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Published on August 15th, 2014 | by Sharilyn Johnson


Robin Williams and the Joyful Subplot

In gaining insight into the darkness of Robin Williams, we shouldn’t explain away the light.

If you’re reading this, you probably know something about comedians (or are one).

And if you’re like me, you predicted the headlines that would flow into our corner of the internet following the news of his death: Why are so many comedians mentally ill?

This week I’ve been moved by the incredibly brave first-hand accounts of my friends’ struggles with mental illness. Many of those friends happen to be comedians.

I also read disappointing portrayals of the profession from mainstream sources. Experts and laymen alike painted sad clown portraits with broad strokes, supported by a jumble of legitimate research and anecdotal generalizations.

Despite any truth behind it – and there is a degree truth behind it – this “damaged comic” narrative is much more romantic than it is helpful.

The amplified conversation about mental health itself is of course wholly positive. Because of this tragedy, we’re learning more about depression this week than we might have ever learned in our lifetimes. While the facile musings about comedians can be frustrating, the crying-on-the-inside trope won’t devalue the important dialogue that’s been started.

But the loss of Williams also forced something else of value to the surface: the notion of comedy as a noble pursuit.

When he died, my Twitter feed was instantly overtaken with beautiful words of appreciation about the joy he put into the world, how hard he made us laugh, the happiness he brought to millions. Posted 3 seconds, 1 second, 4 seconds apart.

It’s as though the news was so jarring that it stripped the very concept of a comedian down to its core. We felt the loss of a person who was put here to make us feel good.

It’s natural to want to ascribe pure motives to him, and believe that he found deep satisfaction in giving us laughter. It may well be true, given the stories of his decency that have circulated, though we’re not in a position to truly know his intentions.

There are endless reasons to be drawn to a career in comedy. It can be as innocuous as wanting a creative outlet and a means to be heard. It can be as egotistical as a pursuit of fame and fortune. And indeed, it can be a selfless calling, driven by a love of creating joy for others. Typically it’s mix of many factors, and those can even evolve over the course of a career.

But regardless of motive, the end value of comedy is the same: joy. The shock of losing Williams, especially in this manner, seemed to be a reminder that oh yeah, that’s what that job is. And it’s amazing.

It really is. How awesome is it that, as humans, we’re able to do this for each other? And that a person can choose to dedicate their entire life to giving it to others? But it’s something people don’t actively think about. Unless maybe they’re high. Or a sap like me.

Regardless of how large the intersection of depression and comedy is, positioning it as an automatic cause-and-effect only serves to explain away something that we have the option of seeing as beautiful.

Comedians don’t suffer from mental illness. People do. Friends, neighbours, family, regardless of their profession. We can support them and and reach out if we think something might be wrong. But an audience is not an active support system. There’s nothing we could have done for Williams, and there’s nothing we’re qualified to do for a stranger on stage who could be going through the same thing.

We should automatically feel the inherent goodness in comedy, and not burden ourselves by wondering if a broken spirit is to blame for causing our joy. It does no good to laugh, and in the same moment question whether the performer is only giving us this gift because there’s something “wrong” underneath.

Instead, we should choose to see something very right. The decency and the big heart and the empathy that we believe drove Williams to make us feel so much joy? It might not exist in everyone who holds a mic in their hand, but it does exist. Believe me.

So in light of all that we’ve felt this week, maybe appreciate comedians a little more. Thank a comedian. Fuck it, hug a comedian. Not because they might be sad, but because they’re making us happy.


About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

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  • The Colbert Report A-Z

    Third Beat editor Sharilyn Johnson presents the ultimate fan guide to The Colbert Report, available from all major booksellers including amazon.com