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Is Robin Williams Crazy or Just Creative?

 article about Is Robin Williams Crazy or Just Creative?

This article belongs to BUSINESS MONTH: Creativity theme.

Irrational Humor and Insanity

We've all probably had the experience of watching a standup comic and finding ourselves laughing, then feeling slightly uncomfortable, then actually wondering whether the comic is quite possibly...just possibly... a little crazy--bonkers--mashugana.

In our lifetime, it is probably Robin Williams, and his creative rants and riffs into the stratosphere, beyond most logic, which has caused us to wonder whether the dude is "one crazy MF," as my Black "brother" would pose.

What is it exactly about Robin Williams' riffs into the regressed ozone of our minds.....what is it about Williams' humor that is so funny and, at the same time, so insane?

It is because his associations and logic, or illogic, is not rational---not short, is it that his humor involves irrational free associative jumps which transcend normal linear thinking?

One way of looking at the Robin Williams' humor is to consider it to be:
1. Non-linear thinking/ not traditionally logical but more like free associations of the unconscious mind.
2. Dreamlike in its use of bizarre associations with its own dreamlike associations ("magical thinking" as Psycho-Analysts would say)
3. Right hemispheric in the sense of being non-verbal, non-linear, illogical, dreamlike and free associative.
4. Regressed in terms of being pre-verbal, non-verbal and developmentally prior to the full development of the ego. (pre-Oedipal)

All jokes can be put on a linear continuum between totally psychotic and totally rational/linear.

"Take my wife...please" is not disturbing but is funny because it is slightly illogical, which makes it funny. The double entendre involves a jump in logic so I would characterize it as being minimally illogical...still "left hemispheric"/rational in its structure.

Groucho Marx's "I shot an elephant in my he got into my pajamas is beyond me!" This is slightly illogical but still within the logical realm of left hemispheric thinking.

When Jerry Lewis looks at himself in the mirror, in one of his films, and practices kissing by looking at himself for 3 full minutes, this is funny because we are seeing him do something embarrassing which we can imagine ourselves doing. It's like he is being caught doing something we could see ourselves being caught at. It is mildly bizarre, but still, not outside left hemispheric logic.

Jonathan Winters, at his peak in the 60s and 70s, was, on the other hand, one of the early right hemispheric comics. My parents used to love him and, when I was about 11, I tried to appreciate his humor and just wasn't capable of "getting it." He went off on these bizarre, illogical but regressed, dream-like rants, which seemed to be playing with real craziness. He was, at the time, considered to be not only "different," but a rare "comic genius." He was a great hero and model to Robin Williams (he has acknowledged) and to several standup comics whose work attempts to "push the envelope" into bizarre, if not crazy behavior and thinking.

Tracing the creative roots of insane, creative humor, prior to Jonathan Winters...Harpo Marx comes to mind. He was so endearing because his persona was clearly the naive, loving, positive, playful mind of the average 4 year old. "Wacky" is certainly a term which might describe his physical humor. And the fact that his humor was totally non-verbal, it can be viewed as being partly right hemispheric. Of course his character clearly understood language and was intelligent in his understanding but was childlike in his playfulness. It could certainly be argued that Harpo's humor was more logical than Jonathan Winters' humor. In the final analysis, Harpo's humor was crazy and visual, but fundamentally left hemispheric.

One distinguishing feature of the Williams'/Winters' model is that they do not talk about characters...they are/were the characters. They do not say what an idiot says...they ARE the idiot. They DO the associations...they don't talk about them.

Robin Williams might say, "This Jewish friend of mine went down to Jamaica for a vacation and he came back." Then Williams might go right into a Jewish character with a Jamaican accent talking about how he was in search of a nice bagel. There we would have the surprise of a character and bizarre combination of Jamaican and Jewish. No verbal introduction. Just associations which we, the viewer, have to figure out. And when we figure it out, we are surprised and we laugh. On the continuum of humor, this would be one of the tamer Robin Williams examples and though surprising, largely left hemispheric.

Jonathan Winters might do his granny persona, wig and all, or his Southern, tobacco-chewing redneck. He is in character and the characters thoughts go deeper and deeper in to illogic, humor, the ridiculous and insanity. He leads us slowly yet inexorably into the insanity of the character. We feel slightly uncomfortable but we are laughing the whole way. Clearly, we are not explained to, we are demonstrated wacky insanity by the insane character. I call this right hemispheric humor.

How many comics in history have used this Jonathan Winters model? Very few.

The brilliant comics of recent memory, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby, Henny Youngman, Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, Johnny Carson, Richard Pryor, Red Foxx and Woody Allen all led us into their comedy within a comfortable logical context.

Red Skelton comes to mind as possibly a comic who played with characters with some right hemispheric wackiness in the tradition of Harpo Marx.

If my memory serves me, Buster Keaton, the brilliant athletic silent film star, may have delved into borderline insane antics. Charlie Chaplin was always a great story teller and always linear in his wonderful ability to tell a compelling story. Not in the Winters-Williams mode. Charlie made no attempt to be insane but still was enormously creative in a left hemispheric way.

The Three Stooges (three nice Jewish boys) were "crazy" but in a linear, left hemispheric way. The same goes for Laurel and Hardy and most of the early comics like Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd.

I once read an article in a psychology journal about creativity and insanity. It was quite interesting and compelling in presenting a model which showed that at the far borders of right hemispheric creativity...just beyond that "border" is psychosis/insanity. Here lies the domain of a dream-like state of bizarre associations, magic and unconscious-regressed, "magical thinking" and the Freudian "primary process" unconscious associations and thinking.

The films of David Lynch come to mind here. In the bizarre, brilliant black and white film "Eraserhead" the dreamlike world of fantasy, dreams, fears, libido, "primary process" of pre-ego images, delusions and psychosis all come together. Bizarre fantasies and primal fears of sex and childbirth are presented visually and in a way which captures the irrational, the primal, "primary process" and regressed psychotic thinking of the underbelly of our psyches.

So the model has creativity moving more and more to the regressed and eventually becomes psychotic. It is at the point where the ego loses control and eventually disintegrates that the psychotic thoughts and images emerge.

The model of humor, creativity and psychosis is circular. It's like a clock. At 9:00 is pure logic. Math and logic. As you move from 9:00 to 12:00 you get more regressed...more creative. As you approach 3:00, on the other side, you are becoming like Robin Williams...approaching crazy but still with the ego still in charge. Then, as you move past 3:00, the ego disappears and you have true observing the insanity of Charles Manson...the psychotic film imagery of David Lynch's Eraser head (which you must see:))

What is so special about Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters is that they had the courage and ability to lead us closer to the line between the rational and the irrational, and to dwell and to party at that line. There are very few comics in history, who have had the type of creativity to be able to lead us into this domain--a domain which is not just the domain of Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams, but is a part of ourselves. And we need a guide like Williams and Winters to take us there because our own defenses:

Repression, denial, turning-against-the-other as well as more conscious suppression...keep us from going there on our own.

We go there only with the help of the courageous, creative and gifted ones:
Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams.

Was their humor insane?

No. Because when they performed, their "observing ego" was always in the drivers seat, always carefully guiding us into the wildly creative/insane part of our own personalities.

Copyright 2009 Steve Harvith

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