When I was 11 or 12 years old, my dad and I got on a plane and flew off to a hockey tournament in North Carolina. It was the same sort of forced father-son time I knew all too well after a childhood of long drives to tournaments closer to home, so I settled in for what I figured would be an uneventful flight.
Shortly after we took off, my dad turned on his laptop and started watching Robin Williams Live on Broadway, a stand-up routine that was, admittedly, a little more graphic than his other work I’d seen (which at that point had been Aladdin, Jumanji and maybe Flubber). It was nothing that, in his adult opinion, I couldn’t handle. So he rummaged through his briefcase and pulled out a little two-pronged headphone jack so I could watch with him.
You already know Williams’ stand-up is known for his motor-mouthed soliloquies and wild one-man spectacles. In his tribute in the New York Times, film critic A.O. Scott describes the time he ran into Robin Williams in Cannes during the film festival’s fireworks:
“You can probably imagine the rapid-fire succession of accents and pitches—macho basso, squeaky girly, French, Spanish, African-American, human, animal and alien—entangling with curlicues of self-conscious commentary about the sheer ridiculousness of anyone trying to narrate explosions of colored gunpowder in real time.”
Re-watching his standup today, it’s a perfect description, one that explains how this man can turn his own act on its head, switching between family-friendly impressions and jokes about fake tits.
As an 11- or 12-year-old who still shuffled nervously when I heard a swear word within earshot of my parents, you can imagine what kind of experience I was in for. Sure, I understood almost none of it, but the awkward parts that I did catch were overpowered by the hilarity of it. You know as a kid when you laugh at everything your dad laughs at because he obviously knows what’s funny? Sometimes there’s a half-second delay when you look over at him to see if he’s laughing before you start laughing too? Or there’s the odd time you go out on a limb and laugh first, hoping he laughs too, but when you realize he’s not it makes you doubt everything you’ve ever thought was funny? Well, when my dad laughed—and he laughed much louder than anyone in a darkened plane cabin has a right to—I forgot that feeling. It was just unmitigated happiness. It didn’t matter if I knew, for Williams’ last joke, why he’d buried his face in the crook of his obscenely hairy arm or what he was doing with that water bottle. I was laughing because dad was.
On the night Robin Williams died I came across a story Williams had written in the Times last year in remembrance of a comedian he loved: Jonathan Winters. He talked about watching Winters with his dad and after a joke that had something to do with squirrels and nuts “my dad and I lost it,” Williams wrote. “Seeing my father laugh like that made me think, ‘Who is this guy and what’s he on?’”
As soon as I read that quote I felt a weird connection.
What did it mean that Williams had those same moments with his dad? What does it mean that my dad and I shared those moments watching him? What does it mean that Williams killed himself and what does it mean that, six years ago, my dad did the same?
Obviously none of those are questions I’m equipped to answer. All I can say is that it has compelled me to write something; to toss in a little more than my two cents in the wake of all this. Despite my reservations, I think it can be meaningful to share these connections, in fact for the very reason that these connections—whether they’re about fathers and sons, laughter or suicide—often prompt others.
It’s been a while since I’ve scoured the obits and eulogies, the penetrative analyses and sad ruminations, in hopes binding together bridges of cosmic significance between little coincidences. Of course I had no more claim to this tragedy than anyone else, but I’m happy I found something.