It was Red Skelton’s fault. From ‘30s vaudeville then radio, movies, and on to television, Skelton’s gentle humour always induced howls of laughter. In 1950, broadcast engineer Charles Rolland Douglass taped Skelton audiences. He then played snippets during a Hank McCune TV show. It worked. Folks at home were prompted to laugh along with the supposed studio audience. When it was reported that people found shows with laugh tracks funnier than those without, the “Laugh Box” was soon employed by all comedies. Without knowing it, generations of people perched before radios and televisions were laughing along with Skelton audiences. We laughed. And that’s no laughing matter because laughter matters.
Public speakers know. Regardless of the weightiness of the address, every good speech begins with levity. An audience becomes connected with each other and the speaker and so more willing to consider messages that come through the simple act of a shared laugh. Teachers know. Any educator who fails to see the link between entertainment and teaching knows nothing of either. Humour makes even the most mundane material more accessible and so learning, rather than just teaching becomes more likely. Preachers know. Witness the erasing of the wafer thin line between laughter and tears at every funeral when funny stories are told about the deceased. Permission to laugh offers permission to grieve.
All laughter is not good. Too many YouTube videos and cheap Comedy Channel programs rest upon enjoying the misfortunes of others. Leave it to the Germans to have named that sad brand of humour. They called it schadenfrude. A Leiden University study confirmed that we are embarrassed when laughing at others tripping, failing, or being humiliated. While we know it’s wrong, though, we just can’t help ourselves. The study also showed that narcissists, and folks with low self-esteem or mean streaks find schadenfrude particularly pleasurable. Picture Hitler laughing.
The Navajo people understand laughter’s mystical value. Their rich and complex culture portends that when a baby is born it is of two worlds – the spiritual and the earth. Adults await the child’s first chuckle. The first belly laugh, that bursting of pleasure that all parents treasure, signals that the child has completed the birth process and fully joined the family and community. The first laugh brings the A’wee Chi’deedloh or Baby Laughed ceremony. People gather and pass by the baby with plates brimming with food and exchange gifts of salt. The symbols of health and rejuvenation not only welcome the child fully to earth but also imbue the notion that a good life is one of generosity. Whoever induces the first laugh pays for the party so it is not uncommon for Navajo people to ask nervously when presented with a newborn, “Has this child laughed?”
Human beings are not alone in laughter. Chimpanzees, gorillas, apes, and rats also laugh. Chimps love magic tricks and literally roll with laughter when surprised. Rats laugh when tickled and will move toward a hand or feather to enjoy it again. Koko the sign language expert gorilla surrenders to schadenfrude as she laughs when her handlers perform pratfalls. Humans are unique, though, in spending so much time and money, the equivalent of animals surrendering food, just to laugh.
So wait for it. Wait for it at the coffee shop or office. No matter how heavy the baggage lugged along, wait for it at family gatherings. The bursts of laughter are the shattering of barriers and linking of hearts. If only for that moment we become one. For that moment, we make gentle the harshness of the world and remember that we are here not to soil our souls with ambition or the gathering of stuff but simply to be happy; to be happy simply.
A young John Lennon once angered a teacher for when his class was asked to compose something on what they wanted to be in life he wrote, “Be happy.” The teacher said, “You did not understand the assignment.” Lennon replied, “You don’t understand life.” Red Skelton would have laughed.
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