The Starting Five, 2/3/2015


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


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.


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