II. The Sandman and the Genie: Adam Sandler, Robin Williams, and Wanting to Die
I constantly think about this one scene from the 2009 Judd Apatow movie Funny People, which came out roughly five years before Robin Williams’ suicide in 2014. A satire of the entertainment industry, Adam Sandler plays a version of himself named George Simmons, nicknamed Merman (a nod to Sandler’s Sandman). We watch real footage of Sandler making crank calls in his room, grainy home movies shot by Apatow himself when they were roommates together. Next, we see George alone in his millionaire mansion, taking a swim, taking a drive, posing for pictures with fans while smiling, getting diagnosed with a most likely fatal form of Leukemia, then posing for more pictures with fans, no longer smiling. He then performs a nervous breakdown of a stand-up routine, asking the audience questions like “Who’s going to amuse you when you’re gone?” and “If there was a God, why would there be a Holocaust?” Seth Rogen’s character, an aspiring comedian named Ira, is forced to follow George’s set, and to cut the tension created by his bleak jokes:
“Okay. George Simmons. Wow. Now what do we do? He seems unhappy with his money. Give it to me, I’ll…I could really spend that.
If he’s depressed with his life, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I live on my friend’s pull-out couch. So, anyway, I…
Wait, did you hear that? Yeah, George Simmons just shot himself in the face backstage. It’s sad knowing Merman’s crying inside.
Uh-oh! Is he organizing a mass suicide? Is that where you’re going? Are you joining him? Save some Kool-Aid for me. Just do it. Don’t worry, the next guy who’s coming out has a dove hidden up his asshole, so…and then Robin Williams is gonna slit his wrists out here. So that’s nice, also.”
This cruelty is described by the critic David Ehrlich as not just an “open wound,” but an uncanny prediction. Ehrlich writes, “The movie didn’t spark a compelling new chapter of Sandler’s career; it only precipitated a series of bold new lows that began with Jack and Jill, led to Pixels, and culminated with a lucrative Netflix deal that made his diseased brand airborne.”
So why did I think that such a “diseased brand” was the perfect mode of public expression for my own private suffering? Perhaps because I was talking about a disease, an illness, and a low-quality avatar of an increasingly unpopular ’90s comedian seemed more fitting than a Sofia Coppola-style filter. Or perhaps because trying to talk about shameful and scary subjects, whether online or in a therapist’s office, is as uncomfortable as watching a middle-aged guy bomb at a comedy club. It can feel like you are that guy: obscene, outrageous, juvenile, and provocative, all for an audience that you expect to heckle you no matter what. And the less popular Sandler became in the mid-2010s, the more that avatar of self-destruction, social unease, and shame resonated with me. His status as an easy target on social media, mocked for his clothes and dismissed for his movies, made me deeply protective of him, but it also made me relate to him. I became obsessed with the secret links between “lowbrow” comedy and private pain, repeatedly watching his movies at my lowest points. I even dedicated my 77,000 word-long PhD thesis to the relationship between childhood trauma and “bad taste” comedy.
Bilge Ebiri brilliantly explains this sense of mental unrest at the tin heart of each and every Sandler movie in his 2014 essay “Why Adam Sandler Might Be the Most Important Comedian of His Generation,” likening Sandler’s acting to “the cinematic equivalent of an ALL CAPS mock temper tantrum on Twitter. None of it’s real, and Sandler repeatedly reminds us of it through his disengaged presence.” Ebiri poses the question of whether such theatrical non-commitment is a reflection of Sandler’s own upbringing, showing us how “this Jewish kid from Brooklyn, who had to move to a lily-white, gentile New Hampshire suburb when he was 5, straddles a number of worlds, not quite belonging to any of them.” As Ebiri explains:
“This is different, I think, than the stereotypical ‘self-loathing’ that is used to characterize some Jewish humor. Sandler isn’t self-deprecating; there’s actually an angry edge to his jokes and his asides that speaks to the fuck-up, the malcontent, the disappointment, the guy who used to be a sweet kid and then somehow threw it all away. Haven’t we all been that guy at some point in our lives? This is probably another reason why Sandler so often connected with both antisocial dorks and the lunch-money shakedown brigade back in the day.
Even as he indulges our teenage violent fantasies, he is, in a sense, enacting a violent fantasy upon himself. He’s the one being beaten to within an inch of his life. Even the very titles of these albums—They’re All Gonna Laugh at You, What the Hell Happened to Me?—seem to scratch away at an unspecified shame.”
Although the sources of our shame differ, it is this “simmering, nuclear self-hate” that epitomizes both Sandler’s numerous “Worst Actor” awards and my own struggles with trauma and mental illness. It captures the sense that, in dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a personality disorder, you are not quite there. There’s the relentless presence of something less climactic or cinematic than straight-up pain: clunkiness. Dissonance. Like a badly reviewed Netflix movie or a joke that doesn’t land. It is unsurprising, then, that I relate to Roger Ebert’s description of Sandler as a supporting character—essentially, inescapably, forever:
“The basic miscalculation in Adam Sandler’s career plan is to ever play the lead. He is not a lead. He is the best friend, or the creep, or the loser boyfriend. He doesn’t have the voice to play a lead: Even at his most sincere, he sounds like he’s doing standup—like he’s mocking a character in a movie he saw last night.”
Even at his most sincere. Leading me to wonder if the not-being-there is intentional at all.
The line from Funny People about Robin Williams is either a thoughtless throwaway gag that dated really fucking badly, part of the film’s broader examination of the tension between the singularity of superstardom and the universality of death, or both. In the Robin Williams biography When The Laughter Stops, Emily Herbert argues against any supposed contradiction between Williams’ comic persona and his personal pain. Of his stand-up routines, she notes that “his performances went beyond energetic, beyond frenetic. At times they seemed dangerous because of what it said about the creator’s own mental state.” Yet when he died by suicide, people were shocked—not just at the unexpected tragedy of the situation, but because his nostalgia-evoking comic persona seemed to be at odds with such a profound sense of pain. They were unable to reconcile his personal struggles with his roles in beloved family films, and so talked about him like a cartoon character who had gotten a happy ending, rather than a 63 year-old man who had chosen to leave this earth. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences actually tweeted a still from Aladdin with the caption “Genie, you’re free.”
I was incredibly suicidal myself when it happened, during a summer month which consisted largely of playing mobile phone games on public transport. I responded to his death in a state of disassociation, and tributes to his passing felt more like “tag yourself” memes than pieces of a tangible reality. I don’t think any of us can ever really understand another person’s death by suicide, even if we struggle with suicidal ideation ourselves. I certainly did not have that capacity, not when I was too sick to make my own breakfast, let alone write up psychological profiles of strangers.
That was four years ago, and here I am still writing about killing myself but clearly not dead. Beyond the surprising resilience of the human body to the slings and arrows of suicidal behavior, there is a bigger reason why I’m still here. It is an embarrassing and uninspiring reason, something I would not tell you unless asked, which my editor has.
I am here because no one would notice if I was gone. Because an exit, as I understood it, required a sense of accomplishment, and how could I leave when I hadn’t done anything? Hadn’t been anyone? Then I would just be Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock from Heathers, whose bullies dismiss her unsuccessful suicide attempt as “another case of a geek trying to imitate the popular people of the school and failing miserably.” I wanted to be dead, but I didn’t want to be Martha Dumptruck. So, I stayed alive. In a sickly comedic twist, my self-loathing saved my life. I guess I wanted more for myself than running Sad Adam Sandler.
Perhaps Sandler wanted something more, too? His recently released Netflix special, 100% Fresh, a reference to his consistently “rotten” ratings by critics, challenges the popular image of him as a joke. He upends the common criticisms of his later career, his apathy, his refusal to try, his disdain for his audience, and now critics say we’re living in the “Sandlerssance.” The energy and generosity of this special brings me hope and happiness, and his ability to acknowledge his misfires is incredibly inspiring. As Kelly Lawler observed, “He doesn’t appear to be apologizing for his failures, but instead owning them and owning the fact that he has changed and evolved.”
Sandler sings about his love for his wife and children, recites playground rhymes about death and dick jokes, and turns memories of his Bar Mitzvah into a stadium sing-along. He sings a moving tribute to the late Chris Farley, another chaotic comic legend who died too young. A particularly powerful moment comes when Sandler recalls warning Farley “to slow down or you’ll end up like [John] Belushi and [John] Candy,” to which Farley responded, “Those guys are my heroes; that’s all fine and dandy.” The song confronts the canonization of our comedy heroes (like Kaufman, like Williams), and the self-destruction that it potentially celebrates, with Sandler sadly singing, “You’re a legend like you wanted / but I still wish you were still here with me / And we were getting on a plane to shoot Grown Ups 3.” There’s a stark, self-aware contrast between the critically reviled comedy sequels of Sandler and the legend of the long-passed comedian, begging the question of whose work we value and why. If we would rather our stars burn out totally than fuck up slightly. As Lil Peep wrote on Instagram on the day of his death, “When I die You’ll love me” [sic]. So many of my own bad decisions can be attributed to wanting to die, or wanting to be loved, or both, and a part of me still thinks that if I kill myself, my life will be more special and less shitty. Watching 100% Fresh, however, I just felt happy that Sandler was still singing, and that I was there to hear it.