By now you’ve heard that the great comedian Robin Williams is dead. In all likelihood you have also learned not only that the poor man killed himself while in the throes of a crippling depression, but the graphic details about how he did it.
About all we don’t know is exactly how long it took for Williams’ tormented spirit to finally leave his body. But don’t worry: there are plenty of pundits ready to speculate about it.
Robin Williams was 63. Over almost four decades he carved out a space for himself in our collective consciousness as one of the funniest English-speakers on the planet. Williams was a vastly talented performer, but what made him so extraordinary was his rare and subversive ability to somehow embody the ways thought and language connect and spark each other. Calling what he could do improvisation is an understatement.
Williams was not only beloved as so many of the greatest clowns seem to be, he was also inspiring. For those of us who came up amidst the excesses, personal and political, of post-1960’s America, his comedy invariably featured an outrageously truth- telling dimension that could turn a talkshow appearance into a psychedelic epic about the state of this country’s scrambled soul.
It followed, I suppose, that people would be curious about the circumstances of Williams’ death. What struck many of us, though, as unnecessary, even downright gratuitous, was the level of gruesome detail brought forth by the Marin County Sheriff’s Department — and then dutifully reported by the media.
As has been noted elsewhere, ad nauseam, we’ve come a long way since those days when the press kept Franklin Roosevelt’s polio-hobbled legs, or John Kennedy’s sexual promiscuity, to themselves. We live in an age of full disclosure, transparency and a 24-hour news cycle. The beast, we like to say, must be fed.
So, upon the initial reports of Williams’ death, a series of wheels were programmed, robo-style, to swing into gear. The cops held a press conference where it seemed nothing was held back. The press lapped it up and spread the news across every available media platform.
They all did their jobs.
It is often said that once people become celebrities, they become fair game, a kind of public property, and forfeit their privacy. Ironically, our demand for scoops about the lives of the rich and famous seems to have increased in direct proportion to the extent to which real property, like our roads, parks and institutions, has been privatized. Our obsessive interest in celebrities is cheap compensation for the erosion of our commonwealth.
No wonder then that the media was so eager to relay the details of Williams’ death. Indeed, those very details became the subject for further coverage as pundits then took up the subject of whether or not their coverage had gone too far.
What came clear was what probably bedeviled Robin Williams the most: His life cut down to so many empty calories for the media beast. The man had reason to be depressed.