Tess Has Opinions

On Robin Williams and Therapeutic Comedy

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Back in 2009, Michael Jackson’s death was the biggest piece of celebrity news in my eyes. His was the first celebrity death that I had ever been truly affected by, and given the number of people at my uni who couldn’t stop talking about it for weeks, I’d say a great number of people my age felt the same way. I remember sitting with a group of friends and talking about how the world (or at least the UK) hadn’t been in such an intense state of mourning since the death of Lady Di. We each wondered whose death would be the next one as hard-hitting as MJ’s. I can’t remember whose names we threw around, but I remember we settled on Nelson Mandela.

Of course when Mandela passed away last year, his death was very big news. But it definitely wasn’t as talked about within my community and age-group. That’s simply because he wasn’t current; by the time I was old enough to start understanding the politics and movements that Mandela was known for, he was already retired and considered more of a historical figure.
Robin Williams’ death, I realised the other day, was the next hard-hitting death that my friends had been wondering about back in 2009. Children, adults, and the elderly have all heard of Robin Williams, have seen his films, and has most likely been entertained by him. He was current, to everyone.

I’ve never considered Robin Williams to be my favourite actor, comedian, or even an influence. I don’t know anyone who has. But it wasn’t until I considered the truth that we will never see him again that I understood what an under appreciated part of my life he had been. He was responsible for a lot of the joy in my childhood, and I know that I will miss him terribly.

But something amazing has come out of Robin Williams’ tragic death. If you’ve spent more than five minutes on the internet over the past few weeks, you’d notice the incredible amounts of positive communication about depression, suicide and the nature of comedy. Sure, there’s been the regular amount of shit that can be expected when it comes to the web, the kind that forced Zelda Williams off Twitter, but let’s focus on the good here.

So many people were asking the same question: “how could someone known for comedy have depression?“. It’s an unbelievably common misconception, but most people make the assumption that funny people have to be happy. People have been able to raise a lot of awareness about depression because of this, and many people have been able to share feelings they couldn’t share previously. One of my personal favourite YouTube videos was by comedian David So, who had me in tears with his vlog about the great pain behind comedy.

“Comedy is real because it’s an art form that expresses laughter through pain. You know the stories that you hear, the fucked-up situations that we’ve been in, and all the humour that comes from that comes from a very personal space. It’s just that comedians have the ability to turn that anguish into something bearable, which for us is laughter. […] In Robin Williams’ case, I can’t help but wonder if at the moment of his death that he realised how much his work affected everybody else in the world. And if he didn’t, and that was the case, how lonely must he have been? […] To be a comedian that can give life and value to other people through the comedy that you make, but to not be able to do that for yourself, you know that must have been terrifying. To be honest, when the laughter stops, and you can’t find joy through that pain, that is exactly what you’re left with…pain.”

Videos and articles like this have been met with a lot of compassion and so much more understanding, and even as someone who understood the darker nature of comedy, I still found that I had a lot to think about when it came to that subject.

I believe that most of us use comedy to deal with our issues; unless you’re some sort of ultra-serious so and so, I’m pretty sure you’ve followed the “you’ve gotta laugh about it” philosophy at least once in your life. Though we’re not all comedians, though we may not all have a mental disorder such as depression, we can always sympathise, if not empathise, with comedians’ pain.
This led me onto thinking about hecklers, or people in general to get offended by a lot of the material comics use these days. Let’s face it, edgy comedy is more popular these days, but there’s often news stories about a comedian going too far and seriously offending someone. I’m fascinated by the concept of offence, and have written a few articles about it, and I’m reminded once again how tricky a subject it really is.

It’s pretty undeniable that if a comic makes a joke about something risqué such as addiction or depression (as Robin Williams was known to have done), someone is going to get offended. Even if it’s arguably not that bad, there will be people who don’t think it is anything to joke about. Ever. And that’s fair enough, I think people are always entitled to their offence. One could argue “well if you’re offended, just don’t expose yourself to what you’re offended to“, but that argument just opens a whole clusterfuck of subsidiary arguments, each with their own levels of validity, that I have neither the time or spiritual energy to get into.

The point is, while people should have the right to express their offence for a joke a comedian makes, how many people actually consider that by voicing their offence, they could be offending that comedian in turn?

To take an example from my own life, there’s a little running joke with my friends and sometimes work colleagues that goes along the lines of “if in doubt, it was Tess’s fault“. This is a joke that I instigated myself and, after reflection, realised was a subconscious decision to deal with my insecurities through humour. The issue of “everything is Tess’s fault” has been the cause of a great deal of suffering in my past and if I was still in that same period of my life, a running joke like that could have caused me a lot of pain. But because I’m in a new phase of my life and am learning to heal, my subconscious decided at some point that I was ready to turn my past pain into something positive. It’s a very therapeutic experience, and a great one to analyse psychologically.

Now imagine I made a similar joke during a stand-up comedy tour. I can pretty much guarantee that someone, somewhere, will be offended by me making a joke about pain. Someone who probably went through the same kind of thing I went through, or may still be going through it. Of course it would cause them offence. Of course, I believe they are entitled to voice their offence. But what about me? What about the comedian trying to deal with their pain in a positive way? If someone voices their offence, especially if it’s done in quite a nasty way, I could very well be damaged from that. If I was still quite fragile, still deep in the process of dealing with these issues, someone telling me that I can’t laugh about that, I’m not allowed, could be interpreted by the subconscious as an order not to continue to heal. I’m not allowed to feel better about this issue, the subconscious could think. And I know to the conscious mind that probably sounds a bit ridiculous; that’s not the message at all. But anyone with a basic knowledge of psychology should know that you should never underestimate the power of the subconscious.

I’m reminded of a YouTube video of Joan Rivers handling a heckler who didn’t appreciate her comedy about deaf people. Now, my loyalty to Joan Rivers wavers every so often, and it has most recently due to her really ignorant remarks about the current Gaza situation. No matter how edgy her comedy normally is, the YouTube clip in question clearly shows a bit in Rivers’ routine which is very personal to her.

As soon as the heckler speaks up, Rivers’ immediately attacks him. She doesn’t handle it incredibly gracefully because she is defending her right to express something painful for catharsis. She lashed out immediately because she knew her outlet was under threat. At least, that’s an interpretation. Nothing is ever concrete in psychology, it’s all just guesswork after all.

So many comedians this week have spoken out about their need to make humour from negative experiences. And unfortunately, the flip side is that some people will get offended by the sensitive subject matters. Some people believe that there should be stricter guidelines on what comedians are allowed to talk or write about, but I believe that kind of action would only make us all suffer more. Comedians would be deprived of a massive healing outlet; sure, they could potentially get the same catharsis from joking around with friends and family, but what if they don’t have that? And audiences across the world would be deprived of an incredibly important message. Without comedians to show us the way, will people in pain learn to laugh through their issues? Will they learn that laughter is a healthy substitute for the alcohol, drugs, junk food that they consume in order to make it through?

That’s what I wish people would consider more when they voice their offence about comedy. I hope we can all learn to evaluate whether an edgy joke is in poor taste, or if it’s actually more of a therapeutic experience for the comedian. Maybe if it is, we could maybe look at the matter with a little bit more compassion if we chose to then voice our offence. Maybe soften the blow. I think it’s what Robin Williams would have wanted. That man who lightened up my childhood, and even in death has managed to convey a very important lesson on the essence of compassion on so many different levels.

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One thought on “On Robin Williams and Therapeutic Comedy

  1. What a very thoughtful, deep and moving post. I learned a lot about comedy reading this, and was touched by your comments on the power of healing for us all. A fitting tribute to Robin Williams which I only wish his family could read. Chapeau.

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