Back to the Chalkboard: Robin Williams and the Value of Comedy

Brad Riddell has written four feature films on assignment for studios and independent producers, and is a screenwriting professor in DePaul University’s School of Cinema and Interactive Media.

In 1990 I was about to graduate from high school and head off to the University of Kentucky. Despite starring in the senior class play and writing voluminous (if bad) short stories, I got it into my mind that I was destined to be a stock broker and get rich in New York City. How did I come to such an idea? Wall Street, that’s how. Only, I never had the brain for numbers and after three weeks I was failing finite math – the weed whacker class for would-be finance majors. So I quit that, and shortly thereafter saw this movie, Gross Anatomy, which opened up double-wide ER doors to a world of saving lives through science, along with love and lots of playful camaraderie.

CUT TO: Brad changing his major to pre-med.

My parents’ hopes were finally dashed when I came home one weekend in my junior year and declared that I would now be a theater major. Why? Dead Poets Society. That was the movie that forced me to realize it wasn’t high-paying Wall Street jobs or the fraternity-like lifestyle of on-screen residents that I longed for – it was the storytelling. The quest to express truth and real emotion. Maybe I’ve done that a teensy bit in the movies I’ve written to date, and maybe I haven’t. The point is, I’ve tried. And I never would have made the leap were it not for Robin Williams’ performance in a beautiful, perfect Tom Schulman script. I later met Mr. Schulman and expressed my gratitude for his work, and had hoped to someday do the same for Mr. Williams – but of course that never happened. And now, sadly, it won’t.

Dead Poets Society

So, in the name of Robin Williams, who was as much a writer as he was a performer, I would like to validate and encourage all of the comedy writers toiling under an anvil of self-doubt in the often-thankless job of making people laugh. Come award season, pure comedies are forgotten, and the critics seldom gob praise on the funnies. But, what we do still has tremendous value – and I’m not just talking about the box office. My first movie was a silly thing called American Pie: Band Camp. It made a surprisingly large amount of money for being gross, juvenile, and obscene, but, to this day, students who were in grade school when it was first released tell me how much they still like it. Maybe that’s a sign of diminishing taste in America’s youth, or, maybe I touched on something that they relate to.  I can’t be sure, but I know I tried. Hard. With everything I had.

When I was a USC MFA student writing the very first draft of that script, the world was shattered by the September 11th attacks. Needless to say, everything stopped. And when we finally got back to classes, I confessed to one of my professors that I no longer felt it was right to be creating another stupid teen comedy in the darkness of death and disaster.  His response was to hand me a second movie that would change my life and make my career possible – Sullivan’s Travels. It’s about a successful comedy director who wants to remake his fluffy image and change the world by making an award-winning, hard-hitting drama. Ultimately, though, he comes to realize the lasting value of making people laugh. After I saw that, I got back to my silly little script and cracked all the jokes I could.

Robin Williams QuoteDead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting were very serious works, among many other stellar dramatic performances where Robin Williams was at his best. Rightfully so, we will remember him for those films forever. But he was also a man who, like Preston Sturges’ Sullivan, made millions of people laugh – which is a powerful, everlasting tool for creating healing and hope. What we do as screenwriters – be it comedy or drama, be we produced or aspiring – changes and shapes lives. I am grateful to be proof of that, thanks in large part to a beautiful character by the name of John Keating. I don’t claim to have changed anyone’s life with a movie like Band Camp, but I do know I got a few laughs, and at the end of the day – I’ll take that.

May you rest in peace, Robin Williams. You were a brilliant actor and the great funny man of my generation. You made the world better, and you inspired a great many of us who will gamely struggle to carry on your legacy of love and laughter.

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