In this story from June 1952, the beloved comedian explains the role humor plays in the process of healing.
- Posted on May 23, 2013
Once when I was in Shreveport, Louisiana, a minister offered me his pulpit for a sermon on “God and Hollywood.”
Hastily I explained that in my business, success was measured by “yocks” versus “boffs.” When that just confused him I said, “You know, yocks ... little laughs ... and boffs ... great big ones. And if I got up there in your church I might still, unconsciously, be trying for those boffs.”
We let the matter drop. But afterward, during a nightmare, I found myself in a pulpit and the laughs were rolling down the aisle shaking the dignified old rafters. I told a friend of this dream.
“And what would be so wrong about that?” he wanted to know. “Laughter has a spiritual value. An Englishman named John Donne had that pegged over 400 years ago. He said, ‘Religion is not a melancholy, the spirit of God is not a dampe’.”
He had a point. Certainly I knew that laughter has a constructive power. I have seen what a laugh can do. It can transform almost unbearable tears into something bearable, even hopeful.
Overseas in 1944 with USO Camp Shows Frances Langford and I saw it lift a whole ward at the service hospital in Pearl Harbor. We were working our way up a long aisle when a nurse touched my arm.
“That boy near the end in the very high bed. They pulled him out of a B-17. Herbert hasn’t spoken a word for weeks. If there’s anything you can do...”
As we got to that end of the ward I winked at Frances. “Okay, boys,” I said. “Frances Langford is going to sing you a song ... and Herbert,” I pointed to the bed where we could just see a white face, bandages covering, the eyes, “Herbert, this is for you.”
Frances approached the bed slowly, beginning her song... “Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you.” An unnatural stillness settled over the entire ward. One of those that doesn’t feel right, too hushed and breathless. All you could hear was Frances’ low plaintive song, “Embrace me, you irreplaceable you...”
And then, just as she reached him, her voice broke off.
In two steps I was beside her looking down at Herbert. Where his arms had been there were only short stumps.
For several seconds we all just stood there stunned. No one moved. But the part of the mind where habit and involuntary reaction holds sway provided me with a diversion.
A couple of guys laughed, bless ‘em. On I rushed trying to build that chain of laughter while Frances regained her composure. But the miracle was Herbert. Herbert spoke, for the first time in weeks.
“It’s all right, Miss Langford,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”
Laughter binds men together in a kind of secret free masonry.
Hear it sometime travel around a circle ... then notice that, however large that circle may be, it is a closed one.
For a brief few hours in 1944 I met 15,000 Marines of the 21st Division at Pavuvu. They were on their way to the invasion of Peleliu. We were doing a routine series of camp shows on the Pacific Islands.
When an officer suggested the unscheduled stop he said, “We’ll have to fly you over, a few at a time in small planes, and land you on a road. There’s no airport. But it’ll be worth it to them.”
As we circled for our landing such a shout arose from 15,000 throats that we could actually feel it like a cushion of sound under our wings. We were from home! We were the promise of laughter ... today. Tomorrow, and they knew it, they were staging a little show of their own and 40% wouldn’t come back.
We laughed and clowned as we landed. But looking at those faces I knew how Charles Lamb must have felt when he “jested that he might not weep.”
Later back in the States, my wife and I at the dedication of Oak Knoll Hospital, walked into a ward to be greeted with that same laughter. One of those explosions that happen between old friends.
Voices kept yelling, “Pavuvu! Pavuvu!” Dolores was a bewildered outsider. But I was in. It was the 1st Marines... or what was left of them.
Laughter can sometimes appeal beyond reason, prejudice and cynicism.
In a jungle I heard the jokes of padres lift G.I.’s spirits into wanting the fearlessness and gaiety of the men of God, where no amount of solemn approach would have inspired them.
And I have heard a minister devastate a profane agnostic with quiet wit.
It happened at a very swank club one night. After a pointless and slightly blasphemous story the comedian noticed that all eyes were suddenly fastened on the collar insignia of a big, silent man at the end of the table.
“F’r crissakes,” blustered the story-teller. “Are you a chaplain?”
With a light smile and deliberate emphasis the chaplain replied. “Yes, for Christ’s sake, I am.”
Laughter can return a sense of proportion to a troubled mind, for it erases self pity, self justification, self importance.
But perhaps the most important thing laughter can do is to bring back the will to live—and, when the time comes, give us the courage to go with good cheer.
I’ve seen the ones who aren’t going to make it—American boys smiling their way right up to St. Peter’s gate, and I’ve got a hunch they’re holding a sure pass. Like one youngster who was stretched out on the ground getting a blood transfusion. “I see they’re giving you the old raspberry, son,” I said.
“It sure feels good,” he laughed. “The guy who gave this must have been tax exempt or raised his own beef. It’s strong stuff.”
Before I had gotten 20 yards he had gone his way, smiling.
My young brother Sydney passed on 5 years ago and, for quite a while, he knew he was going. Someone with a very long face and a “religion of melancholy” had urged him to “prepare to meet his Maker” ... to “petition Providence to provide for his poor little orphans.”
It took the whole family and his five kids to convince him that “the spirit of God is not a dampe,” here or hereafter, except for those who choose to have it so.
Every gay thing, every joyous or humorous or good thing that came to our attention we offered to my brother as proof of the infinite wisdom and kindness of God. When he went, he went smiling—and trusting. And, we had done such a good job for him that we had healed ourselves of much of our grief.
A comedian can’t take much credit either, because people insist they are funny. You become a habit—a laugh habit. Sometimes people laugh at me before I open my mouth—even when they can’t see me.
Mention the arrival of someone they’ve laughed at before and they relax. They drop their strain. They expect to laugh and so they do.
They depend, too, on the laugh-maker to stay the same. They want new jokes but not too much change. I don’t think they’ve ever forgiven Charlie Chaplin for abandoning his big shoes, cane and derby hat.
When I go into a service hospital they expect me to louse up the joint. To go on being me. No sympathy. They want me to walk into a ward filled with guys harnessed to torturous contraptions and say, “Don’t get up fellows.”
When I come to a Christmas party if I notice the lone star atop a pathetic Christmas tree I’m supposed to say, “Don’t tell me a Brigadier General is running this show too.”
So I say it. And when people wonder how a guy can go on and on like that ... well, the answer is that the results themselves keep you up. You can’t possibly not do it. The power works both ways. You are sustained by their laughter.
Nor does the power belong exclusively to the professional funnyman. There is a kind of geniality that brings mirth, and confidence. Bing Crosby has that. If there are two kinds of people, people who lift and people who lean, Bing is a lifter. Geniality might be defined as strength to spare.
The power of laughter lies in its ability to lift the spirit. For laughter cannot exist with clipped wings. It cannot be dictated to. It must be spontaneous and free as the air you breathe. Thus it is a special property of free men in a free land who are able to laugh at anything ... or anyone ... especially themselves.
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