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
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
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.