On Success and Happiness

Robin Williams died today. Normally I don’t give much thought to celebrity deaths—what about all the other people who died today? is my usual unvoiced response to the expressions of sadness that promptly pour out on social media. But this one struck me for a few different reasons.

Much of my generation of Americans grew up with Williams in his most goofy and manic role, Mork from Ork. His later roles, even the relatively serious ones, continued to be driven by the manic motormouth compulsion that first brought him fame. They were leavened by an increasing humanity, but it was clear that giving free rein to his frenetic free association was what really energized him. I had the opportunity to see him live twice—he lived in Marin and would occasionally test out new material at a smallish club in San Francisco—and his barely contained energy, which would grow over the evening as he got going, was practically a force of a nature that swept everyone in the room along with him. It’s hard to imagine Williams surviving, yet alone thriving, in any other profession. Watching him live, I became convinced that Mork the alien was the real Williams, and that he spent much of his later years trying to figure out how to be human. His more touching moments on screen typically had to do with realizing and articulating a failure to be what other characters needed his to be. Continue reading