You ever try to imitate your favourite comedian?
It’s fucking terrifying. I may have a different perspective on this to other people, because whenever the thought of doing an impression of a comedian came to mind when I was a kid (which happened a lot, probably because among kids humour is one of the highest forms of social currency) – well, that was it; I never just thought of telling their jokes in my own way. It had to be a full-blown imitation. And with somebody as distinct and as powerful in their voice as Robin Williams, trying to take on such an embodiment of dedication and discipline and faith in yourself for an attention-hungry, nervous pre-teen was like trying to run naked through a supermarket.
I say pre-teen because that’s when Robin Williams was the most prominent in my life. Talking about influences can be difficult because a lot of the time when people want to know about somebody’s influences they mean “who are you trying to copy”, more or less. Which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with imitation; it’s how we learn how to do everything. I can’t say that Robin Williams was an “influence” on me as far as artistic style is concerned, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a huge part of my creative environment, specifically before the age of about 11. His presence was an influence more than his style; he’s never somebody I’d ever try to imitate, though in a lot of ways it’s because, like many people, it’s intimidating to try and copy somebody you find hilariously funny. Not only is it obvious that you’re copying them, but with somebody like Robin Williams you’re likely to come off as a cheap imitation and never quite capture what it is about them that engages people. Because of the embarrassment factor involved there, I may never know if, had I been more confident, I would have wanted to imitate him to begin with.
But especially with comedians, you’re not so much engaged with the content of their humour but the fact that they’re the ones delivering it. I think that’s why I always jumped to the conclusion of having to do a full-blown impression when I considered how it would be for me to try and tell X comedian’s joke: the joke and the joker were one and the same in my mind. There’s something about humour specifically that intensifies the awareness of a performer’s unique voice. I think it’s because comedians have to make themselves distinct in order to stand out, because humour is somebody that everybody does in their day-to-day life and much of it is very iterative, so when they succeed it’s like they’ve invented something that the world has never seen before. I am terrified of imitating somebody I find truly funny and failing, but I think that misses the point of inspiration. It’s not about aping a performance; it’s about understanding yourself. It’s about finding your voice.
And trusting it.
Robin Williams trusted his voice, and through it had the opportunity – which he took, many times – to move so many people so deeply, and for people of my generation to define vast territories of our childhoods. Looking at his body of work now and looking at the direction that my own stories are taking, there are actually more similarities there than with most of the artists that I would cite as “actual” inspirations to my work, even though none of my ideas trace back to anything I know Robin Williams for. But beyond all of that, his presence itself was an inspiration for me, a huge part of the foundation of who I knew myself to be growing up. I remember how transformative it was when I saw him in Good Will Hunting for the first time and my concept of the man who played Genie completely changed. Only later did I look back and realise that every one of his roles had more than just comedy to it. He was incredibly talented, and could direct his incredible, almost overwhelming energy into anything. I most definitely found that inspirational.
Also he and my dad had some of the same taste in loud shirts. It’s uncanny.
I never knew that Robin Williams suffered from depression, as I did, but it makes too much sense now, seeing his face and being able to pinpoint why exactly he always looks like he’s holding something in. It’s the shitty reality of living with depression that, if you don’t talk about it – and too many people feel unable to talk about it – it’s hard for others to pick up on it, others who might desperately want to help you if you’re ever in trouble. They see you holding something in, or you see somebody else holding something in and after a while, if it never comes out into the open, if you or they don’t say anything about it, it just becomes normal. It is terrible to live with depression and feel something’s wrong, but not realising it isn’t normal to feel it’s wrong. It’s been said before, will be said again, and is certainly being said now in light of this sad news but depression is a silent killer that can only be stopped by speaking up, by trusting your voice to save you. So to anybody reading this, if you think you or somebody you know might have depression or something like it, or any kind of mental illness, or is just going through a rough patch, I dearly hope you can and will find somebody to confide in, somebody to help. There are hotlines and websites and self-help books; there are sometimes friends and family, doctors and counselors, depending on what resources you have to hand. Just please, please don’t risk yourself out of pride or shame. You are worth more than that. You are worth being certain. You are worth getting better.
I will miss Robin Williams more deeply as time goes on, I imagine. My life was filled with his voice, and only now that he’s gone am I starting to realise just how much of my life it filled.
So goodbye, Robin Williams, and thank you for sharing your voice. I will remember it. And I will try to trust mine to serve both myself and others as you did yours.
Rest in peace.