Recently, the world lost two of its greatest comedians, Robin Williams and Joan Rivers. Both were unique and exceptional talents who brought new life and perspective to the industry and whose influences have continued beyond their deaths.
Robin Williams began doing stand-up comedy in the mid-1970s. He travelled to various clubs on the West Coast to speak about anything and everything, including his personal life, as he related his struggles with drugs and alcohol. In 1978, he assumed his major television role as an alien named Mork in Mork & Mindy. Unsurprisingly, he was cast for an equally unorthodox reason: when told to sit down for his audition, he sat on his head.
With the success of Mork & Mindy, he became well-known for his quirky sense of humor, which shone through in some of his most memorable roles. His first major film role was as Adrian Cronauer, an entertaining Vietnam War radio DJ, in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). Other roles that allowed him to showcase his light, yet heartfelt sense of humor included the warmhearted, childlike Genie in Aladdin (1992), whose dialogue was primarily improvised and for which he provided approximately 40 different voices. However, he also proved himself worthy as someone who could portray other more emotionally challenging characters, including a homeless man in The Fisher King (1991) and a psychologist in Good Will Hunting (1997). He also offered inspiring performances in films such as Dead Poets Society (1989), in which he portrayed an unorthodox English teacher who charges his students to “make their lives extraordinary.” His life was certainly extraordinary, as he had the ability to make people laugh, cry and laugh again.
He died, aged 63, of suicide on August 11 in Paradise Cay, California after years of suffering from depression and drug and alcohol abuse, but his legacy will live on in the hearts of all of those who agree with Terry Gilliam, who acclaimed Williams for his ability to “go from manic to mad to tender and vulnerable” and asserted that he was “the most unique mind on the planet. There’s nobody like him out there.”
Joan Rivers first hit it big when she appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1965 and was subsequently invited to visit different comedy shows. She made a place for herself in television by creating her own daytime talk show, That Show With Joan Rivers, in 1968. Later, in 1986, she launched her own late night talk show, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. Her more recent projects included co-hosting the show Fashion Police beginning in 2010, premiering her show Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? in 2011, and hosting online talk show In Bed With Joan starting in 2013. She died, aged 81, of a cardiac arrest on September 4 in Manhattan, New York after complications from undergoing throat surgery.
Rivers was most well-known for being straightforward in always speaking her mind, often abrasively, as she was not overly concerned with being sensitive or politically correct. If she needed to say something, she took a risk and said it without apology. While many criticized her and considered her to be tactless, crass or insensitive, others praised her for her sharp wits and authenticity, even when she sparked controversy. She was widely appreciated for her comic brilliance, which encompassed her willingness to poke fun at herself; among other subjects, she used her plastic surgery as bait, once commenting, “I wish I had a twin, so I could know what I’d look like without plastic surgery.”
She also helped pave the way for women in comedy. It was about seven years into her career before she was invited to appear on The Tonight Show, and she was the first woman to have a late night talk show (The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers) on a major network. Additionally, she was known for shedding the “nice girl” stereotype, which some people think has helped other comediennes break out of this gender role and convey themselves truthfully, even if this does not make them seem “ladylike.”
In the end, her approach to comedy can be summed up in her simple, yet insightful statement, “Life is very tough. If you don’t laugh, it’s tough.” Through comedy, she had the opportunity to help make people’s lives just a little bit easier. Ultimately, as an uncompromising, fierce comedienne, Rivers’ legacy will continue the work she began during her life: to stimulate and to convince others that they should never be afraid of saying what they need to say.
Both Robin Williams and Joan Rivers will always be remembered by those whose lives they touched through their work. Each had the power to transform comedy, as well as influence others’ perceptions of themselves and the world. Their message was that life is better when you laugh. Williams struggled for years with drug and alcohol addiction, as well as depression, and Rivers received much harsh criticism from those who did not understand her. However, in the midst of it all, they did their best to make themselves and others laugh. We have seen that at the end of the day, life is not always okay, but it is a little more beautiful when you remember to laugh. In this way, both comedians undoubtedly made a profound impact in the world of entertainment, as their life-giving humor will transcend their deaths.