Robin Williams and the Mask of Humor

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Via Robin Williams and the Mask of Humor | Psychology Today.

Like many, the star sometimes used his comedic gifts as a shield.

And by most accounts, it wasn’t just an act. Many stars are known to be very different than their on-screen personas. Not Williams. He had areputation for being kind and generous, as well as funny. (See, for example, this recollection from a one-time dinner companion.) Clearly, the humor was a core part of who Robin Williams really was.

But so was the depression.

The first-hand recollections of Williams appearing all over the internet today recall not only his humor but also his cocaine and alcohol addictions, as well as his pain and depression. In many ways, Williams is the modern-day, real-life Richard Cory, a tragic reminder that appearances can be deceiving and that even humor—especially humor—can be used as a mask that shields both the wearer and those around him, from the pain underneath.

For the past several years, I have had the privilege of spending a few hours each week with incarcerated youth in the county where I live. I’m there to introduce them to the values and practices of restorative justice, to the idea that there are more effective and productive ways to deal with conflict than with violence.

Sometimes, we do role-plays. Sometimes, I tell stories. Mostly, I try to listen, to really hear what is true and meaningful in their lives. I do this because it’s the best way I know to build relationships, and also because if I’m not willing to listen to them, why should they bother listening to me?

Every week, the composition of the group changes a little. Over the years, I’ve met well over 100 kids. Some are so sad they are unable to utter more than a few words. Others are angry and resentful about being where they are, again. Another group tries to play it cool. Each type presents its own challenge, but there’s another group that is harder to reach than any of the rest—the entertainers.

These are the kids who have learned how to make others laugh. They’ve also learned that, in that comedic moment, they can temporarily forget about their incarcerated fathers, their abusive uncles, their substance-dependent mothers, and all the other troubles in their life. In that comedic moment, they hurt just a bit less. And so they grasp every opportunity to entertain and, in doing so, cover up the pain.

Jaguar PT/Shutterstock

And if I say to them, “You’re a funny guy—I love how you make everyone around you laugh—but I can see that there is also a part of you that is sad,” they say, “No, I ain’t sad. It’s all good. I’m good.” 

But they’re not good. Because the pain never leaves for long.

I don’t know anything about Robin Williams’s inner life. I don’t purport to know whether he was able and willing to confront his demons. Regardless, I have no negative judgment of him, for I trust that decent people do what they can to both live a good life and not cause others unnecessary pain—and Williams was clearly a decent man.

Despite their crimes, most of the kids I meet at the detention center are also decent, and most are also struggling. The ones who are silly, that tell non-stop stories and jokes? They may be struggling more than most. 

So, when you see someone putting on a good show, go ahead and laugh. Robin Williams wouldn’t have had it any other way; neither would the kids I’ve met. But don’t let the humor fool you.


Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D.

Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


2 thoughts on “Robin Williams and the Mask of Humor

  1. Gutenbawdy

    Whenever I mention issues with depression, people usually chide back with something about how happy and positive and outgoing I am, and how I couldn’t be depressed. But this is so true, being depressed doesn’t mean we don’t want to be happy sometimes or that we don’t want to engage. Those who are depressed but still smile and make you feel good are those fighting the hardest, and trying their best to not let it get them as it so often does. They want to cope and get by too, self preservation.


    1. Sharon Halliday Hattingh Post author

      I couldn’t agree more….it is strange that the people that seem happiest, most ‘unfrazzled’ by their circumstances, are often those that hide deep, darkness in their souls. I also think that people who have experience of depression can look at those who suffer with much more compassion than those who knows nothing about the intense harshness of the disease. I always say that we must never, ever judge a person by his appearance (or often even his behavior)…you NEVER KNOW what they may be hiding behind that brave/happy/pretty mask. You should read Kay Redfield-Jamison’s book, ‘An unquiet mind’…it really explained a lot about the truth behind depression (to me, anyway).
      Thanks for your comment. I just hope that mr William’s death would not be in vain and that people out there will start noticing the reality of depression; understanding that, despite your public demeanor, you may be hurting inside.
      Keep well, stay blessed.



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