Robin Williams and true comedy

While originally he was known for his roles in fictional dramas and comedies, now Williams serves as an example of real life perseverance and resolve.

Robin Williams (photo credit: REUTERS)
Robin Williams
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In life we tend to journey somewhere between the two extremes of depression and laughter. In film, we call these genres-- either you decide to watch a drama today or a comedy. But for most of us, for those living in the real world, the dividing line is not so clear and we tend to ping-pong between the two.
Sometimes you find funny people that struggle with depression. While this doesn’t necessarily make them bipolar it does help to appreciate what true comedy is. These are the sensitive ones, those attuned to the interplay between sad and happy and have chosen to align themselves with the latter.
The Zohar teaches that the truest experience of joy is to be both joyful and weeping at the same time: “Crying is wedged in the heart from this side [the left side of the heart] and joy is wedged in the heart from this side [the right side of the heart].” This is the ideal state of joy and this is what makes the experience of joy so dynamic. Thus it is not surprising to find a well-known comedian that battled depression.
A comedian like Robin Williams who is as known for his dramatic roles as he is his comedic ones. And even as he battled depression in his personal life he brought us many moments of laughter. Moments that now carry an added meaning given the knowledge of his personal struggles.
The holiday in the Jewish calendar that most typifies the emotional interplay between depression and laughter is Purim. The news of Haman’s decree and its eventual overturning are two extremes; extremes which the entertainment industry calls the difference between a drama and a comedy.
According to The Book of Formation -- the first classic text of Kabbalah attributed to Abraham -- the sense for the month of Adar, the month when Purim occurs, is laughter. If you really want to know what Judaism has to say about comedy, especially plotlines that start off as dramas, learn all you can about the holiday of Purim. Whereas the miracle of Chanukah teaches us how to wake up from the false dream of Hellenism -- according to The Book of Formation, the sense for the month of Kislev, the month when Chanukah occurs, is sleep -- Purim has all the elements of a Jewish comedy. As the joke goes, “they tried to kill us, we survived, now let’s eat.”
Yearly we remember the miracles that God performed for the Jewish people during Purim, and yearly we also are reminded as to the true nature of Jewish laughter. The challenge now -- the topic of our present discussion -- is how to process the tragic news of William’s death? Many people, including family members, have encouraged us to remember the happy moments, to remember the many occasions when he made us laugh, while grieving for the loss.
When thinking about how to approach this article, I thought of another approach. Not so different, or different at all, than what was suggested. But something that relates more closely back to the Zohar quoted above. What does it mean to carry both crying and joy in the heart? A quality that while specific to Jewish souls was learned out from this warm non-Jew. In the words of Williams’s family, to grieve while remembering the laughter.
What is the message for us? That true joy benefits from both dramatic (crying) and comedic (joy) elements. This is also the inner reason why his role in Good Morning, Vietnam was so celebrated. Although Purim is the best and truest example of a drama that becomes a comedy, in the secular world, Williams's role as a comedic radio DJ during the Vietnam War reminded many of this concept.
Therefore, this is the legacy that I’d like to suggest: Here was a person who not only battled depression for decades, but also overcame these and other challenges time and again. While originally he was known for his roles in fictional dramas and comedies, now he serves as an example of real life perseverance and resolve.
Kabbalah teaches that crying is even higher than joy. To quote from Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh:
“You always have joy and broken-heartedness residing together in the heart, but it is specifically the higher state of being crushed, of the crying of the yechidah (the highest “singular” level of the soul) that leads to the revelation of the essence of God in our soul root. It is only when the Mashiach will come that everything will be transformed into pure joy [Mashiach is spelled with the same letters as “he will bring joy” (יְשַׂמַח)]. But in the meantime, crying and being crushed by the weight of the exile takes you higher than joy.”
Yonatan Gordon has spent most of his past 14 professional years in the world of Jewish publishing. He was the Marketing Manager at Kehot Publication Society (publishing arm of Chabad) for the better part of six years. He is founder of the website Community of Readers.