I’ve always been a huge fan of slapstick comedy – the kind where folks fall all over themselves and everything and everyone around them, spreading zany mayhem and making me laugh so hard I have to contemplate a trip to the emergency room. There was, in my opinion, no one better at slapstick than Buster Keaton, who pratfalled his way through a series of silent films in the 1920’s, performing his own impossible stunts and beginning a lasting comedic legacy.
One of my favorite TV shows in the 1950’s was Candid Camera, the brainchild of a man named Allen Funt. The idea, in case you don’t go back that far, was to hide a camera somewhere, and film people’s reactions to ridiculous stunts and practical jokes. When the joke was finally revealed, the victim would be told the show’s catchphrase: “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!”
My all-time favorite episode starred Buster Keaton. He’s sitting on a stool at a diner. Some unsuspecting person takes the stool next to him. Keaton orders toast and coffee. He picks up the coffee cup, but only holds onto it by his index finger. The cup tilts and the coffee pours out onto the plate of toast below. The guy on the next stool does a huge double-take. But it gets better. Keaton puts down the coffee cup, picks up the soggy toast, wrings it out, and puts it back on the plate. Then he does the coffee spill thing again. By this time, the guy next door is bug-eyed with astonishment. The reaction is what the camera is after, but the whole thing works because Keaton does the stunt absolutely deadpan, which was one of his trademarks during his long career.
If laughter is the best medicine, I prescribe sheer silliness, the kind that Buster Keaton and Candid Camera did so well. And if you want to witness silliness in its purest form, watch a kid being silly. Up to a certain point in their lives, kids aren’t burdened with the hangups that we adults tote around like peddlers’ sacks. Their laughter starts deep and bubbles up like a magical fountain of youth and infects everything and everyone around them with uninhibited joy. On rare occasions, if we’re lucky, we adults stumble upon something that reminds us of what it’s like to laugh just for the pristine sake of laughter. And I think the best bet we have for doing that is being silly with a kid.
I say all this because I’m about to become a grandfather again. This time a boy, after two lovely granddaughters. He will be born into a family with wonderful parents and grandparents who will love and nurture him. We’ll no doubt shower him with gifts over the years – some tangible, some intangible. I think one of the best intangibles we can provide is some delicious silliness.
One of the best memories grandson's mother and I have of her own childhood was the day we -- totally without premeditation – draped a sheet of plastic over our heads and ran around the yard. We weren’t pretending to be anything, we just ran and laughed like maniacs because it made us feel absolutely free and unconnected to anything except the moment. Someone looking on from the street would have thought we were nuts. Well, we were, and it was exquisitely good. We wouldn’t trade that memory for anything.
I’m absolutely sure that grandson's parents will, along with all of the solemn duties and responsibilities of parenthood, take time to be silly with him. Those will be some of the best moments of his childhood, and theirs. I know this: his grandfather relishes silliness, and still watches Buster Keaton movies. I can’t wait.