‘He was a hero to me': Paul F. Tompkins on Robin Williams

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One of the first comedy albums I was ever given was “Reality… What A Concept.” I loved it. I loved “Mork & Mindy.” I even loved Robert Altman’s “Popeye.” Robin Williams meant a lot to me when I was a kid. I knew nothing of drug use or depression. It never occurred to me that comedians, these magical creatures that I worshiped, ever felt anything other than the serene satisfaction derived from making people laugh.

Eventually, I started doing standup myself, and I very quickly learned that comedians were all too human. There is no less sadness in the comedy community than there is in any other workforce; that is to say, jobs are jobs and people are people and no occupation makes anyone depression-proof. This both comforts and frustrates me.

Robin Williams made me laugh so many times. So many times. When I was a kid, having problems of my own, feeling unpleasantly different from the people who populated my world, I found sanctuary watching this guy on TV who was celebrated for being a weirdo, for being an oddball, for being silly. He was praised for having a mind that produced delightful absurdities with great speed. No one told him to be quiet. No one tried to make him act like everyone else.

He was a hero to me.

I had occasion to meet him once, not too long ago, and he could not have been nicer or friendlier or calmer. He was just there to watch the show that was happening that night. He wasn’t trying to get on stage; he just — still — loved comedy.

I didn’t tell him any of the things I just wrote here. No doubt, he heard similar things from countless people over his decades-long career. And it’s a colossal shame that being a meaningful presence in the lives of many people, family, friends and strangers alike, isn’t an impenetrable bulwark against despair. It’s profoundly unfair that, if he couldn’t live forever, he couldn’t at least feel able to keep going for his allotted time. I know something of depression, and how bottomless and relentless and insurmountable it feels, but I have never known the unfathomable despair that Robin Williams must have felt. I can’t even begin to imagine it.

Robin Williams will live on in shadows and light and sound, at least. He will continue to comfort weird little kids (and odd adults, for that matter) with his performances, those who know his work today and those who have yet to be born, who may experience him ten, fifty, a hundred years from now. But this is cold comfort indeed.

There will be much celebration, in the coming weeks and months, of Robin Williams’ life and career. But perhaps the best tribute to him would be if we all reached out to the troubled people in our lives and let them know that we are here for them. Because Robin Williams was there for us.

Paul F. Tompkins is the host of “No, You Shut Up!” on Fusion.