Whatever You Do, Don't Laugh!

EVERYONE loves a clown - at the circus. But keep him out of the office, the workplace, the government. Everyone loves a clown, but kids are told to stop clowning around, to grow up, to behave like grown-ups. Life is serious, they say. So serious we have to laugh. Comic relief. Escape.

Everyone loves a clown, but it takes guts to be a real one. A lecturer comes into a hall, goes to the podium, and we see that his coat is on backward. What if we don't laugh? It's cute when a two year old turns her back, bends over, and looks at you through her legs, but let her try it at five - or 25. Your wife leaves a message scrawled in lipstick on your car windshield. Some husbands would be annoyed.

Clown behavior in "grown-ups" means risk. Stand-up comedians are risk takers extraordinaire. Most of us don't even dare tell a joke.

There are clowns and clowns. Underneath it all, most circus clowns are sad. It's as if they were let in on the secret that life is misery and then told to act as if it were fun and games. It is their silliness we respond to. Many comics are the same. Their act is an act, and they know it. The risk takers, though, the real clowns, float on joy. They effervesce with life. Real comedy is not an escape from but into.

Laughter is the great pompous slayer. Its prey is the self-important, the self-willed, and the humorless. It pulls the rug out from under. If we're left crawling around on all fours, maybe that's where we were meant to be.

A child never tires of laughing. You don't learn how to laugh. You learn how not to. Not laughing is one of the main things we do later in life. Laughing does not always contribute to the orderly running of the establishment. It tends toward the anarchic, thrives on public occasions. Tell a child, "Whatever you do, don't laugh!" and you ensure a catastrophe. When we fall off the chair ourselves, our behavior is condemned as childish.

Have you ever laughed during a piano concert, a speech, a funeral? Such laughter tends to be uncontrollable. It feeds on its own impropriety and often ends in collapse. You're emptied out. Laughter is the great healer. It lifts us up as it pulls us down. We see ourselves and the world as if from outer space, twinkling among the stars.

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