“Comedy is when you accidentally fall off a cliff and die. Tragedy is when I have a hangnail.”
– Mel Brooks
People love to laugh. I know this for a fact, because that’s what I do for a living. I make them laugh. But, big hearty laughter, out in public, is not something that’s really accepted. If you see a person walking in the street laughing out loud to himself, you’d think he was an idiot or crazy.
But in my home, laughter, lots of laughter, is welcome. I am the father of three boys, and being a comedian, I am proud to say I think my kids are pretty funny people. But are my kids naturally funny, or is it because they have a funny dad? Perhaps a little of each. My father was a scream. My mother just screamed. In fact my mom’s mantra for years was, “I don’t see what’s funny about any of this.” But I do try to see the funny. Not long ago, when I asked my 6-year-old to pick up his Fisher Price chair (probably weighing a pound or two), he said, “My back is not what it used to be.” Even Neil Simon wasn’t that funny at 6.
My earliest recollection of being funny was standing in front of my Aunt Frieda while she sat in a chair in her Bronx kitchen smoking a cigarette. I would stand about three inches away from her and make strange faces and weird sounds. She would sometimes laugh so hard she would have trouble taking the next puff. One time I caught her off guard while she was taking a sip of water and she spit it out onto the back of my uncle’s neck. My uncle’s reply was, “Nothing could be that funny.” I loved every minute of it. Without ever saying a word to me, my Aunt Frieda was encouraging me.
Now I love to make my kids laugh. An audience of three short people is better than no audience at all. For instance, if my kids ask me a question, I take the opportunity to give them back a slightly twisted answer. If Noah, my 3-year-old, asks for milk, I might tell him, “There is no milk, but Mommy just bought some fresh rat juice.” He’ll laugh (remember, he’s 3). I’ll give him the milk and he’ll go tell his mother he’s drinking rat juice. Everyone is happy except maybe my wife.
Comedy is a subjective thing. My wife and I don’t always agree on what’s funny. One time we walked into a room and the baby had the dog’s paw halfway down his throat. I laughed and my wife cried.
When I was growing up, my mother and her friends were very quick to tell me when something wasn’t a joking matter. “Why does everything have to be a joke to you?” My favorite was from my teacher. “If you think you’re so funny,” she’d say, “why don’t you come up and make the whole class laugh?” So I’d get up in front of the class and do 15 minutes.
I believe that children being funny is not really something most parents try to cultivate in their kids. In fact, so much of what parents and teachers say has the opposite effect. A lot of kids are taught that life is really a serious matter. If someone is serious, then the compliments fly. “He’s pondering the big issues.” “He’s deep in thought.” But if you like to laugh, you get, “If you keep joking around, I guarantee you, you’re heading for big trouble.” How many famous Jewish comedians ended up making their teachers eat those words?
Now we’ve all heard the philosophy that life is one big joke and death the punch line. I don’t go quite that far because we all know there are times when humor is not appropriate. But there are also times when a good laugh can save your life. And there are times if you don’t start laughing soon, you might go crazy. A few weeks ago I did a show at the University of Judaism. When a woman approached me after the show, she said “Mark, thank you for making me laugh. Ten months ago we lost our daughter and it’s been a very rough time for me and my husband. Thank you for helping to release our endorphins and make us laugh again.” With that, she kissed my cheek and walked away. When I told my wife that story, we both started to cry.
With Purim approaching, it’s a great opportunity for the whole family to get in on the “funny.” Take advantage of this time to make each other laugh. Obviously even God thinks that laughter is important. Otherwise he wouldn’t have created Purim, or the funny bone.