May 16, 2012

Laughter in the dark

My friend Carlos went to a “laughing yoga” class. He said it was hilarious.
Laughter is contagious, and once someone starts it tends to spread. Soon
the whole class, Carlos said, was in an uproar.

Remember how when you were a kid being told to “Stop laughing!” was
the funniest thing you ever heard? George Burns used to get a kick out of
cracking up Jack Benny. One night at a charity event, an entertainer got
up to sing at the piano. Burns whispered to Benny “Wouldn’t it be terrible
if someone started laughing as soon as she started singing...” Of course,
no sooner had she started, than Benny was on the floor. What is it about this
prohibition that cannot withstand the seeds, once planted, of insurrection?

I went to a Broadway show, I must have had comps, when I was a youth
living in New York many years ago. I don’t remember the name of the
play, some drama, that was in its first weeks on Broadway. Early in the first
act, the actress on stage was emoting to beat the band and some drunk in
the audience began to giggle. In response to her lines. A shock of titillating
scandal swept through the audience. It was the kind of mischievous, supple,
quietly intoxicated giggle that is all but irresistible. The actress heard it, and
now the drama she was trying to portray had an undercurrent of panic. She
said her next line and the drunk laughed again. Her pathos started turning to
camp. Others laughed. It was as if the drunk had seen through the sham, in
vino veritias, and we were all in on the joke. The actress grew shrill. She
turned red. You honestly couldn’t tell if she was about to crack up herself,
or cry. Remember the soapy screenplay in Franny and Zooey? “Oh Rick, 
Rick, I’m scared. What’s happened to us? I can’t seem to find us anymore. 
I reach out and reach out and we’re just not there. I’m frightened. I’m a 
frightened child. (Looks out window) I hate this rain. Sometimes I see me 
dead in it.” Like that. The more she over-acted, the more over the top the
melodrama looked and the funnier it became. What could she do? Playing it
for laughs wasn’t an option. So she tried to ramp up the drama. You know
the dynamic. You’re not supposed to laugh, you try to suppress it. But the
show must go on, and the actress’ earnestness now seemed the most inspired
of parodies. Laughter broke out all over the theater. Mercifully, the scene
ended and the actress exited the stage, in an attitude of wounded dignity, to
a round of applause. It was the most unforgettable performance (until I was
sprayed, while sitting in the front row Off-Broadway, by Al Pacino) I’d ever
seen. I hope she had a sense of humor.