“The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.”
~ Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Oxford, from a letter of Walpole's to Anne, Countess of Ossory, on 16 August 1776
|from Miss O's Drama Teacher Ear Accessory Collection
This past month, Readers, your Miss O’ has barely written a word. The household needs of new bathroom pipes and flooring, replastered kitchen wall, repainting of cabinets, and working kitchen appliances (and the attendant work, clean-ups, and deliveries) sucked up my summer. Then, in a blow to the heart one day after my last blogpost (an eerily titled “Big Bangs of August"), on August 11, 2014, Robin Williams died; and as if that wasn’t a bad enough loss to not only show business and to culture, but to humanity, another legend, Joan Rivers, died just this week, on September 4, 2014. His death of a suicide at age 63 was a tragedy; hers sad but not altogether unexpected, being 81 years old, even from complications during elective surgery. But it got me thinking about comedy in the wake of tragedy, especially after the death of Robin Williams, as all those tabloids took to their mastheads, and the outpourings of grief made their way into online journals and newsfeeds. And HOW. So let me say this about that, and a few other things, including the late, great Joan Rivers. And karate. And it will all make sense. Mostly.
Improvisations in the Key of Joy
“The mind is its own place, and in itself
can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
~ John Milton, Paradise Lost
Optimism. Defeatism. Robin Williams, who created out of his own mind, in the moment, but always working hard at that—a beloved man universally, despised only by the hateful, seemed to be nothing if not positive. As it turns out, he worked very hard at that, too. What is it about optimism that is so hard, and about negativity that is so easy? Self-hatred rules most of us; as a teacher I remember how it's the angry kid who slams down his books who owns the classroom, and how it might take a half hour to get the class back to a positive focus; or when one guy in the audience is determined to destroy your act, how hard to you have to work to win them back. And it’s usually over stupid stuff, all the negativity (and it's usually a guy who wrecks a moment, in my experience, but not always. I read a friend on Facebook who was irate that some pranksters had knocked over her mailbox and removed her flag from its giant front-yard pole, in post after hourly post, but could not manage any outrage over Ferguson.) So when a person makes that perfect funny remark in the middle of a tense moment, how perfectly wonderful is that laugh? It’s like the blessed inhaling of air after surfacing from a too-deep plunge, when we weren’t sure how we’d get back—nothing but relief.
Behind the clear blue eyes of the no longer living and yet still ubiquitous Robin Williams was a very visible sadness. Like many actors, he was at heart an introvert (so many accounts of him in the weeks after his death bear this out) and it was apparent in the way he performed—in his high-wire improvised comedy act he reacted to audience suggestions without developing an intimacy with his audience. (I contrast him with the equally bold, caustic extrovert Joan Rivers, who always talked to and asked for the name of a person in the audience, and over the course of her act developed a relationship with her, and you could see how she’d be a wonderful friend; and also the gentle and hilarious Carol Burnett, for example, whose easy warmth poured over an audience at the opening of every one of her shows, where she took questions and playfully answered while also being utterly present to the people who asked the questions.) While behaving as if fearless in front of a crowd and exuding real empathy with fellow performers, he kept a very tight cage around his being even as his genius verbiage was unleashed upon us in manic streams. There was a real containment, for all his wildness—watch him on talk show after talk show, fly out (physically or verbally) and just as quickly pull back, as if responding to a leash. The fascinating and deeply sad revelation, I think for most of us, is how much our hearts ached when we learned of his death, and what made it feel like a sucker punch was that it was a suicide. For so ubiquitous was his presence, and so wearing could his energy become, it was as easy to take him for granted as it is to take for granted the Grand Canyon, the Washington Monument. Or the World Trade Center. And we saw how that turned out.
And here, before I get maudlin, let’s pause for some levity from Joan Rivers.
Rivers will take the piss out of anything. Shortly after I had lost a big job, she called, and when I answered the phone a bit too quickly she said, “Really? The first ring? So desperate.” And then she hung up on me. A few days after 9/11, she called and asked me if I wanted to meet her for lunch at Windows on the Ground. She pushes as far as she can as soon as she can. It’s compulsive.
(Do read that article, and watch that documentary, A Piece of Work. And now back to my grieving for Robin Williams.) The other revelation that first week had to do with the generosity of his own heart, hiding in plain sight—Comic Relief for homelessness (his idea); St. Jude’s Hospital; entertaining the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; benefit after benefit for any number of causes, including Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. This last proved to be ironic, and a literal (and by "literal" I mean "figurative") nail in his upcoming coffin: Robin Williams was in the early stages of the disease, and for a physical comedian like him that discovery must have compounded his depression to a degree we can only know by seeing the results, his terrible death. But it's his life we want to remember, after all.
|Who looks younger? -from Time, Inc.
We Interrupt Our Grieving
Lots of people have posted on this event, this loss. An actor friend who has also been grieving the loss of Robin was sharing a lot of essays on Facebook, including the one below, which I’d like you to read, if you would, because I had a comment. A long one.
Robin William’s Last Gift by Peter Coyote, asshole*
*Editorial comment –ed.
*Editorial comment –ed.
Robin and I were friends. Not intimate, because he was very shy when he was not performing. Still, I spent many birthdays and holidays at his home with Marsha and the children, and he showed up at my 70th birthday to say “Hello” and wound up mesmerizing my relatives with a fifteen minute set that pulverized the audience.
When I heard that he had died, I put my own sorrow aside for a later time. I’m a Zen Buddhist priest and my vows instruct me to try to help others. So this little letter is meant in that spirit.
Normally when you are gifted with a huge talent of some kind, it’s like having a magnificent bicep. People will say, “Wow, that’s fantastic” and they tell you, truthfully, that it can change your life, take you to unimaginable realms. It can and often does. The Zen perspective is a little different. We might say, “Well, that’s a great bicep, you don’t have to do anything to it. Let’s work at bringing the rest of your body up to that level.”
Robin’s gift could be likened to fastest thoroughbred race-horse on earth. It had unbeatable endurance, nimbleness, and a huge heart. However, it had never been fully trained. Sometimes Robin would ride it like a kayaker tearing down white-water, skimming on the edge of control. We would marvel at his courage, his daring, and his brilliance. But at other times, the horse went where he wanted, and Robin could only hang on for dear life.
In the final analysis, what failed Robin was his greatest gift---his imagination. Clutching the horse he could no longer think of a single thing to do to change his life or make himself feel better, and he stepped off the edge of the saddle. Had the horse been trained, it might have reminded him that there is always something we can do. We can take a walk until the feeling passes. We can find someone else suffering and help them, taking the attention off our own. Or, finally, we can learn to muster our courage and simply sit still with what we are thinking are insoluble problems, becoming as intimate with them as we can, facing them until we get over our fear. They may even be insoluble, but that does not mean that there is nothing we can do.
Our great-hearted friend will be back as the rain, as the cry of a Raven as the wind. He, you and I have never for one moment not been a part of all it. But we would be doing his life and memory a dis-service if we did not extract some wisdom from his choice, which, if we ponder deeply enough, will turn out to be his last gift. He would beg us to pay attention if he could.
This angered me, and as to why, I didn’t have to think about it long. I sent the following comment on this essay (ass-ay) by Peter “I’m a Zen Buddhist priest” Coyote to my friend, with apologies:
I don't like this piece, or this perspective. It puts all the “failure” (lousy word) “of imagination” on Robin Williams (owner of that imagination), which is what he believed was the problem (right? he's a failure?) and so he killed himself. "Take a walk until the feeling passes"? He was an avid cyclist. "Find someone else suffering and help them"? He entertained troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, relentlessly, and never spoke of it; he volunteered at St. Jude's. Robin Williams didn't fail himself or anyone else. Peter Coyote, all due respect, is simply clueless about depression. It's like proposing, "think happy thoughts" to a diabetic. You are not a “failure” or “unimaginative” for having diabetes. You are not a “failure” or “unimaginative” for having depression. Thanks for sending this ass-ay, though, because it's enlightening when we are reminded of how unenlightened the "enlightened" really can be.
|by Roz Chast for The New Yorker
I am considering Walpole’s epigram, there at the top, one I’ve thought about for years, since coming across it (I think my mom, Lynne, may have given it to me, along with others by Thackery, Milton, Tagore; I wrote them up in my own particular calligraphy and pasted each into my three-ringed binder end papers, which binder I used all through high school), rethinking its implications. What would Joan Rivers say? What would Robin Williams riff? What is “the world” to humans such as they were, two people who thought and felt in equal measure, and who, like all people, had their exits and their entrances, good times and bad times, and yet were fully here while they were here.
Tragedy is when I cut my finger.
Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.
~ Mel Brooks, The 2,000 Year Old Man
Joan Rivers told jokes where Robin Williams created worlds, and both were by turns hilarious and exhausting. Both Joan Rivers and Robin Williams were certainly feelers, and clearly they were thinkers. But given their responses to both hecklers and critics, to turns of events in the world and to the people around them, Miss O’ would say that Robin Williams was more of the thinker, Joan Rivers more the feeler. But considering their ends, last interviews, etc., Rivers was becoming more of a thinker, and Williams was broken by his feelings. What I mean to say is, it doesn’t matter, labels like this. Life is both a comedy and a tragedy (any Facebook newsfeed reveals this, unless the Team Facebook has been dicking with our feed for funsies), and all of us at any given time both think and feel, and can experience tragedy and comedy. It’s a question, finally, of reaction, a question of discipline, a matter of control. There is only so much we can control, and stand-up comics know this better than anyone. Hecklers try to take on comedians, and the comics who can show the hecklers to be fools will survive. But in the end, back to being only human, Rivers couldn’t control her heart’s reaction to anesthesia, Williams his mind’s reaction to depression and the news of Parkinson’s disease. (I started laughing just now, thinking of a really lousy Daily News-worthy prose line, like “God was the final heckler.” Oh, me.)
But the lives of Joan Rivers and Robin Williams show us what great can be, what “over-the-top” is, what “flopping” looks like—and their resilience in the face of it all, the relentless drive, the constant working, show us what professionalism looks like. (Watch every YouTube Clip you can find of Joan Rivers hosting The Tonight Show in the 80s—she was the first person to use the word “pregnant” on the air, and told us to “grow up.” She talked about being single, being married, lovemaking, children, periods, IUDs, menopause—she was a female and a comedian, and she kicked down male-constructed walls, a balls-on “vagenius” as Roseanne called her. Whew.) (And watch Robin Williams’s last appearance on The Tonight Show: on the second to last night of the week he retired, Johnny Carson had only Robin Williams on for a full hour. Because Johnny loved him, and it was his show. Whew.) Whatever you thought of their comedy, they were honest about their lives, their reactions to the world around them, and they came out onto the stage disciplined yet also unfiltered—the thrilling knife-edge world of real geniuses.
What is the difference between someone who is good, and someone who is a master? It’s that ability to walk the knife-edge of comedy and tragedy, because it’s all there in potential. And that is the thrill for us, the ones who can only look on.
~ Bruce Lee: The Lost Interview (1971)
I have come to discover through earnest personal experience and dedicated learning that ultimately the greatest help is self-help; that there is no other help but self-help— doing one’s best, dedicating one’s self wholeheartedly to a given task, which happens to have no end but is an ongoing process.
~ from The Warrior Within: The Philosophies of Bruce Lee (1996)
So let's talk about Zen. (I really cannot even begin to express the depth of my anger over Peter Coyote's essay. Seriously. Jesus. Okay then.) My boyfriend, H, defended his black belt last night. An Albanian who is 5’7”, 115 lbs., and 60 years of age, H was chosen (by the manager at the facility where he trains) to match up against a Ugandan man who was 6’4”, 248 lbs., and 48 years of age, who was trying to earn his black belt. If H lost, he would lose his black belt. He did not lose. The fight lasted 180 seconds. Before they entered the circle, the belt-seeker took one look at H and said, “I’m a lot bigger than you.” H said simply, “You are.” When the match concluded with H flipping the man over his head (flat on his back, the man did not have the wind to get up), a young woman who had lost her own match told H, “I was sure you were going to the hospital,” and asked him to train her. “Why?” asked H. “I want a master,” she said. “The master is in you,” H explained. He’s not being “Kung Fu” deep, or deliberately tricky—his mind doesn’t work that way. He could give her some training tips, and did, but his point was she had to find that ability, that control, within her own body, her own mind. It would be like if you wanted to be a stand-up comic, asking Joan Rivers or Robin Williams to be a mentor: In the end, whatever their help, either you’re funny or you’re not funny. It’s in you.
|A 1970s fragrance, best left unsmelled.
This question of providing and encouraging training, whether for a black belt or a headline gig at Caesar’s Palace, at whatever age, is something I think is sorely lacking in America in every area—because I know you give a huge fuck what Miss O’ thinks. H is sorry, for example, that the NYPD—and every policeman in the U.S. (Ferguson, is this on?) and in the world, as well as every military person in the world—isn’t trained fully in martial arts. Far from being more dangerous, they would be more effective, and use less violence, not more. “They would know they have the control,” H says, “and with one hand on the wrist, one turn”—H demonstrates on me—“the suspect is helpless.” No more choke holds, no more gunfire. And if the police knew they had the control, they would lose the aggression born of fear. In fact, if everyone had that training, that control—“that education,” as H puts it—there would be no more fighting. The master is in YOU.
Prince Ea, a hip-hop artist and founder of The “Make SMART Cool” Movement, with a degree in Latin (he graduated with honors from the University of Missouri-St. Louis), had wonderful stuff to say in a video that went viral in the wake of Ferguson. Measured, thoughtful, philosophical, and casual (he was on his way to his car, being filmed by a friend), he shared the most reasoned and mature commentary on the events I've heard, and it could be the answer to all the world’s problems. (After Ferguson, H said, “You are a racist, fine, go be a racist. Don’t marry them, don’t eat with them, don’t talk to them. But don’t SHOOT them. What’s the matter with these white people?”) This knowledge, H’s training, Robin’s and Joan’s senses of humor, a love of reading, and a good, steady job—really, life doesn’t have to be as ugly as the Republicans want it to be. Life is improvisation. We are the agents of our lives, the victims of our circumstances, the survivors of our stories. It’s important for all of us to TRAIN to be good people. (And I don't mean "spiritual" "training" in the "sense" expressed by Peter "Let Me Mix Some Metaphors About Body Parts/Horse Racing/Watercraft" Coyote.) Politeness is not a reflex, but a muscle in atrophy that must be coaxed into fitness, to make us fit for society. As Emerson observed, "Life is not so short but that there is always time for courtesy." And a good joke.
Oh, Grow Up. Can We Talk?
“Honey, I know you don’t want to hear this, but your dad and I want you to know that a foul-mouthed woman is a real turn-off.”
~ My mom, Lynne, in an email to Miss O’, ca. 2006
The epigraph above is by way of setting up a little global hypocrisy, to wit: Daily Show host Jon Stewart has some variation on “fuck” bleeped out maybe a half-dozen times each episode, and my mom and dad wouldn’t miss a moment of it. But my parents really couldn’t stand Joan Rivers. Joan made them uncomfortable, liberal though they were (and are). Because Joan was a woman, my mom (the feminist! more Maude than Maude!), thought her swearing was distasteful. Joan Rivers (unlike her closest female contemporary, Phyllis Diller) worked “blue,” as they say in comedy. But so did Robin Williams. “Fuck,” “asshole,” and every other foul word came comfortably and fluidly out of both of their mouths throughout their acts, but only Joan was taken to task for it. (It’s one of the reasons I adore Sarah Silverman, who is branded (and, therefore diminished in her genius) a “shock comic” for her use of language. No one I’ve read or spoken to has said that of Robin Williams.)
A sweet reader of this blog, who is friends with my friend George, messaged me on Facebook a little while back to ask me why I used the “f-word” so freely in my blogs. She wasn’t criticizing, she noted, but as she herself does not swear, she found herself wondering at my use of foul language in my own writing. Here was my (slightly edited) response:
I think it's a great question about the "f" word. While my mom, Lynne, cautions me, "A foul-mouthed woman is a real turn-off," I realized while at Bread Loaf with George and Jean (where we met), that among ourselves, we could talk about anything; so if at the table for six in the dining hall a new person sat down, one of us might use the f-word, and depending on the reaction from the new person, you could figure out how far to take a conversation. I used to call it "breaking the f%@k barrier." It didn't mean I rejected anyone, but it made me aware that there were limits. When I started my blog, I knew that if I used the f-word, readers would know that everything could be on the table. It's why Jon Stewart uses it, I'm sure. I use it consciously, and try to place it strategically. For some, it's a vulgarity only, but for me it's an invitation to stay at the table. Does that make sense? I just love that you asked about it, because until this moment I never thought it through.
Not a few days after this exchange, a meme floated around Facebook which said that people who swear have been found to be more honest and trustworthy than people who don’t. I posted the meme, because I’m a swearer (ahem), despite the fact that I couldn’t find any corroborating Internet info (think about Goodfellas: all those guys speak is the language of “fuck,” and then lie to their moms, and then kill people). I did find this article in Psychology Today, indicating that a little swearing is probably healthy. But what about the honesty quotient?
There’s no doubt, I think, that whatever the plastic surgery Joan Rivers had, and whatever substance abuse issues Robin Williams experienced in his life, these two comics are loved and missed so hard because they were honest. They did not have agendas. They looked at the world, lived in the world, looked us in the eye, and told the truth as they saw it, and fortunately for all of us, they saw it funny. Relentlessly.
Here they are, photographed together, when Robin Williams was making fun of the Royal Family, as Joan Rivers also liked to do. Nothing like poking holes in overstuffed non-ruling monarchy, because you really can’t hurt them, and they can't hurt you…anymore.
|with Andrew Sachs (of Fawlty Towers fame) and Eric Idle
In a short span of weeks, Robin Williams and Joan Rivers are dead.
And Dick Cheney lives.
See? The world can be both tragic and funny.
In memoriam and in love, too,