Laughter, My Favorite Exercise

Laughter by Symphony of Love

Laughter by Symphony of Love

“Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” – Victor Borge

So many times, laughter has saved me.

And some of my best friendships have been forged over laughter, some of the best moments in my life. Including times I’ve ended up laughing at myself.

I hadn’t thought about that until the other night during one of the NCAA basketball games. A commercial came on and my mom laughed. And I saw her dad in her then, the way he would break open in a soft smile and the way that smile would quietly sparkle with laughter.

And I thought, at that moment, laughter might just be one of the best things ever.

I recall being a boy (no, it’s true, despite the common theory that I just showed up with a receding hairline and a silvering chin) and watching this amazing pianist on one of the shows my parents liked to watch and his fingers were like Olympic hurdlers racing across the keys. And, yes, that was impressive.

Only I was like six and as appealing as it would have been to have fingers that were fast as gazelles (I could imagine their usefulness for hiding peas at dinner or tangling my sister’s hair), but what I wanted most at that time were legs that were cheetahs, so I could run all over the neighborhood (which I did anyway) faster than anyone (which I so didn’t do).

But then the piano guy stops playing and makes a sound or a face or he does some crazy thing or he makes some tangential comment and I laughed. We all laughed. It was unexpected and a bit absurd, given the seriousness of the music, and absolutely wonderful. And it was also something my family and I shared.

Those moments laughing.

Here are just three quotes about laughter that I like:

“Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.” – Victor Hugo

“A laugh is a smile that bursts.” – Mary H. Waltdrip
“The earth laughs in flowers.” – e.e. cummings

One of my favorite things as a boy was the time I spent watching movies with my dad on Saturday afternoons.

Granted, some of those movies were old even back then, but it didn’t matter. When those are the shows you start out with, black and white or color doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

What mattered was simple: there was action, adventure, good guys versus bad guys, there was an interesting setting like the jungle or the wild west (I mean, when you put the word wild in the name of just about anything it becomes pretty cool – even Little House on the Wild Prairie would have gotten boys to watch, or The Sound of Wild Music).

I grew up watching Tarzan and High Noon, and movies with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster and Audie Murphy.

But I also grew up watching Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges.

My favorites were Abbott and Costello, mostly because the funny guy was a misfit. He was lumpy and a bit slow-witted, but he had a big heart and a knack for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time and getting himself in hot water, as they used to say.

As a boy, I loved to laugh. Still do!

Here are just four novels I’ve read that made me laugh (and here’s a list of many humorous novels for teens):

  • The Canning Season (one of my top ten favorite novels)
  • The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
  • The Amulet of Samarkand
  • The Princess Bride

When I got to middle school, well, laughter might have been my saving grace. I was the new kid. At the time I thought I was pretty much like any average kid, only in looking back I can see why some of the other kids might have thought I was a little weird (in the sense of being unlike them).

I played football, after all, and very often ended up getting sick on the sidelines (mostly at practices, but a few games).

See, I was allergic to grass. Had been my entire life, which explains the countless nights I spent in oxygen tents in the hospital trying to breathe. I put my parents “through the ringer” for years with my lungs and my body getting all wonky every time I went outside.

I couldn’t just go out and park my keister in the driveway and watch the world spin.

I had worlds spinning inside me. Still do. So, I had to get my legs whirring and blood pumping. I had to run and jump and climb and roll around in the grass.

As a football player, pretty much every play you end up close to if not imbedded into the ground. Stirring up the grass. Breathing it in.

What was normal for me (the getting sick part, the body’s spasmodic reaction to grass) wasn’t normal for anyone else I knew. Ever! So, yeah, I WAS the new weird kid.

But the thing is, I didn’t let the getting sick keep me from playing.

The laughter comes in, though, after some of the other kids started reacting to my being different. And I won’t go into all the details here, but suffice it to say, things got tough.

And that’s when I discovered my greatest weapon. My mouth (sort of).

As a boy, my mom would often ask me, “do you ever stop talking?” Which, when you think of it, was a question begging to be answered. My response was simple. “It’s my habit,” I told her (over and over and over).

My habit saved my life. I’m sure of it.

Because the one thing I could do was make people laugh.

Not like a comedian with his jokes and punchlines. I was at the end of a “punch-line” most days in middle school, if you get my meaning.

What I could do was take something someone said, and turn it into something funny. But not at their expense. I didn’t put them down or use sarcasm to deride or belittle them. I usually made myself the target, but my responses were so quick and unexpected that, even when someone had me cornered in front of a couple dozen other students, I could make them all laugh including the guy who had me cornered.

I didn’t think about being funny and I wasn’t funny the way some of my classmates and teammates were (and still are).

I was a quiet kid (maybe another reason my habit came out at home) who just spontaneously responded to things I saw and heard, and I was a great observer and listener.

I learned (you might say the hard way, but that’s how we usually learn for ourselves) that humor was a great way to diffuse tension, to turn the tables on someone who was angry or just plain mean. But most of all it was part of who I was and it was a way for me to connect to others. I’d say it was inherently part of me, only I’m not sure I didn’t intuitively pick some of it up from all the comedy we watched on weekends. And weeknights with Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason and Art Carney and Don Knotts and Carol Burnett (Tim Conway is still one of my faves) and Jonathan Winters and then came Robin Williams and John Ritter and Woody Harrelson and so on.

I grew up with a life filled with laughter. In part thanks to television and to movies (so TV isn’t all evil).

It’s no wonder, when I moved to Los Angeles and first tried my hand at writing, I wrote six spec scripts for sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond and King of Queens and Just Shoot Me. One of those scripts even did quite well in the annual Scriptapalooza contest.

The two biggest things I learned from my time in L.A. was that I wanted to write for children and young adults and that even the darkest stories I told were infused with laughter.

That’s just who I am and seems to be part of the way I write.

I’m drawn to the misfits, to lives of struggle and unease, but mostly to the strength of character and of will that some people exhibit as they rise above the challenges and to thrive. I am compelled to throw some sort of light on the darkness, yet I almost always end up injecting some humor in there.

I can’t get away from laughter, not for long.

I had a boss ask me once if I was ever serious because I was always coming out with one-liners and witty retorts. The answer is a resounding yes. I am always serious. But I’m every bit as serious about laughing and enjoying life as I am about living it and about seeing into the shadows.

Laughter has gotten me through the roughest, darkest, most harrowing times in my life.

I owe more to laughter than I do to an ability to run and to jump, to hide and to fight back, to throw or catch any ball, to swing a club or a bat.

Laughter is a language of the heart, but also of the soul, of the very essence of who we are. Look at all these people laughing and you’ll see different ages, different cultures, yet the joy is inescapable and universal.

Laughter is a filter for other emotions. It can heal us, it can improve our health.

According to a article in the area of neuroscience, these are 10 Reasons Why Laughing is Good for You:

  • Decreases Stress
  • Helps Coping Skills
  • Improves Blood Pressure and Flow
  • Provides a Burst of Exercise
  • Impacts Blood Sugar Levels
  • Manages Pain
  • Boosts Social Skills
  • Reduces Aggression
  • Energizes Organs
  • Boosts Immune System

Those are all well and good (and most of them are more relevant to middle-aged folks and their elders), but let’s not forget the very best reason to laugh.

Laughter feels so good!

Have you ever been sick, or sad, or injured, or frustrated and then come across something funny and felt the darkness seep out like a cloud? I have.

Laughter can draw us closer together with others and with ourselves, but as William James said, “We don’t laugh because we’re happy – we’re happy because we laugh.”

I hope that my writing is poignant and illuminating and moving, but mostly I hope it makes people smile . . . and, occasionally, I hope those smiles “burst.”

“Laughter” by Symphony of Love photo above has been altered slightly (FB attribution has been removed) and is used as per Creative Commons License on Flickr.