shouting. Only a few times does the big-top Williams come out and overwhelm with a character or a joke, Marc cracking up. We all crack up. They talk about how this is a defense, both four years ago and in Marc’s introduction and conclusion. It’s another side of drinking, doing drugs, anything to fill that void. Sometimes the room is immense. Sometimes it is the unfillable abyss.
They talk about depression, highs and lows, what was accomplished with drug use if nothing more than understanding why they used. Marc’s father had serious depression; Williams’ father told him to have a backup career, like welding. Neither shies from anything; nothing is forbidden.
Comedy saved me in eighth grade. It was a bad time: the start of the year missed due to mono (which hung around for decades as chronic fatigue), pressure to go back to school as soon as possible, adrift and drowning in classes meant to accelerate college-bound me. English was worst. A tiny, elite class of overachievers, underachievers, and one kid who was terrified of getting something wrong. Taught by a furious, condescending and capricious man whose hatred of teaching filled what had been a tiny, warm room with sharp grey fog, the class terrified me. I threw up before and sometimes after. A then-friend snorted at how badly my hands shook. I developed the insomnia that persisted through my thirties. The anxious depression I thought I’d felt earlier at contemplating the world’s nuclear end came out into the open, introduced itself, and sunk its icicles into my hand.
I asked my parents if I could drop TAG English. Just that one class–I’d keep up the others. They didn’t think that was a good idea. We had the conversation on a weeknight, with me already in bed, in my room. When they left I first felt the walls closing in just as they fell away, leaving my little boat lost in the great dark.
The Bill Cosby albums had been played plenty, but now I listened to them every night. Cosby defeating the chicken heart with the Jello-slicked floor was the funniest thing I knew, and after a week or so I could laugh at it. Andy Griffith’s What It Was, Was Football bit was the next thing that registered. Pryor’s records I first heard on cassette copies, the deck’s auto-stop like a bomb going off around midnight. (I listened to that one early, or sat up to stay awake and stop the tape myself. Quietly.)
At first I grabbed at each word, even though it was right there and at no risk of escaping: grabbed and lived inside the twenty minutes of an album side. As weeks went on I still needed the albums, and noticed the next day if I fell asleep without a sustaining dose, but I was less shattered, the gaps between my pieces closer. TAG English still felt like the copies of 1984 we were reading, but leaving the room left it there. I could struggle with algebra better, avoid bullies with kung-fu quickness. I was holding it together.
Maybe Williams was too much then. He must have been known, listened to, but I never picked it up. Trapped in suburban Texas, there was no chance to see him through the window of a Bay Area club. He was nearly twenty years older than me, in a different world. But I only now realize he was doing something like what I was doing: whatever was necessary to make the laughter come, because not having it was so much worse.
Only since my 40s have I thought about comedy as a means to share your darkness with others, and through that sharing expel it, or at least hold it off. Marc brought it up with Williams over and over again. Williams never told him he was wrong.
At points in Marc’s recording, Williams sounds uncomfortably vulnerable. It is probably one of the few times Williams ever was to someone publically. Even Williams, the great frenetic funnyman, his titanic free-association engine always compiling and ready to erect a hilarious edifice of funhouse mirrors, was spinning as fast as he could. Marc has done that. I have done it. I bet you have.
There are two points in Marc and Williams exchange that crystallize in impossible and subtle beauty for me.
At about fifty minutes in, Marc asks Williams what some of his favorite experiences have been. Williams relates working with Jeff Bridges. Something technical went wrong and the shot couldn’t work the way it was intended. It seems to me that Williams implies his anxiety, but Bridges channels his inner Dude: …and [Bridges] says it’s a gift if something screws up. It’s a gift. Don’t be afraid of it.
I wrote this down and have it posted on my wall.
In the last few minutes, when Marc is hashing over Williams’ heart surgery and the closeness to death, Williams doesn’t give in:
I mean, when I was drinking there was only one time, even for a moment, where I thought: mmm, fuck life. I went like, my conscious brain went like: did you just say ‘fuck life’? You know, you have a pretty good life as it is right now. Have you noticed the two houses? Yes. Have you noticed the, uh, the girlfriend? Yes. Have you noticed, you know, that things are pretty good even though you may not working right now? Yes. Okay, well, let’s put suicide over here in discussable, let’s leave that over here in the discussion area. We’ll talk about that. First of all, you don’t have the balls to do it. I’m not gonna say it out loud. I mean, have you thought about buying a gun? No. What were you gonna do, cut your wrist with a WaterPik? Maybe. [Marc cracks up.] That’s erosion. What’re you thinking about that? So, can I put this over here in the ‘what the fuck’ category? Yes. Let’s put that over here in what the fuck, because–can I ask you what you’re doing right now? You’re sitting naked in a hotel room with a bottle of Jack Daniels. Yes. Is this maybe influencing your decision? Possibly. Okay. We’re gonna put that over here, and tomorrow morning– And who’s that in the bed there? I don’t know. Okay. Well, don’t discuss this with her, because she may tweet it. [Marc cackles.] Okay? This may not be good. Let’s put that over here in what the fuck category. We’re gonna put that over here, possibly for therapy if you wanna talk about that in therapy. Or, maybe a podcast two years from now. You wanna talk about it in a podcast? No, I feel safe. You’re talking about this in a podcast. I know. Who is this? It’s your conscience, asshole. Oh. Okay. So, have you ever thought about it since then? No. During the surgery were you thinking about death? No. Why? Because…eh, I was just thinking everything’s gonna be fine. Was that your mother talking? Maybe. She was a Christian Scientist who had plastic surgery. Wow. Is that a mixed message? [Marc laughs wheezes.] Yeah, it is. Okay.
Williams delivers this in a soft therapist lilt, calm and soothing. Reading my transcript you don’t know where to laugh. It’s so earnest. It would be painful if you didn’t know it was from a comic podcast.
Robin Williams, Marc and I aren’t any different. I haven’t done the drugs and drinking, but from all accounts it sounds like we’ve been in the same dark pit, stumbling over drunks and furniture, going through the motions even though we understand the futility. There is no light there, no matter how much we may be laughing. And then there is light. With the pit behind us we forget even as we remember, because everything is okay and everything is going to be fine.
I can’t learn that lesson too many times.
Marc asks Williams about his quick rise via Mork and Mindy. What was the fallout from that? Williams said when his first album won a Grammy, he was proud, thinking this was the breakthrough, the real launch. Then, walking down the street, people still yelled: Hey, it’s Mork!
Mork is what people remember, and he enjoys how that touched people. He accepts he has no control. He’s glad they still like Mork.
It took me almost a month to listen to Marc’s Robin Williams interview. I wasn’t avoiding it, but I didn’t have the time it deserved. Yesterday, facing a job starting and the loss of free time, I did. It was the strange space I expected, the voice so vibrant now belonging to a ghost.
I texted my LA friend after. I want to find him somehow, make him a sandwich, share a package of Oreos with him. The last ten minutes of him discussing with his conscience the nonsense of killing himself was hilarious, and like my experience. I just want to give him a hug.
YES, my friend replies.
In the end, no matter what, the only option is YES.