“Comedy can be a cathartic way to deal with personal trauma.” -Robin Williams
August 11, 2014 is a date I remember vividly for two reasons. For one, it was the day my medical class at Columbia University observed its White Coat Ceremony, officially marking our matriculation. It was also the day comedian Robin Williams died of an apparent suicide, news of which I received less than an hour after the celebration. As an aspiring doctor and comedian, this intersection of medical school, tragedy, and comedy affected me deeply, and thus feels a fitting place to begin the exploration of humor and medicine I hope this column becomes.
But rather than focus on the medical circumstances surrounding the end of his life and the posthumous discovery of his suffering from Lewy Body Dementia, I’d like to spend the majority of this first post illustrating how Robin Williams would use his talents for humor and connection to ease the pain of others. Social media and news sites were flooded with stories of such instances after his death. In discussing a few, I hope to shed light on ways in which healthcare workers, family, friends, and even strangers might be able to do the same.
One of the best-known stories was first told by Williams’s long-time friend Christopher Reeve in his autobiography Still Me. After his horse-riding accident, Reeve was awaiting a complicated surgery, bed-bound in a hospital, trapped with his darkest thoughts. Just then, a Russian surgeon burst into the room, claiming to be a proctologist who needed to perform an immediate examination. Reeve, suspecting drug-induced hallucinations, took an entire minute to realize it was Robin Williams, in full character. “And for the first time since the accident, I laughed. My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay,” Reeve says, later continuing, “It’s going to be an enormous challenge, but I can still laugh, and there’s still some joy.”1
Williams was also capable of bringing such therapeutic joy to strangers as well as close friends. In an online article published this year, Kate Lyon Osher explains how, after a distressing incident in the security line at a public airport, the comic walked up to her from out of nowhere and made sure she was okay. Osher had recently lost her husband, and in this dark moment, a stranger, albeit a famous one, comforted her and made her laugh. “That moment saved me. And sustained me,” said Osher. “He sustained me during one of the most difficult moments of my life.”2
Even animals have been cheered by his playfulness. In a press release after Williams’s death, The Gorilla Foundation shared a video of when he met Koko the gorilla, noting that “Robin made Koko smile — something she hadn’t done for over 6 months, ever since her lifelong gorilla companion, Michael, passed away at the age of 27.”3
While these stories are wonderful to hear, Williams was a comic genius who could make almost anything funny. Can healthcare providers approach those in pain with similar success? When examining these stories more closely, we can see they involved varying amounts of comedic preparation. For Reeve, Williams had an entire character, but in Osher’s case, all Williams needed to do was express sympathy and converse humorously. With Koko, he was simply present as a fellow playful being. The root of these stories is something more universally accessible than raw comedic talent. But what is this “something?”
To tease out an answer, we can return to Williams’s work, this time in a monologue his character delivers in The Fisher King. In the film, he describes a king who has suffered a grave wound in his search for the healing power of the Holy Grail, only to quit his quest in despair. One day, a simple fool comes across the king. Thinking him a fellow commoner, the fool fills a nearby cup with water and gives it to the injured man. As the king drinks, he finds his wound healed and the Holy Grail in his hand. When he asks the fool how he was able to find the Grail, the fool simply replies, “I don’t know. I only knew that you were thirsty.”4
This story, a symbolic patient/caregiver relationship, suggests that easing someone’s suffering can be as uncomplicated as being truly present with the sufferer. Simply observing a shared moment allows one to connect with another person (or gorilla) on a deeper level, leading to feelings of support and comfort. It’s revealing that this lesson is illustrated with the figure of the fool, classically the designated member of a king’s court entitled to observe and make fun. And indeed, this power of observation is something heavily relied upon in comedy. Comedians, especially stand-up comics, often use it to connect with audiences and make them laugh.
This can be extremely effective when the observations are about the performance itself. One of the funniest moments in Robin Williams’s first album, Reality…What a Concept, comes about two minutes into the show. After a few rapid fire jokes, someone arrives late and Williams immediately uses it: “Oh you’re late, let me show you what you missed.” He then launches into an even faster rendition of the first jokes before exclaiming, “Oh, déjà vu!”5 Again, by living in a moment with the audience, he connects with them and creates a stronger response.
Fortunately, an ability to sit in a moment with someone and connect through an acknowledgement of shared experience is something anyone working with patients can do, regardless of comedic talent. But if laughter does result, all the better. I’m reminded of an answer Williams gave when asked what he’d like to hear if there is an afterlife. “If heaven exists, just to know that there’s laughter, that would be a good thing.”6 And if I may echo that sentiment here on Earth: wherever the ill are cared for, to know there can be laughter, that would be a good thing.
- Reeve, Christopher. Still Me. (Random House, 1998), 36.
- Osher, Kate Lyon. “When Robin Williams Comforted Me in the Airport After My Husband’s Suicide.” Huffington Post, 13 July 2017, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/5967ab94e4b07b5e1d96ee01. Accessed 15 Oct. 2017.
- “PRESS RELEASE: Koko Remembers Robin Williams.” The Gorilla Foundation, 11 Aug. 2014, www.koko.org/koko-tribute-robin-williams. Accessed 15 Oct. 2017.
- The Fisher King. Directed by Terry Gilliam, TriStar Pictures, 1991.
- Robin Williams. “Nicky Lenin.” Reality…What a Concept, 1979, iTunes, itunes.apple.com/us/album/reality-what-a-concept/id912461346.
- Matthews, Cate. “What Robin Williams Hoped God Would Tell Him in Heaven.” Huffington Post, 12 Aug. 2014, www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/12/robin-williams-god-heaven-inside-actors-studio_n_5671465.html. Accessed 15 Oct. 2017.