Where Has The Laughter Gone?

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.


In Praise of Being Silly

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.

Buster Keaton

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.