Several years back, when I was going through a challenging time, a wise person gave me an unusual piece of advice: “Watch Comedy Central.” I did, I laughed a lot, and I felt a lot better. It was good medicine, good therapy. It still is. I have satellite radio in my car, and one of the stations I listen to often is “Laugh USA.” Again, good stuff for the soul and the belly.
Laughter can at times be vicious and demeaning – jokes told at someone else’s expense, a put-down, a mean-spirited slam. Those jokes get laughs, but they leave me feeling a bit demeaned myself, and guilty. My favorite comedians are those who laugh at themselves, who tell jokes at their own expense, celebrating their own imperfect lives. And that’s why one of my all-time favorites is the late Rodney Dangerfield, whose signature line was, “I don’t get no respect.” A couple of examples:
“My wife was afraid of the dark, saw me naked, and now she’s afraid of the light!”
“When I get in an elevator, the operator takes one look and says, ‘Basement?’”
And in 2004, entering a Los Angeles hospital for heart valve surgery, he said, “If things go right I’ll be there about a week, and if things don’t go right, I’ll be there about an hour and a half.” He lapsed into a coma after the operation and never recovered. I think he would have found it profoundly funny.
Rodney, despite great success as a comedian, suffered bouts of deep depression and low self-esteem. But his self-deprecating humor wasn’t the work of a man wallowing in all that, it was both an escape from grim reality and a way of facing his demons and laughing at them.
I’ve thought about Rodney Dangerfield a good bit in recent days as I’ve watched events unfold in places across our globe – grim reality that has the potential of making us both fearful and cynical. There doesn’t seem to be much to laugh about these days. And I’ve thought that folks who perpetrate violence, who create havoc and heartbreak by taking lives, take themselves and their credos so incredibly seriously that they have absolutely no capacity for laughter, especially about themselves. Those terrorists in Paris, in fact, wanted to kill laughter. I hope we don’t let them.
Lest it seem that the assault on laughter is only the work of terrorists, consider our political systems – here and elsewhere. People of every conceivable stripe who hold high office are by and large humorless people, unremittingly grim about their ideologies, bent on demonizing anyone who disagrees. How long has it been since you’ve seen a member of Congress laugh? I think if we can find occasions to laugh at ourselves, that means we realize we aren’t perfect, and that somebody we disagree with might have an idea worth considering. It also means we've found some joy in what we believe.
I love using humor in my storytelling. If I’m sitting in the audience at a performance of one of my plays, my greatest joy is when one of my lines provokes laughter. I believe in humor leavening drama and – lest the story lapse into slapstick – drama leavening humor. The writers I admire the most are those who have an exquisite balance of both drama and humor in their work.
I wish we had more laughter. I wish we had more Rodney Dangerfields. If we gave ourselves a little less respect and a little more humor, we might be better off.