Laughter–the worrisome kind
Laughter, they say, is the best medicine. But what exactly makes people laugh, cause their tummies to jiggle, squeeze tears out of their eyes, sometimes to the point of doubling up, even rolling on the floor, as though in pain?
When I was younger, it was at chapel, of all places, that the most innocent thing, like a hole in a sock peeking out of a classmate’s shoe as she knelt in the pew in front of me, that brought me to such barely suppressible fits. The nun would come, her owlish eyes staring me down in admonishment, which only made things funnier. In the end, I had to be physically dragged out of the chapel, still convulsed.
Woody Allen is one writer I don’t dare read in public places, where laughing out aloud by myself could cast serious doubts on my sanity. Woody can be relentless; he comes at you with funny lines like an automatic weapon, each line funnier than the last, leaving you no gasping space.
He can be lethal. And long after you’ve put the book down, the ridiculous images he has evoked stay in the mind and hit you again. For instance, the blind date who “facially… resembles Louie Armstrong’s voice” and the band that sounds like a “pet shop on fire” recur to me.
But I can’t complain. Laughter loosens my tight joints, as it releases pent-up emotions, and eventually relaxes me. Ending up sweating in places and smiling tearfully are little discomforts to pay.
It’s been a while since I laughed so much in a movie, and “Florence Jenkins,” played by Meryl Streep, is a worthy reward—a true story set in wartime America.
Miss Jenkins was a sort of child prodigy who, at age 9, played the piano at the White House. But, hands progressively debilitated by the syphilis her first husband had given her, she has given up piano and turned to singing.
However, the untold truth, obviously unknowable to her by simply listening to herself, is she cannot carry a tune. At any rate, she fancies, with help from a circle of sycophants, that her selfless love for music will somehow make an opera singer of her. All her money can’t buy her the vocal complement but, alas, it buys her a concert at Carnegie Hall. And that’s when the terrible truth comes crashing down on her.
The pathetic Florence is certainly no laughing matter. But Meryl Streep is delicately hilarious, endearingly silly, deploying her naturally impressive vocal abilities to surprise us by missing notes in the funniest way at the funniest points and trilling like a hapless bird.
I almost begged her to stop because I couldn’t laugh any harder, though at the end, I never felt so good after a movie!
Charlie Chaplin, the lovable tramp, can still make me laugh sans words. In 1940 he produced, wrote, and directed himself in “The Great Dictator,” finally breaking his silence and delivering a speech in the end as the Jewish barber and twin brother (Chaplin plays both roles) of a dictator side-splittingly patterned after Hitler.
The speech touches on basic unchangeable truths: “More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost…”
Writing on it, Max Page noted that the speech preached tolerance, love and kindness and caring for others, and stopping greed, war and hate at a time when Hitler and a Mussolini were fueling the fires of hatred, fear and anti-Semitism, with, as we all know, catastrophic results.
These days there seems a different kind of laughter that to me is worrisome. It seems to be provoked by inappropriate language and deportment from no less than our president. I’ve seen it often enough on television, in press conferences, in meetings with the businessmen, once even in the presence of the young volunteers and nuns of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting.
The president seems inordinately angry at one thing or another—the evils of drugs or criticisms of him; fair criticisms, as happens, of his conduct in relation to the rule of law, human rights and foreign relations. His out-of-place and downright irreverent language scandalizes or intimidates.
To me the even more worrisome tendency than to be charmed, which I have observed with audiences at a loss, is to laugh nervously and incredulously.
Under the new president, it seems, the first lesson learned is, when in doubt—laugh.
It’s the hole in someone’s sock at chapel all over again. Only I was an immature silly-dilly girl with no understanding or appreciation of where I was—in God’s presence. It may have been childish relief from all the seriousness and somberness at chapel, but for journalists, businessmen and constituents, what excuse is there, pray tell, for laughing at presidential cussing?
When did the violation of basic decency and human dignity become a laughing matter?
Laughter is a precious gift from above and, as natural as it is, a unique aspect of our humanity. It is, in fact, what differentiates us from the other creatures we share this world with.
Laughter, like medicine inappropriately administered, can be poisonous, too. As our Mother Superior had warned in order to set me straight, inappropriate laughter erodes slowly but surely our very own sense of propriety.
The way things are going in this country, we may just run out of excuses for laughing sooner than later.
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