12 August 2014

Why comedians commit suicide

I understand it suddenly, in a flash. It's amazing what happens when you stop to be confused for a moment. You struggle, and then the answer comes. I guess I never really stopped to wonder why so many entertainers kill themselves. The trend is so well known as to practically be a stereotype about stand-up comedians, and it's distressed and saddened me, but on some level it just made intuitive sense to me. Some of the happiest, friendliest, funniest people I know have been silently depressed out of their minds. I've been there myself, though thankfully not in the last few years. I figured it was just one of those things.

But today the funniest man in the world died, and I was amazed how hard the it hit me. I saw the headline and skimmed through the article thinking, "Please don't be suicide. Please don't be suicide," but it was. The man who made a career being zany and yet nailed so many inspiring dramatic roles was apparently dead by his own hands, and I sent my wife a text to tell her the news.

"That's so sad," she texted back. "Don't become a professional comedian."

And that's when a deep and pressing need to know why settled into my heart. I looked at my personal and vicarious experiences with depression and my meager dabbling in the world of amateur stand-up and knew that the answer had to be there. It took most the day, but as I walked home from my bus stop, I found the answer in the sight of a stranger staring Robin Williams's face on the front page of The Globe.

When you're a celebrity, there are no strangers--except for everybody. The whole worlds is still full of strangers as far as you can see, but they all think they know you, they all look at you as though you have a shared inside joke, like you're close and lifelong friends. You can never meet someone new and start from scratch. They all want to say, "Hey, remember that one time" as though they were there. They all want to be the one that you remember, the one that next time you're on stage you'll mention, even if it's just a passing or even disparaging reference. You can't make any new friends, at least not in the usual way because conversations no longer start with "Tell me a little about yourself" but now all begin with "This is what I love about you." And how are you supposed to live like that? You're walking down the road, you're Robin Williams, a man with a wife and a couple of kids, but nobody can see you. Instead, they all see Patch Adams or Peter Branning or Sean Maguire or Mork or Genie. Every human knows to some degree the loneliness of walking down the road without being seen, but most of us experience it by being completely ignored. I can't imagine what it's like to walk down the road and still not be seen and yet have to endure an onslaught of strangers trying to speak to their favorite fictional characters. I can only imagine I'd want to kill Patch and Peter and Sean and Mork and Genie all at once, but in the end, I, too, could only kill myself.

Rest in peace, Mr. Williams. I'll miss you more than I deserve to, but you won't miss me at all. I just hope that in heaven you get to know what it's like to be known or unknown, whichever you prefer, and I hope that those who have a right to miss you will find comfort in having known you at all.