When I was about eight years old, I caught my mother, her sisters and my grandmother talking and laughing over some nutty thing that my great-grandmother had done a few days earlier. Great-Grandma was in her eighties then, and was slowly beginning to lose the edge off her wits. Sometimes she'd walk into church limping, as she'd absently slipped her feet into two completely different shoes (one black flat, one brown heel); sometimes she'd accidentally wash the walls of her apartment with sugar solution instead of salt water, and later come home to a kitchen crawling with ants.
Everyone was laughing uproariously, but I was incensed. "Why are you making fun of Grandma?" I demanded. "She's an old lady and she can't remember stuff any more! You shouldn't say mean things about her!"
My mother looked at me then, and there was a softness to her eyes. "Suzie," she said gently, "sometimes we laugh to keep from crying."
It was the first time I'd ever heard that expression, and I didn't understand it. To my eight-year-old mind, things were either funny or serious. I didn't yet see any connection between laughter and tears, let alone just how close that connection could be; that lightbulb would take a decade or two to snap on.
One of the other things I remember about the year I was eight was watching a new show on TV called "Mork and Mindy." It wasn't like anything else on television at the time. Most sitcoms of the '70s had a certain plodding predictability; even as an eight-year-old I could usually guess the next punchline before it left a character's mouth. But I never knew what was going to come out of Mork's mouth next; the only thing I could correctly predict was that whatever he said was going to set me giggling.
Thirty-two years later, the same guy still does a good job of making me giggle. But in the interim I've come to realize that, as funny as he can be, I don't appreciate Robin Williams chiefly for his comedic talents. I've grown to appreciate the man's range as an actor, and to relish the particular little moments in his films that sum up a character simply and beautifully: Sy the photo guy, traumatized and weeping in a back room as he realizes his obsession with his dream family is coming apart; Teddy Roosevelt on horseback, looking down at a security guard and admitting, "I'm made of wax, Larry. What are you made of?"; the disembodied spirit of Chris Nielsen, desperately whispering into his soulmate's ear, "This is Chris--I still exist--"; Peter Banning joyously telling his son, "I finally found my happy thought... do you know what it was? It was you"; homeless and mentally off-center Parry pouring out his heart to the woman he has so long worshipped from afar; Vladimir Ivanoff, at first dazed, then progressively coming unglued at America's decadent abundance of "Coffee--coffee--coffee--coffee--COFFEE!"; Andrew Martin gently checkmating Portia, his whole face glowing with unconcealed love for her; Sean Maguire deliberately keeping his voice even and soft as he matter-of-factly discusses life with an abusive, drunken father; even the Genie telling Aladdin, "No matter what anybody says, you'll always be a prince to me." And of course, Adrian Cronauer, smiling and waving at the GIs who are all about to be ground up into hamburger in a gory battle, his eyes a secret well of pain.
Somewhere along the way, watching these and other performances by Mr. Williams, I began to understand what my mother had been trying to tell me. Humor and sorrow are the opposite sides of the same coin. Life is short, sometimes mind-bogglingly so, and it hands everyone a slice of nasty; even in the best circumstances it's difficult to make your way through the jungle, and if you can't find the laugh in some of life's absurdities, you'll spend too much of your short time on earth in unabated misery. But if you can't find the laugh by yourself, you can always look to others who can provide you with the lifeline you need. Some actors and comedians seem to know instinctively the way through the thickets and briars of daily life into a clearing where the light has a chance to shine in. During the two hours of an evening's entertainment, you get the chance to rest, maybe to set down your problems long enough to be able to see them in another light, and if you're lucky you'll realize: it may not be all right now, but it's going to be all right eventually. There's both a catharsis and a strength to be derived from that realization -- that though life often makes us shed tears of bitterness and sorrow, it also sometimes surprises us with a gift of tears shed with laughter and joy.