I was among the leading group of children who came of age in the era of television. I still remember when my father brought the first t.v. into our home. It had a very small screen encased in a mahogany cabinet that blended with the rest of our furniture. Daddy ceremoniously placed it in the center of our living room, plugged it into the electrical outlet, and turned on the power knob. It took a few minutes for the screen to come to life and the first thing we saw was a fuzzy collage of black, white and gray flickering lights. After adjusting the rabbit ear antenna that sat on top and searching for a channel, a picture emerged. It was an incredible moment.
Back then the shows only ran for a portion of each day and there were only a few stations offering programming. The shows tended to be short, mostly around thirty minutes. Mornings featured entertainment for children and news. Soap operas and game shows were the kings of daytime. After the evening news the most cherished shows came to life. There were variety shows, westerns, detective programs and lots of comedies.
If our family went to visit one of my uncles I got to watch the westerns, but at home comedy ruled. My father liked to laugh and he enjoyed the likes of Sid Caesar, Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Jackie Gleason. I can still hear him roaring with delight at the one liners and the skits. Sometimes I sat by him giggling as well even though I did not always understand what was actually so funny.
My father collected books of humor as well. I don’t know what became of them after he died, but among them were political cartoons and funny stories from World War II. He also ready the funnies in the newspaper every single day, often hoisting me onto the couch to share the joy. For the most part Daddy was a rather serious man, but he had a mischievous side to his personality that I loved. He told jokes all of the time, even at the dinner table. He’d get a gleam in his eyes that told me that he was about to throw some humor at us and I would wait in expectation of a jolly good time.
I suppose that I learned how delightful comedy can be from my father. I still enjoy laughing at gifted performances from talented humorists more than anything else. Like my dad, my tastes run the gamut from slapstick to dark satire. I’m that person who laughs hysterically at Quentin Tarantino movies and the physical antics of Robin Williams. I like to listen to the late night hosts and watch the stars like Dave Chappelle. I have always had a special affinity for the celebrity roasts and the brilliance of the comments in those moments. I even have a special place in my heart for the jokesters who brightened my classroom with their smiles and their delightful antics. I was the teacher who applauded their skills in bringing chuckles to my lessons.
Comedians know how to control their faces, their bodies, their words, the timing of their speech. Sometimes a pause or a facial expression is the funniest aspect of a joke. Watching the greats over time has given me great respect for the work that they do. A joke done wrong can lay an egg. A joke done wrong can backfire and wreak havoc.
I know that I have no talent for being funny and yet I unwisely keep trying to make people laugh. I can’t tell a joke worth beans. What sounded hilarious from the lips of someone else often dies on the vine with my rendition. I’ve also gotten into dire trouble when my humor comes off more as vindictive than the satire it was supposed to be. I don’t have that special spark that tells people that I am poking fun, not insulting.
My father was a stealth comedian. He was an engineer by profession but a Renaissance man by nature. He was an historian, an architect, an artist, a writer, and someone who knew all of the past and current sports statistics. He read voraciously and was a connoisseur of music and art and food. He liked to invent things in his mind and then build them. Best of all he entertained everyone he knew with a flood of humor that he carried in his back pocket. He brought out the laughs wherever he went, which is funny in itself because he was generally a very quiet man.
I sometimes think that many of the problems of the world today exist because there is not enough humor and many among us have lost the ability to laugh at themselves. People take things too darn seriously resulting in outrageous and angry behaviors. The truth is that we humans make some incredibly ridiculous mistakes. Comedians provide us with a lighthearted way of owning up to them. Stopping long enough to just laugh at ourselves is often better than hours of therapy.
We’ve witnessed some shocking incidents with comedians of late. Their satire has riled up individuals or groups to the point of wreaking violence. As with books, there are concerted efforts to curb the freedoms of comics or even to ban them from the public square. Doing so would be a huge mistake. Comedians are purveyors of humorous takes on society as they see it. They are often funny editorialists. Theirs is a folksy take on politics and our social interactions. We either laugh or groan when they ply their trade. What we should never do is attempt to shut them down. We need them to be the fun house mirrors that keep us from becoming too serious. We need more laughter in the world, not less.