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Lessons of stigmas, stereotypes in Williams' death

Published on NewsOK Modified: August 16, 2014 at 8:44 am •  Published: August 16, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) — Jamie Masada, the owner of the fabled Los Angeles-based comedy club the Laugh Factory, vividly remembers a warm exchange with comic Richard Jeni of the two sharing words of encouragement and gentle ribbing.

"The next day I heard he put a gun in his mouth and blew his head off," recalled Masada of Jeni's 2007 suicide. "At that point I said, 'God, could I do something to somehow prevent that?'"

A few years later, having watched his "family" continuously depleted, Masada did do something. He began having a psychologist at the club several nights a week, offering stand-ups the opportunity for free sessions.

Robin Williams, a frequent Laugh Factory performer who committed suicide Monday, marked only the latest comic genius to be plagued by demons of depression and addiction. But seldom has the gulf between the bright buoyancy of the performer and the inner pain of the man seemed greater or more unfathomable. How did someone who suffered such demons summon such starbursts of generosity and glee?

Like countless others this week, Conan O'Brien remembered Williams' great capacity for thoughtfulness and kindness. When O'Brien was feeling down during the "Tonight Show" debacle, a bike arrived out of the blue from Williams, outfitted for maximum ridiculousness. Said O'Brien: "It's particularly courageous for someone to be that generous of spirit in the face of that kind of depression."

Such tales don't make it any easier to reconcile Williams' life with his sad fate. The magnitude of the shock over Williams' death has been matched only by the outpouring of grief for his loss. "I'll never, ever understand how he could be loved so deeply and not find it in his heart to stay," said his 25-year-old daughter, Zelda Williams. "He was always warm, even in his darkest moments."

Williams' publicist has said he had recently fought severe depression. Williams himself had occasionally spoken about his struggles ("Do I get sad? Oh yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh yeah," he told Terry Gross in 2006) and funneled his fights with alcoholism and addiction into his act. He largely won his battles with substance abuse except for several relapses quickly followed by rehab, including a stint at Hazelden in Minnesota last month. His widow, Susan Schneider, added Thursday that Williams also was suffering from the early stages of Parkinson's disease.

Those factors — along with his heart surgery several years ago — offer a slightly deeper understanding of Williams' mental state in recent days and weeks. But his death also reinforces the long-held stereotype of the sad clown, the tortured funnyman.

Comedian Jim Norton responded to Williams' death with an essay titled "Why the Funniest People Are Sometimes the Saddest" in which he noted that in his 25 years of performing stand-up, he knew eight comics who killed themselves.

"When I find a comedian I admire, my first thing is: What's wrong with this person?" Norton says. "Guys that I've admired the most always had that cloud. And it wasn't a purposeful or a pseudo-artist thing. It was a real thing that they were constantly combating. It was kind of a way to keep sadness or depression off of you, to be funny."

Particularly since the likes of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor made stand-up into a more personal kind of truth-telling, many comedians have been drawn to the profession as a means for catharsis. Comedian Tig Notaro pushed stand-up perhaps further in this direction than ever before in a famous set in 2012. Days after being diagnosed with breast cancer, she hit the stage: "Hello. I have cancer. How are you?"

Nowhere has the intersection between comedy and psychological pain been more thoroughly plumbed than on Marc Maron's podcast, which Maron began after he had suicidal thoughts. In lengthy, candid interviews with fellow comics, Maron has explored the often-troubled psychology that drives people to bare themselves before crowds night after night, feeding off the laughter.

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