Harris: Robin Williams the 'sad clown'

Robin Williams laughs, at a panel for the television series

Robin Williams laughs, at a panel for the television series "The Crazy Ones" during the CBS portion of the Television Critics Association Summer press tour in Beverly Hills, California in this July 29, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/Files

Bill Harris, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:14 AM ET

I never will forget Robin Williams' reaction when someone referred to him as a “sad clown.”

It was at the Television Critics Association tour just a little over a year ago, in the summer of 2013, when Williams was on hand to promote his new sitcom, The Crazy Ones. The show was cancelled after one season. And now, tragically, Williams is dead at the age of 63.

Upon being called a “sad clown” - and it was said with affection in setting up a question, not as an insult of any sort - Williams exhibited a few of the many sides of his personality that made him a star for so long. He was amused, manically so, but then became thoughtful about the comment, literally living up to the tag over the course of a couple of minutes.

The exchange went like this:

A reporter said, “(This series) reminds us that nothing is more heart-wrenching than a sad clown ... ”

Williams pretended to cry and said, “Please don't say that.”

After a pause as the room cracked up, he added, “Thank you for the cards you sent.”



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Then he blurted, “Especially a sad clown that you wake up next to, and go, 'Oh my God, what are those big feet doing in bed?”

The questioner tried again, asking if Williams was happy to be back doing a sitcom, rather than slogging it out in comedy clubs.

“Oh, big time,” Williams said.

The questioner added, “Talk about that ... ”

“I will,” Williams shouted as he jumped to his feet. “YES, I WILL. BECAUSE I'M A SAD CLOWN. HELP ME GOD, PLEASE.”

After a reference to a sex scandal that already was a bit dated at the time, Williams predictably glanced to his own crotch and observed, “THAT'S not the sad clown,” Then Williams settled down a bit and pondered the reference for real, kinda sorta, for as long as he could stay serious, anyway.




“The idea of the sad clown thing, I think it's the idea of, you know, all of a sudden you be funny and then that moment of tenderness,” said Williams, in some ways summarizing his own career. “But sometimes you have to be very careful that it doesn't go into saccharine or too much sentimental ... if the show (The Crazy Ones) works on that level, I think the sad clown or the somewhat melancholy clown or the melancholy mime which sits next to the sad clown - he's in a box with a window, looking out.”

Cue the mime motions.

Enjoying Williams' trademark scattershot conversation, but also hoping for more insight, the questioner tried one more time: “What makes you happy these days?”

“What makes me happy?” Williams repeated. “My family, work and, I think, creating. Like, when I'm not doing this show, I get to do something called Set List once in a while. It's like an improv show where you get seven suggestions and you put together an improvised set, like a standup comedy set. That's a joy. That's like - I was going to say free-basing. 'Ix-nay.'

“That's the happy clown. But ... riding a bike is one of my happiest moments.”

You know, for the life of me, I can't remember now if that last bit about “riding a bike” was said seriously by Williams, or if he was making another “sad clown” crack. Actually, that says a lot about Robin Williams right there. Chunks of his life can be seen in different ways, depending on the time and the place and the context.

'HUMBLE' HERO

Robin Williams first came into my consciousness as Mork from Ork. In a small scrum after the media conference where the “sad clown” comment had been made, Williams recalled his Mork & Mindy days with the observation, “I was on everything but skates.” Indeed, he battled addictions for much of his life, fending off the darkness that so many gifted comedians seem to feel is closing in on them, despite assurances from millions of fans that it isn't true. Williams was back in rehab last month.

Some comedians have an almost insatiable thirst for approval. It's what makes them come across as hyper-talented when they're young. I remember an appearance by Williams on The Tonight Show, sitting on the couch talking to Johnny Carson, and it was one of the funniest sustained performances I've ever seen on late-night TV. Even Carson paused at the end to comment on how talented Williams was.

Alas, sometimes when comedians age, that thirst can come across as desperate. Williams went through some of that, for sure. Like a sad clown, if you will.

But I will tell you this, Robin Williams. No matter what demons were on your doorstep, you made me laugh more times than I can count. And I am not alone.

The tragedy of how it ended for Robin Williams will fade. The clown – the good kind of clown – will live forever, with a smile on his sad face.

Bill.harris@sunmedia.ca

@billharris_tv


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