“He trained Robin in clowning,” Roberts Logan says of Belov, who was director of clowning at the Moscow State Circus — as well as creative head of the Moscow State Music Hall Company and the Moscow Clown Pantomime Theatre — before his anti-propaganda stance as an artist in the ’70s caused he and his wife to be sent West. And Belov, who befriended the Oscar-winning actor, was struck by Williams’s gifts.
“He told me one time what a genius he considered Robin to be,” Roberts Logan tells me, “how his brain was like a sponge and all.”
Before Belov passed, he also saw his dear friend die. Robin Williams lost his life to suicide one year ago today in his Northern California home. Days after the tragedy, his widow, Susan Schneider, shared with the world that the beloved entertainer suffered from depression and anxiety, and that he was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease.
Williams was a social sponge, too — his friend Carrie Fisher has said he had the gift of “rampant empathy” — and that fed his art. “I do think that creative people carry extra weight in some regards, if we are hypersensitives,” says Roberts Logan, herself a comedian and cartoonist who has bipolar disorder. “You just feel a lot, and you feel deeply. And so, you throw a little manic-depressiveness in there, and it can be tough.”
Roberts Logan, a Memphis-born performer and author who now lives in the District, has seen this before in her decades-long career, during which she has opened for Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres and Drew Carey. She has seen artists close to her become swallowed up by their mental illness. “It makes me melancholy,” she tells me. “It makes me think of my friends and comics who committed suicide — Rich Jeni, PJ Moore — and it makes me want to always work at this. Well, because I have to, I guess.
“Seriously, every time this happens, I think: Another one of us has lost the battle. And I think how very dangerously close I’ve been to that.”
Roberts Logan has been there herself, arriving at the emergency room doors on the threshold of despair. She received her diagnosis two decades ago, and medication is crucial, she says. She lives a life of performing at venues in Washington (including recently at Story District), and working as an illustrator (she has been a finalist for a National Cartoonists Society divisional award) and an author (“The Older I Get, The Less I Care”; Andrews McMeel is also publishing her coloring book for adults). She also has raised a son with her husband, Gary Logan, who directs the Academy for Classical Acting at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
What has struck the cartoonist-comedian anew, since Williams’s death, is the lack of understanding about, and judgment toward, mental illness and its toll.
“When people start judging it, calling it cowardice, etc., it makes me angry, and it makes me want to speak out even more about depression and manic-depressiveness,” says Roberts Logan. “And though it’s not so much of a battle, of course, when you’re medicated, the bipolarity is still there. I can still feel an echo of the highs and lows, though I’m on two medications. My doctor is talking to me about adding a third, which I’m now-and-then considering. There’s a bipolar joke in there somewhere.”
The best way to battle ignorance and judgment, Roberts Logan believes, is to be as open as possible about a life of “brokenness” — and often the best delivery system for her is humor.
“The hardest thing, day to day, is that I have to admit I’m broken, that I need my meds,” she says. “I mean, if the zombpocalypse happens, I’m heading to CVS first.”
From a starting point of levity, Roberts Logan aims to tackle perceptions and misconceptions.
“I would like people to understand that it’s chemical — so much of it is chemical,” Roberts Logan says. “I’m sure there are other things involved, but the tradition I was raised in mostly has treated it as a spiritual problem, which keeps people like me from seeking real medical help. I kept thinking: Hey, I can faith my way out of this. But I couldn’t. I will say, that in the worst moments, I felt like Jesus was the tiny pinprick of light which stayed my hand, and helped me see another morning.”
“I remember this period where I thought I was all better, and could quit my meds. Not good,” Roberts Logan continues. “So I’ve had to face that I’m broken, and not listen to well-meaning people who tell me I can win this battle without meds. I can’t. Sorry. I won’t be going on ‘Survivor’ or Bear Grylls’s ‘The Island’ anytime soon — gotta have my medication.”
Her life as an artist and entertainer, she says, provides its own balm.
“Art is peace, respite, passion,” says Roberts Logan (“Fog of Worry”), who will appear at next month’s Small Press Expo in North Bethesda. “Art lets me pour myself into it, and it into me. I’m in love with art.”
“Writing is different,” she notes, “but it’s an outlet nonetheless.”
And so Roberts Logan takes the stage, and finds levity within the darkness of not only the club, but also the subject matter.
This summer, she “performed at a Speakeasy DC [now Story District] show, for the second time, this story was about our Neighborhood Watch leader in Kansas City, who turned out to be a serial killer,” Roberts Logan says. “I made sure he was dead before I decided to tell that one publicly.”
“I’ve been going to New York for a couple of years, doing storytelling shows, and I love that format — and I will tell you that first night that I worked with Bill Persky [‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’] and Tom Leopold [‘Will and Grace,’ ‘Seinfeld’], and they both made a point to come over to me and tell me what a great writer I am … ,” she continues. “I called my husband and said, ‘Well, I can die now.’ And he wasn’t scared because I’m on my meds.”
She is also drawn to the work of fellow cartoonists and humorists who discuss their mental illness.
“I liked reading Ellen Forney’s ‘Marbles,’ about her struggles, especially regarding getting the meds right,” Roberts Logan says of the acclaimed graphic novel. “I have a couple of buds who text with me back and forth about what we think of our doctors and our medications.
“Dark, dark humor is our specialty.”
Roberts Logan has lived some of the same pains as Robin Williams. She understands the darkness and what she needs to do to illuminate the misunderstanding. Line by line, on the page and the stage, she hopes the art of humor can pave a path toward social awareness and acceptance of mental illness. “I try to be as open as possible about being a broken person,” she says, “and accepting that.”
And so she wakes up and faces each day, and takes her meds, and pours herself into her art and comedy, and finds strength in the love of family, including her theatrical spouse. “Yes, he trains actors in Shakespeare, and wrote a Shakespearean pronunciation dictionary, ‘The Eloquent Shakespeare,’ ” she says. “And he is married to someone who doodles and writes big butt jokes.”
But there is a powerful statement and uplift in simply being around, and surviving, to tell another story. “I think it’s a miracle I’m still here,” Roberts Logan says.
Thank goodness. We can’t afford to lose yet one more clown.
(Note: The U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-TALK [273-8255].)