IN THE IMMEDIATE WAKE of Robin Williams’s reported suicide, struggling to fully absorb the news, I chose the psychological salve that many friends also applied:
I sought relief in connecting with other people who talk and write and draw funny for a living. Mr. Williams left an influence and an inspiration and now a wound greater than perhaps we in related endeavors even could have anticipated.
I reached out to “Comedy Warriors” standup comic Joe Kashnow, an Iraq war veteran who lives in Baltimore. Kashnow told me last spring that he battled depression and thoughts of suicide after having his right leg amputated while at Walter Reed. Now, Kashnow was doing comedy on the road.
Turns out, Kashnow had met Robin — for the first time — just a couple of weeks before Mr. Williams died, even performing in front of him at a San Francisco club. Kashnow, like me, was a “huge fan” of the late comedian and actor.
“I’ve been trying to come to terms with what Robin’s death means,” Kashnow told me. “In the end, it means that whatever pain he was facing seemed so insurmountable that he felt there was no way he could survive.” (Williams’s wife said that her husband suffered from severe depression and anxiety.)
“The tragedy is that his pain didn’t end with his life,” Kashnow continues. “Instead, his pain has been transferred to his fans around the world. And grown exponentially.”
How to absorb, then, that transferred pain? Williams’s wife said late last week that her husband also had received a diagnosis that he was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. As medical professionals at Johns Hopkins and the Michael J. Fox Foundation informed me three years ago, depression can be a precursor sign of Parkinson’s, even in the absence yet of other symptoms.
Having seen friends suffer from a range of difficult symptoms as a result of Parkinson’s, hearing this news helped me imagine a little more clearly what Mr. Williams knew he faced.
Yet every fellow cartoonist and comedian I spoke with couldn’t shake that sense of just how humane and sensitive and life-affirming Robin’s comedy and performances had always seemed — and how caring the man himself appeared to be, not only behind his comedy, but also through it.
Then, last Friday, I found a balm in seeing this week’s “Candorville” strips. In reading creator Darrin Bell‘s six-day tribute, I recognized a fellow traveler — another cartoonist who had studied and deconstructed most every stage of Williams’s compelling career.
The relationship between Williams and visual comics was longstanding and organic. When friend and colleague Tom Shales interviewed a rising Robin Williams in the late-’70s, he noted that the comedian had Zap comics in his carryall bag. Williams famously frequented comic shops, always seemed to have a new favorite graphic novel and new manga toy, and of course wrote the foreword for one “The Far Side” collection. (And on a personal note, acquaintances told me he read my ’90s comic strip in L.A. and S.F.)
So something about Williams doing a posthumous cameo in “Candorville” feels right and respectful and deeply informed.
Comic Riffs caught up with Bell to learn more about how he created this inspired week of strips:
MICHAEL CAVNA: So I’m curious: At what point after hearing the news of Robin’s death did you decide to do a weeklong “train tribute”? Was it an immediate decision — you turned around the strips with amazing quickness — or did you process the news first for a day or so? It’s a bit reminiscent of your George Carlin tribute, but with the added spectre of tragedy.
DARRIN BELL: The news hit me pretty hard, so I knew right away I was going to have to write a week of strips to help process what happened. I had to turn around an editorial cartoon on the matter first, so thinking of that helped me decide what angle to take with “Candorville.” I threw out half a dozen editorial cartoon sketches, so when it came time to write the strips I already knew what I wasn’t going to say.
MC: You and I are of a generation that was able to follow, and potentially be affected by, each stage of the amazing long arc of Robin’s career [starting in childhood] — from Mork to movies, rainbow-suspendered standup to roles of restrained dramatic depth. Could you talk about some of the creations and artistic accomplishments in his career that most resonated with you?
DB: He almost always played someone who was the embodiment of the Dylan Thomas poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Only rather than death, the darkness Williams’s characters raged against was the suffocating depression that comes with — to paraphrase his character from “Good Will Hunting” – -losing something you love more than you love yourself. Every time he did that, it resonated with me. Parry (“The Fisher King”). Sean Maguire (“Good Will Hunting”). Chris Nielsen (“What Dreams May Come”). Robert Ellison (“Homicide: Life on the Street”). Daniel Hillard (“Mrs. Doubtfire”). It was the enormous loss that made every smile, every joke, every boldly made bad decision, every fleeting eruption of mania so triumphant and empowering.
MC: Can you share how you responded personally, and have processed, his sudden death?
DB: I was shocked that he lost the battle. Him of all people. I think seeing it that way — as if he’d been fighting an enemy for almost as long as I’ve been alive — helped me process and accept it. Nobody can fight forever.
MC: Amid the “SNL”- and Letterman-influenced rise of coolly ironic humor in ’70s and ‘early 80s popular culture, Robin always seemed warmer and more life-affirming. He could be observational and a social critic like his almost-contemporaries Carlin or Pryor, but there was that elfin, manic sweetness even amid the darker drug riffs. Your strips reflect a fan’s deep understanding of his career — what about his HUMOR, specifically, affected and perhaps even influenced you?
DB: He shifted gears constantly and never seemed to worry that his audience wouldn’t follow his stream of consciousness. You never knew if he was going to riff on something crude or high brow, accessible or obscure. He told dirty jokes fearlessly one moment, and the next he’d use Yo-Yo Ma, Bob Fosse or Martha Graham as a punch line. If his audience didn’t care for blue humor, that meant they should lighten up. If they didn’t know who Yo-Yo Ma was, it meant they should check him out. Williams didn’t pander to any particular audience. He respected people enough to assume they would figure out how to appreciate — or at least understand — what he was saying. I try to do that, too, at least in part because of him.
MC: Each “Candorville” strip is not only funny and/or poignant, but with each, you address very distinct aspects of Robin’s personal and professional lives, from his talent and persona to his personal tragedies and depression. It’s as the tribute expands and deepens over the course of the week, like a memorial speech that opens with warm memories and ultimately — by turning to different aspects like a rotated diamond — [that we get] a fuller sense of the man. Could you describe a bit how you approached writing these six strips as a collective tribute?
DB: I wanted the arc to mirror the progression of my understanding of Williams.
I first knew only his characters, and I knew he entertained me. Then I knew him through a chance encounter I had with him when I was 13 or 14. I was working as an usher at a movie theater in the San Fernando Valley [Van Nuys]. I was sweeping up just outside the front entrance when I heard a voice behind me say, “Excuse me.” It was him. He said he’d forgotten where he parked. I walked with him through the parking lot and helped him look for his car. We didn’t say much aside from a little small talk. There was a melancholy that walked through that parking lot with us. But I enjoyed it. I enjoyed seeing a side of him I’d never seen before. It made him real to me. I didn’t even tell him I knew who he was; I got the impression he just wanted to be a regular guy looking for his car in the parking lot, so that’s what I let him be.
Later, he would talk about his personal demons, and later still, he would finally succumb to them. But when he did, even after we found out in detail how it happened, most of us didn’t obsess over those details as we probably would have had it been some other celebrity. I, for one, felt nothing but compassion for him and gratitude for the example he always set, and the wish that I could’ve been in that room with him to tell him what I’d always seen in him. I imagine most people felt exactly the same; that if only they could’ve told him they see what he’s going through and want to help, maybe it would’ve turned out differently.
MC: Two of your word balloons strike especially truthful chords, that—as it turns out – are so commonly felt. In one, Lemont says: “But this one hurts more than usual. I think it’s because you, more than any other star, made ME feel big.” [Many] felt that way in the wake of the news. Could you speak some about whether YOU felt that way yourself?
DB: Yeah. Big time. Lemont’s sentiments are my own this week.
MC: This and your George Carlin “train tributes” especially reflect what a student you have been of their humor. Would you say they both influenced your own sense of humor and writing wit significantly?
DB: I think so. I think anyone who’s been inspired by someone else tries to create work that they think their inspirations would enjoy. We don’t always succeed, but we try.
MC: Any last words you’d like to share about how Robin’s death has impacted you as a fan and a humorist?
DB: No, I think I’ve said everything that was on my mind. Thanks for the opportunity to think it all through.