Commentary: The greatest comedy lesson Robin Williams taught me was studying to snort at myself

I interviewed Robin Williams on the set of his final present, “The Crazy Ones,” seven months earlier than he took his personal life in 2014. As an leisure journalist, I’m hardly ever nervous assembly celebrities, however I may barely sleep the evening earlier than my encounter with Williams. He was — to place it calmly—a hero of mine.

Williams’ 1986 particular, “A Night at the Met,” had turned me on to stand-up as a theater-loving child. I’d watched it at the least a dozen occasions on VHS in highschool and will quote massive swaths of it verbatim.

As a young person, I laughed at Williams’ high-octane antics. However once I started watching his stand-up in school — as my very own life bought extra complicated, and my experiences darker and extra excessive — I began to acknowledge myself in his anecdotes, and my laughter turned extra real.

On this method, Williams was the primary comic to show me the therapeutic energy of laughing at myself. I want I’d instructed him that throughout the 25 minutes we have been alone in a room collectively, however I did little or no speaking that day. I used to be simply completely satisfied listening to Williams. I keep in mind him as soft-spoken and type, nearly shy once we have been alone. He didn’t relish speaking about himself and recurrently steered the dialog in reward of his “Crazy Ones” co-star, Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Williams paid to have a Kogi Korean BBQ taco truck outdoors the soundstage the day I visited the set and appeared most involved in ensuring everybody bought fed, usually stopping to ask his colleagues in the event that they loved the meals.

When Williams joined the fray of the forged and crew throughout taking pictures, nonetheless, he got here alive. His on-set humor was frenzied and bodily. He’d seem behind two gaffers and do a wild dance till everybody round him howled with laughter. It occurred to me as I sat watching and taking notes that Williams was laughing at himself throughout these intervals, hamming it up in an exaggerated caricature of what others anticipated of him.

The present of crystal-clear self-awareness is the forex — and curse — of any really good humorist. The means to see oneself with 20/20 accuracy — the failings, the ugly ideas, the uncomfortable truths, the selfishness, the drunkenness, the dangerous habits — supplies among the greatest comedic materials.

The stand-up’s job is considered one of public self-flagellation in service of the better good. Viewers members snort — even when they don’t fairly notice it, or can’t sq. themselves with the tough actuality of it — as a result of they’ll relate to the comic’s foibles and failures. We snort as a result of the profitable comic has held a mirror as much as our personal lives and secret ideas.

“For me, comedy starts as a spew, a kind of explosion, and then you sculpt it from there, if at all. It comes out of a deeper, darker side. Maybe it comes from anger, because I’m outraged by cruel absurdities, the hypocrisy that exists everywhere, even within yourself, where it’s hardest to see,” Williams as soon as stated.

And laughter makes us really feel higher. It cures us, or at the least patches up our wounds quickly, so we are able to get up to struggle one other day.

Mendacity on my sofa with a crushing hangover in school and watching Williams’ well-known bit on alcohol and marijuana (“It’s 5 o’clock in the morning, you’ve just pissed on a dumpster, it’s Miller Time”) pulled me from the insufferable depths of self-loathing various occasions throughout my youthful celebration days.

Laughter at your individual expense — unleashed whenever you want it most — can heal what ails you, hold your ego in examine and even velocity your path to enlightenment.

One other considered one of my favourite stand-up comedians, one who’s so preternaturally self-aware that it may be painful to look at, is Maria Bamford. Bamford, like Williams, struck a be aware with me based mostly on my means to narrate with lots of the issues she talked about in her set.

Her “Anxiety Song,” particularly, was a revelation. It’s a tuneless ditty that breaks down the oddball actions Bamford engages in to maintain darkish ideas at bay. (“If I keep the kitchen floor clean, no one will die / As long as I clench my fists at odd intervals, then the darkness in me won’t force me to do anything inappropriate.”)

As a toddler, I concocted an elaborate dishwashing routine that doubled as a race in opposition to the clock. The purpose was to complete by a sure minute and second to be able to cease one thing horrible from occurring to my household. As I bought older, the routines turned extra baroque: doing the signal of the cross 3 times rapidly and saying the Lord’s Prayer uninterrupted whereas tracing phrases on the roof of my mouth with my tongue to ensure that my aircraft to land safely, for instance.

As an grownup deep within the throes of generalized anxiousness dysfunction, I discovered a type of remedy — earlier than I began remedy myself — in Bamford’s unflinching public dissection of her excessive obsessive compulsive dysfunction. I couldn’t relate to her worry that she may chop up her household into small items, have intercourse with these items, put them on a Cobb salad and feed them to child Jesus (considered one of her greatest, if not most annoying, bits), however I certain understood her fixations and elaborate routines.

And it felt really good to snort at anxiety-driven private habits that have been overwhelming and debilitating. Bamford’s psychic ache, so clearly communicated by means of her comedy, turned a balm for my very own. After I laughed at her jokes, I used to be additionally laughing at myself. We have been in cahoots.

It’s a cliché that comedians are typically depressed — to have demons, drug addictions and outsized private issues. Williams actually checked quite a few these packing containers, together with about 1,000,000 others stuffed with generosity, laughter and kindness. The similar may be stated of Bamford, and plenty of different stand-out, stand-up comedians. Clichés, it’s cliché to say, exist for a purpose. As a result of they usually maintain a grain of fact.

The mild can’t exist with out the darkness. The extra excessive one is, the extra excessive the opposite turns into. Comedians, like all of us, must struggle to search out that steadiness — they’re simply higher at doing it in entrance of others in an entertaining method. The ritual of performing, stand-up comics usually say, supplies a launch unattainable to search out elsewhere.

The world is a spot of excessive drama. It’s onerous to not really feel misplaced within the ache and chaos of day by day residing. A bit self-awareness can present the steadiness we crave, centering us with wanted levity. If self-deprecating laughter is the very best medication, then stand-up comedy is simply what the demented physician ordered.