My sides hurt from laughing so much with those Norwegians last night! Those are
words you will never hear in your lifetime. Depression, blonde hair, skin that burns in
the sun like a vampire on a tropical beach, an inability to leave a reasonable tip and
stoicism are all a part of our Scandinavian DNA, but humor in our lives is like a fish
skydiving, just kind of strange and out of place.
As a kid, my grandfather, a small town banker, I thought had no humor. Oh, he
tried. He had dozens of Norwegian joke books lying around the house and loved to
tell Ole and Lena jokes to friends, family and customers at the bank. They were
lame, often cringingly bad jokes. He told them so often that they popularly became
known as Sody jokes. I heard them so often that when I lived in Australia on a bet I
started telling them and went on for four hours before I could not come up with a
new one. I can remember him telling those jokes to customers as they left his office
and them laughing.
So, it surprised me when I was eight years old, sitting on my grandparents’ front
step reading Mad magazine, when my grandfather asked me if I wanted to go to the
movies. I was a wee bit of a wild child, a blonde haired Huckleberry Finn, and I knew
he was a pretty smart man. We both knew the math was not in his favor. Eyeing him
suspiciously, I confirmed that he knew who he was talking to and then agreed.
Jumping into the car, I wondered what kids’ movie we were going to go to, thought
it was pretty nice of him to take me to a movie, and decided to take it easy on him as
we drove to the mall.
Sitting down in our seats in the theater, the lights dimmed, the film started, and I
discovered he did not take me to a film directed at children. Instead I got Cloris
Leachman, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, Dick Van Patten, and Ron Carey. It
was my introduction to the brilliance of Mel Brooks, the funniest man to ever grace
this planet. The movie was High Anxiety, a parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliance. It
wasn’t one of his great films, but we laughed. We laughed until our sides hurt.
(Later in life, I heard the same laughter out of my grandfather when he would watch
Seinfeld on his little television in the kitchen. I discovered that he was a huge
Seinfeld fan. I also discovered that it is a little uncomfortable, okay, extremely
uncomfortable, to watch the episode where the gang bets on who could last the
longest as “the master of their domain.” Like a kid who did not study for a math test, I
never prayed harder that we did not have a conversation during the commercial.)
Mel Brooks was married to Anne Bancroft, who in her prime was an extremely
beautiful and talented actress. She was starring on Broadway when one of her co-
stars struck up a conversation with her. He could not figure out why such a beautiful
woman would marry the short, chubby, balding Brooks. She could have probably
have had her pick of any man on earth, why would she pick Mel Brooks?
Without missing a beat, she replied, “He makes me laugh.”
He makes me laugh.
I honestly believe I grew up in the greatest era of comedy ever. An old Groucho
was making regular appearances on the daytime talk shows. A young David
Letterman was just getting his start. Bob Hope, Don Rickles and Buddy Hackett
were seemingly always on Johnny. I would sneak commando style downstairs in the
dark to watch the original Not Ready For Primetime Players on Saturday Night Live.
Monty Python, Benny Hill, and the lesser remembered The Goodies were on PBS.
Movies of Martin and Lewis, Bud and Lou, Laurel and Hardy, Peter Sellers, Mae
West, W.C. Fields and a young Groucho and his brothers could be found almost
every afternoon or late night on TV. Everyone loved Lucy, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol
Burnett and Barney Miller and Fife.
If your parents were gone or were not paying attention, a whole new genre of risky
comedy was available to young eyes thanks to HBO and the VCR. Every kid read
Mad and Cracked magazines, and once I figured out where my cousin stashed his
copies of National Lampoon they became a part of my regular reading experience.
Every newspaper had its own Lewis Grizzard or Erma Bombeck. You would play
Steve Martin, Cheech and Chong, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin on your record
player and hope your parents would not hear your laughter, or the words they said.
At your grandparents you could find the older party albums with the likes of Bob
Newhart, Andy Griffith, and Bill Cosby on them. And everyone was trying to figure
out what was up with Andy Kaufman.
They made me laugh.
I learned early on that humor was powerful. As a young man, I wanted to be taken
seriously. I did not want an ounce of humor in any speech I gave. I remember one
speech I was to give that I thought was particularly earth shaking. I gave it out at a
camp in a beautiful building with a stone floor. I must admit that I marveled at my
powers of persuasion even though half the people listening to me appeared to have
fallen asleep. They must have been in deep concentration. Yet, about halfway
through my rhetoric gold, someone opened the door and the camp dog snuck into
the building. It walked down the center aisle, its toenail clicking on the stone floor,
and laid down right in front of my lectern. My beloved listeners became focused on
my every word. Every eye was now focused in my direction. At least that is what I
thought until I looked down over the front of the lectern to see that the dog was
giving himself a bath. I say him because it would have been pretty obvious to even
Stevie Wonder that this dog was a male. As I peered down at the dog I realized that I
could have informed the audience where a million dollars was buried and no one
would have heard a thing I said. Jesus Christ could have come back at that moment,
stood next to me, and He would have simply shrugged His shoulders because when
it comes to attention you’re not going to best a dog doing what a dog will do. After
vainly trying to continue my speech for a few more minutes, I finally said, “Even the
animals come to hear me speak.” Everybody laughed. To this day, I still have people
tell me it was one of the greatest speeches they ever heard, although to this day I
am sure they cannot remember a single thing I said.
Still, I did not understand humor. In my mind, the IV drip was slower than it
probably was. She looked like a rag doll in the bed instead of the full-grown woman
that she was. The white cotton mask that covered her mouth seemed to be bigger
than her face. She had decided to stop fighting. She was worn out; enough was
enough. As I sat there in that chair, in that visitor’s gown, thinking she was too
young, but God or fate or whatever you call it didn’t care what I thought. I stood up to
stretch my legs and unknown to me the gown and my pants had gotten pinched into
the crease where the seat met one of the legs. There was a ripping noise. I had
ripped out the back my pants. I hopped around angrily, cursing under my breath, not
fully realizing I was showing the best part of me to everyone in room. It was then I
heard a painful, gasping laugh, almost a whisper, but it was a laugh.
It was not until that moment that I understood my grandfather’s jokes. Humor can
make the elephants of daily life vanish, pain, suffering, even the weighty presence of
death itself, if only for a few moments, and sometimes a few moments are all that we
need. He had people coming into his bank office at some of the lowest moments in
their lives, needing a loan to get through the next year or to buy a house or send a
kid to college and all the worries and fears that entailed. He did what he could do for
them and always left them with a joke. Lame as that joke might have been, for a few
seconds, the weight of the moment was taken off their chests because they laughed.
Life is hard and painful. So, surround yourself with people that make you laugh. It is
the only way you are going to get through it. My grandfather understood this. Mel
Brooks and Anne Bancroft understood this. The great comedians all knew this. I
have come to understand this.
I hope you laugh.