“In America, they really do mythologize people when they die.”
So said Robin Williams, in a 2010 interview with the Guardian. He wasn’t kidding. But at the risk of adding yet another voice to the extraordinary chorus that’s been singing his praises since news of his death became public last night, it seems worth pointing out: Williams, without quite realising it, was a prophet of the internet era.
The actor-comedian’s suicide came as a shock to a lot of us, but maybe we just weren’t paying close enough attention. It could be hard to concentrate with Williams around. In some ways, that was his greatest achievement. He was a master of misdirection — his comedy, at its best, was a torrent of fragmentary diversion. A one-man world wide web.
However unintentionally, Williams was a messenger, a visitor from the frantic future we all inhabit now, a Hawaiian-shirt-wearing harbinger of the dizzying, always-on, synapse-scrambling digital era.
Watching his early comedy performances was a breathtaking, if exhausting, experience. He wasn’t profound or political like a lot of comics (Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor). He didn’t hold up a mirror to our quirks (George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld) or lay bear his own (Woody Allen, Larry David), and he didn’t tell jokes (Don Rickles) or blurt out the unsayable (Joan Rivers, Sam Kinison).
Williams channeled the culture. His cut-and-paste style echoed what rappers were doing with samples, and like them, he occasionally got into trouble for borrowing material. In the early days, other comics sometimes refused to perform when Williams was in a comedy club, such was the fear that their stuff would make its way into his act. In a great 1991 Rolling Stone profile, he copped to the charge. “If you watch comedy eight hours a day, something will register, and it will come out,” he explained. “And if it happened, I said, ‘I apologise. I’ll pay you for this.'”
Maybe Williams was ahead of his time on that score as well. It’s hard to call him a thief when he was so clearly built to soak up and repurpose whatever came his way. And he wasn’t alone. Growing up in the 1970s, I certainly stole from him freely, and so did just about every kid I knew. In some ways, we learned from Robin Williams how to inhabit the reality we’re faced with now, how to surf the cross-currents of a Cuisinart culture.
Williams’ performance was less stand-up routine than shamanic trance, ricocheting between snippets and identities, a breakneck tapdance through what the writer George Trow called “the context of no context.” ADHD as high art.
His humour wasn’t what you’d call relatable, giving audiences that flash of recognition most comedians aim for. At least not at the time.
It’s only now, in retrospect — in the era of broadband and “an app for that,” Twitter and subreddits, and binge-watching and channel-surfing and emojis and Google Now and instant everything everywhere at all times — that we can really see where he was coming from, acknowledge the debt we owe him and spot the warning flares he was sending up.
Williams got his start back when most people still had a handful of TV channels to choose from (only half of which reliably worked). Then came browsers, and hypertext, and mash-ups.
It’s hard not to wonder how he felt as the culture caught up with him, upstaged him, and perhaps made him a little obsolete. A lot of us were surprised by Williams’ response, that shift toward sentimentality. Let’s admit it, there are some pretty cringey moments in his clip reel. But now it’s a little easier to imagine where that may have come from. When Williams felt things, he felt them deeply. Which is probably why he became so good at not feeling them, at dancing along that synaptical tightrope, at being on, as A.O. Scott put it in The New York Times.
Like it or not, in a way we’re all living in his brain now, with its restlessness and hairpin turns and constant velocity. Check your favourite social media feed, and you can bounce in classic Robin Williams style from one non sequitur to the next, from cat pics to cop shootings, from crucifictions to waffle tacos.
It’s not an easy place to be: funny and inspiring, but also bewildering, unnerving and sometimes very sad.
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