Robin Williams and Why Funny People Kill Themselves
You ever have that funny friend, the class-clown type, who one day just stopped being funny around you? Did it make you think they were depressed? Because it's far more likely that, in reality, that was the first time they were comfortable enough around you to drop the act.
The ones who kill themselves, well, they're funny right up to the end.
By now you know that Robin Williams has committed suicide, but I'm not here to talk about him. He's gone, and you're still here, and suicidal thoughts are so common among our readers and writers that our message board has a hidden section where moderators can coordinate responses to suicide threats. And in case you're wondering, no, that's not a joke -- I remember the first time John tracked down a guy's location and got an ambulance dispatched to his house. Then we all sat there, at 4 in the morning, waiting to hear if they got there in time (they did).
Because Cracked is driven by an army of aspiring comedy writer freelancers, the message boards are full of a certain personality type. And while I don't know what percentage of funny people suffer from depression, from a rough survey of the ones I know and work with, I'd say it's approximately "all of them." So when I hear some naive soul say, "Wow, how could a wacky guy like [insert famous dead comedian here] just [insert method of early self-destruction here]? He was always joking around and having a great time!" my only response is a blank stare.
That's honestly the equivalent of "How can that cow be dead? She had to be healthy, because these hamburgers we made from her are delicious!"
In lieu of comedy in this piece, please accept these humorous animated gifs.
So I don't know Robin Williams' situation, and I don't need to -- I can go scoop up an armload of examples without leaving my chair. As one of the head guys at Cracked, I'm surrounded by literally hundreds of comedy writers, and I inhabit the body of one. Kristi Harrison recently wrote about the psychological dark side of being funny, and was speaking from experience. Or, here's John Cheese talking about his recent adventures on antidepressants. Here's Mark Hill on his depression, here's Dan O'Brien on his social anxiety, here's Tom Reimann on his, and here's C. Coville on the same. Here's Mara Wilson on having an anxiety disorder, here's Felix Clay on regret, here's Gladstone on emotional trauma, and Adam Brown on almost dying from cough syrup addiction. Those are just the ones off the top of my head. You get the idea.
Now do you want me to tell you how many messages/comments/emails we get from fans telling a writer to "kill yourself" because said writer wrote a joke they didn't like? When I ban them, they always act confused as to why.
"What, you're saying Cracked writers are a bunch of tortured literary geniuses? You write boner jokes in list form, for Christ's sake!"
Yeah, and Chris Farley just made wacky slapstick movies about a fat guy who falls down a lot, right up until he stopped his own heart with a drug cocktail. The medium has nothing to do with it -- comedy, of any sort, is usually a byproduct of a tumor that grows on the human soul. If you know a really funny person who isn't tortured and broken inside, I'd say A) they've just successfully hidden it from you, B) their fucked-uppedness is buried so deep down that even they're in denial about it, or C) they're just some kind of a mystical creature I can't begin to understand. I'm not saying anything science doesn't already know, by the way. Find a comedian, and you'll usually find somebody who had a shitty childhood.
Here's how it works for most of us, as far as I can tell. I'll even put it in list form, because who gives a fuck at this point:
1. At an early age, you start hating yourself. Often it's because you were abused, or just grew up in a broken home, or were rejected socially, or maybe you were just weird or fat or ... whatever. You're not like the other kids, the other kids don't seem to like you, and you can usually detect that by age 5 or so.
2. At some point, usually at a very young age, you did something that got a laugh from the room. You made a joke or fell down or farted, and you realized for the first time that you could get a positive reaction that way. Not genuine love or affection, mind you, just a reaction -- one that is a step up from hatred and a thousand steps up from invisibility. One you could control.
3. You soon learned that being funny builds a perfect, impenetrable wall around you -- a buffer that keeps anyone from getting too close and realizing how much you suck. The more you hate yourself, the stronger you need to make the barrier and the further you have to push people away. In other words, the better you have to be at comedy.
4. In your formative years, you wind up creating a second, false you -- a clown that can go out and represent you, outside the barrier. The clown is always joking, always "on," always drawing all of the attention in order to prevent anyone from poking away at the barrier and finding the real person behind it. The clown is the life of the party, the classroom joker, the guy up on stage -- as different from the "real" you as possible. Again, the goal is to create distance.
You do it because if people hate the clown, who cares? That's not the real you. So you're protected.
But the side effect is that if people love the clown ... well, you know the truth. You know how different it'd be if they met the real you.
I get a dozen messages a week from people telling me they love me, I get a few a month from people saying they want to meet me in person. You know, kind of like how they watch an episode of The Walking Dead and decide they want to live in a zombie apocalypse. Trust me, kid, you wouldn't like it.
But there's more. The jokes that keep the crowd happy -- and keep the people around you at bay -- come from inside you, and are dug painfully out of your own guts. You expose and examine your own insecurities, flaws, fears -- all of that stuff makes the best fuel. So, Robin Williams joked about addiction -- you know, the same addiction that pretty much killed him. Chris Farley's whole act was based on how fat he was -- the thing that had tortured and humiliated him since childhood. So think of my clown analogy above, only imagine the clown feeds on your blood.
(Jesus, that's going to give me nightmares, and I have a side job writing horror.)
I keep mentioning Chris Farley for a reason -- in the end, he was so alone that he was hiring prostitutes just to hang out with him. Here's an account of how his last days played out:
"Farley partied for four straight days, smoked crack and snorted heroin with a call girl, then took her back to his apartment. When they argued about money, she got up to leave. He tried to follow but collapsed on the living room floor, struggling to breathe. His final words were 'Don't leave me.' She took pictures of him, stole his watch, wrote a note saying she'd had a lot of fun, and left. He died alone."
In this case, the clown was a hilarious fat guy playing a Beverly Hills Ninja. Back behind the wall, the real person was a scared, lonely, awkward fat kid who couldn't even pay someone to hold his hand when he died. "Don't leave me."
So, yeah, if you're out there and are feeling down, here's the national suicide hotline. I've been told it's great, by the numerous people I know who've called it. But I guess my larger point is that if you know somebody who might be at risk but you've been denying it because they're always smiling and joking around, for the love of God, wake the fuck up. They don't know how to ask for help because they don't know how to relate, because when you've lived behind that wall long enough, you completely lose the ability. "Well, I tried to help him, but he was kind of a dick about it." Right, that's what it looks like. "But I don't know how to do a suicide intervention!" Nobody is asking you to. How about this:
Be there when they need you, and keep being there even when they stop being funny. Every time they make a joke around you, they're doing it because they instinctively and reflexively think that's what they need to do to make you like them. They're afraid that the moment the laughter stops, all that's left is that gross, awkward kid everyone hated on the playground, the one they've been hiding behind bricks all their adult life. If they come to you wanting to have a boring-ass conversation about their problems, don't drop hints that you wish they'd "lighten up." It's really easy to hear that as "Man, what happened to the clown? I liked him better."
As for me, I haven't thought about suicide in a long time, not since high school, when a guy talked me out of it, though to this day I doubt he realizes it. So, I lived on to wind up with a job where one of my tasks is to ban people who follow him from one comment section to another telling him he's not funny and should kill himself. Is that ... irony? Shit, I don't think English has a word for what that is.
Anyway. Rest in peace, Robin. You've given us a chance to talk about this, and to prove that this has nothing to do with life circumstances -- you were rich and accomplished and respected and beloved by friends and family, and in the end it meant jack fucking shit.
Doesn't Remember His Job Title but It Probably Has the Word Editor in It
NYT Bestselling Author of an upcoming book you can buy here
For more from Dave, see 5 Ways You're Sabotaging Your Own Life Without Knowing It