Laughter: Research & Development by
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(152 Stories)

Prompted By Comic Relief

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I love to laugh. Most of us love to laugh. Laughter is the crazy glue of existence. As a kid, my friends and I could make each other laugh until we rolled in convulsions on carpets, lawns, beaches, or hayfields. I remember building circles of out-of-control giddiness that, if interrupted, puzzled teachers and parents. We’d tip so close to the edge of hilarity that even a quizzical adult look or an uncomfortable “what?” would send us into deeper paroxysms of belly clenching laughter. Even a pause in the collective laugh would be enough to trigger another laff explosion.

I’m told that, as an infant, I would break into laughter at the slightest provocation. Food could crack me up. Ducks in the Public Garden could crack me up. The antics of our dog Amy could crack me up. My mother and father both had lively senses of humor and — as we know — laughter is infectious. Maybe humor begins there — with early childhood and laughing parents, parents who laugh with, not at, a child’s curiosity or at the mistakes that kids invariably make as they explore the world. Kids can be funny, and they can certainly appreciate funny stuff.

I’ve always been wary of people who don’t laugh. What are they waiting for? Or, what are they doing instead? Trying to “get it?” Watching, analyzing? Are they holding a giant magnifying glass above us, read to ignite us with the focused heat of their own grim sensibilities.

For me, the next step in laugh development came early, playing roles in operettas. I was cast as Hansel in Hansel and Gretel,” and Rumplestiltskin in the grim Grimm’s tale of the same name. I learned that I love to make other people laugh. At seven, I couldn’t necessarily identify what made people laugh, but I did learn that if I did the same thing in two successive performances, I would get a laugh each time. That’s when I began to learn inflection and — most important — timing. What a thrill, to feel liked and in control at the same time!

In middle- and high school, I sharpened my comic skills doing Gilbert and Sullivan and — at the zenith — Oscar Wilde. In commedia dell’arte, laughter can come from scene-by-scene dramatic circumstances, a good line, or even a look. It’s a total body experience, getting a laugh. Those who perform know that, if you hit the punch line at exactly the right time, with the right tone, the laughter will hit you like a wall. It’s a great feeling.

As I came of age and grew aware of the paradoxes and contradictions of the world at large, I discovered a different strain of laughter — the laughter of the absurd. My friends and I had the LPs of all the beat comics from Mort Sahl to Dick Gregory to Lenny Bruce. Carl Reiner played straight man to Mel Brooks. The “straight” insanity of Jonathan Winters, Nichols and May, Bob and Ray, Stan Freberg, Shelley Berman, the “Button Down” mind of Bob Newhart even the MIT professor Tom Lehrer. They were talking about the absurdity that we were beginning to perceive in our life and times. They were like gold to us. Even musicians like Dave Van Ronk, Charlie Mingus, Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie brought comic relief to the often intense and dark worlds of jazz and folk music. And so we laughed — and learned through laughter.

Recently, I found a different dimension to my laughter. For decades I have been able to use the comic perceptions and tools I learned as a child and adolescent to respond to the often-hard realities of history, culture, and politics. Somewhere in the midst of the injustice, outrage, murder, and mayhem, one could always find comic relief in the ludicrous. And then along came Trump. The laughter I was so used to leveling at the absurd behavior of those in power stuck in my throat. Donald Trump is not a funny man. Mitch McConnell, Bill Barr, Stephen Miller, and Mark Meadows are not funny men. Joe Manchin is an unfunny clown. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are not funny women. There is nothing funny about the mean, blunt stupidity of authoritarian wannabes like Paul Gosar, Mo Brooks, Louie Gohmert, and Madison Cawthorn (N.C.),

But comedy mixes well with the will of the people. Laughter is a collective response. Comedy always works its way into the trenches and onto the front lines of the war for social justice. Laughter helps us engage with ourselves against the enemy. We will, eventually, be able to laugh at these people and the things they have done. And better, beyond them lies the real stuff of comedy, the hilarity of everyday life, the joy of benevolent surprise, the beauty of genuine sadness and the mystery of the future.

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Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

Visit Author's Website



Characterizations: funny, moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Thanx for your R&D on funniness Charles, and another of your thoughtful takes on our Retro prompts.

    Despite the reminder of unfunny Trump world , thanx for the promise of light and laughter ahead. And thanks for the mention of Dave von Ronk, his song In the Pines brought back some seductive memories!

  2. Suzy says:

    I love this story! Starting with the fabulous featured image, you in academic robe and hat, with glittery scarf, Karl Marx in hand, and a wonderfully amused expression on your face! That made me smile before I even started reading! I love your opening paragraph about “out-of-control giddiness” — that was just what I experienced as a child, but you described it so much better! Then Gilbert & Sullivan, Oscar Wilde, Mel Brooks and the whole cast of characters you name remind me of so many comical times in my own life. And finally the unfunny Republicans, and the belief that we will be able to laugh at them some day. Thank you, thank you for all of it!

  3. Marian says:

    I echo Suzy’s praise, Charles. And, you have described perfectly the feeling of getting a laugh from the audience of a play or standup comedy routine. Although my comic acting experience is very limited (the mayor’s wife in The Music Man, dressed as the statue of liberty and singing “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean”), having the audience crack up was one of the biggest rushes of my high school years.

  4. susanrubin says:

    This is a smart, funny piece. We need smart and funny now more than ever. My one quip: Joe manchin doesn’t rise to the heights of a clown. Of all the bean heads we have had shoved out the GOP shoot Manchin still manages to be more disgustingly self admiring. Are there no mirrors in W VA? One wonders if he and Kristen sinema plan to destroy our country through sartorial sadism and pompous self satisfaction. Please get a stylist you two! There are many potential helpers for these two eyesores.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    A perfect analysis of laughter and what’s funny. I loved your list of the funny people who made you laugh as you came of age. I agree that, right now, it is hard to laugh at much. But isn’t that part of what makes these days so angry and divisive? People seem to have lost the ability to laugh and take themselves far too seriously.

  6. Thanks, Susan. I think you’re right about the mediocre little man with the houseboat and the Maserati. If we banish him from any mention, he will soon slide off the corner of our cluttered desks and into the circular file of history. And Kirsten S, the same.

  7. You vividly captured that sense of “I wish I could stop” hilarity of a kid, which sometimes seized me and my sister to our horror while seated in the sanctuary of our synagogue! And you raise a great question at the end about whether certain trolls and misleaders are just too ominous to be satirized–even though Jews, African-Americans, and others have survived by seemingly finding humor in EVERY previous catastrophe.
    But my final query is: where exactly were those laughs in the Hansel & Gretel story!

    • Thanks, Dale. I just congratulated Marian on her account of trying to suppress laughter in a solemn Episcopal service. Laughing until it hurts is about as funny as the grim Grimm Brothers and their popular medieval nightmares. Reflecting on your query, I had a really tough time with that little Operetta — anxiety, stage fright. So maybe I’ll have to drop Hansel and Gretel from the laugh list and add Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado.

  8. Betsy Pfau says:

    Love that you take us on your personal journey from the giggles through more sophisticated humor like that of Oscar Wilde and the intoxicating feeling of landing a well-delivered laugh line and claiming your reward from your audience. How sweet it is.

    I agree, there is nothing humorous about Trump and his cronies or wannabes. They are grasping, sick , mean-spirited individuals.

    I agree that humor rises in the form of social dissent and helps to blunt my nerves over our current situation. It is useful in so many situations.

    • Thanks, Betsy. I know you know the lovely feeling of laughter hitting you from a well-delivered punch line! And I bet you’ll agree that humor is one of the best vehicles for getting a point across…without becoming a sanctimonious pain in the rear end. Stay safe!

  9. John Shutkin says:

    What an incisive, enlightening analysis of laughter through the years for you, Charles — as Dana put it, R & D. Some of it even parallels my own development, though more in thought than, in your case, action (literally — as in acting).

    Hard to single out my favorite part of your journey, but I particular appreciate anyone else who fondly remembers the brilliant Stan Freberg.

    And your penultimate paragraph about unfunny people whom we laugh at, and not with, and also detest is a serious (and unfunny) statement about our perilous times. Indeed, I look forward to seeing any or all of these people in tears — and not of laughter.

    • Thanks for reading my ramble, John. Glad I struck a familiar chord with you, always a pleasure when our words connect with fellow travelers in this lonesome world (laughs). Yes, Stan Freberg strikes me as one of those ‘straight’ guys (I believe he worked on Madison Ave) who, like Jonathan Winters, was bats–t crazy! And let’s all “take an Indian to lunch.”

      I think that, in response to your added thoughts about unfunny, people who don’t laugh, like people who don’t curse, should never be trusted. And yes! I’d love to see them all in one big holding cell, crying their eyes out.

      • John Shutkin says:

        Absolutely right, Charles. Stan Freberg started out on Madison Ave., and that very much influenced his humor. For examplt, “Take an Indian….” about the founding of Thanksgiving, was all about a marketing scheme for the unpopular Pilgrims.

        Humor goes a long way with me, too, even in politicians. In fact, that was one of Bob Dole’s saving graces, IMHO. After Dole’s death, Al Franken nicely eulogized him by saying, “This now makes me the funniest ex-Senator alive.”

  10. Khati Hendry says:

    I envy your ability to laugh long and loud–you clearly have a talent that has taken you down many tracks less traveled. And I agree that current dangerous politicos are too threatening to be truly funny. But laughing at them is a form of undercutting their power, and I thank all the late night shows that enable that. I keep thinking someday the little kid will point the finger and announce that the emperor has no clothes, and everyone will see that is true. And laugh them all away. Ha ha.

    • Hi, Khati. Absolutely agreed that laughter is a great undercutter, and that the brilliant awareness of Jimmy Kimmel, john Oliver, Trevor Noah has spread good thinking far. I write about politics and comedy in a new novel set in the radical theater scene of the late ‘60s. Probably, to be more accurate, Tee Rump does not laugh and is not funny. And like all bullies, he is driven into a rage when laughed at.

  11. Dave Ventre says:

    There is indeed something about being a hateful person that destroys humor. Even before he lost his mind to fear of…everything, I never found Dennis Miller funny. It was no surprise when he went openly neo-fascist.

    • Agreed, Dave. I never liked Miller. I thought he was a contrarian, opportunistic and hypocritical. He likes to think he observes nihilism from whatever direction it comes. He doesn’t. He embodies nihilism. He squats in the center of it, defecating language.

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