Saturday, February 19, 2011


I really shouldn’t listen to my David Sedaris recordings in public. It’s embarrassing. His language is, at times, appallingly coarse—not appropriate for repeating in this blog. His content is unpredictable. In the turn of a word he’ll lead you, and possibly the family out of a benign family tale into a saga of alcohol, drugs or porn magazines. His characters are—well—call them varied, ever fringed by an element whose behaviour and motives could only drive me to despair. So I really shouldn’t listen to my David Sedaris recordings in public, not even under the protection of headphones. And the reason for this lies not in the content that might be offensive, but rather in the effect that David Sedaris has on me. In a word—well, 5 words for accuracy’s sake—David Sedaris makes me laugh.
Just why it is that he makes me laugh, causes me to snort uncontrollably, to howl, to dig for a tissue to wipe my eyes, I cannot say. There is, after all, nothing inherently funny about drugs and alcohol. Porn is disgusting. Despicable characters like the ones he draws are a primary cause of hopelessness, and I do admit to having walked out on comedians who use too much coarse language, forfeiting the balance of the ticket price just to rest my ears from the verbal assault. But David Sedaris makes me laugh—laugh the way I want to laugh—the deep laughter that jiggles the insides, floods the tear ducts and—though I’ve never measured them—very likely increases the level of endorphins and other chemicals so fondly named by those who seek a biological schemata for the cause and effect of laughter.
Please don’t ask me what it is in the writing of David Sedaris that makes me laugh. I really won’t be able to tell you the answer. Maybe it’s the language, or the topic areas, or the characters. Maybe it’s the window into a recognizable life that seems to open on every page. Maybe it’s the far out unbelievability of the events and relationships he claims as autobiographical. Whatever it is, it is forceful enough, surprising enough to cause me to break forth in mirthful sound while sitting in a dentist’s waiting room, or an airport, or the shared half of two bus seats. And once it gets started there’s really nothing for it except to dig for a tissue and nod apologetically to whomever has been disturbed by the outburst. “Too bad you can’t hear this,” I want to say. “It would make you laugh, and laughing is good for you.”
Laughing is good for you. At least, that’s what the scientists say. Not being you, I don’t think I’d try to prove that it’s good for you, but I will say without a doubt that laughter is good for me. That probably explains why I don’t really mind laughing in waiting rooms and on crowded buses. It also explains why I like to laugh at work, not only over lunch or coffee, but while I work. I like to laugh with people who are in pain, people beset by depression, people whose lives are all too often miserably ruled by anger. Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly brave, I even admit this to professionals.
Once, at the request of a conference organizing committee, I drafted a plan for a light educational evening for a group of professionals who would most certainly be weary having spent the day in educational sessions on heavy psychological topics. I titled my session Fun And Games In Counselling And Group Work. In the descriptive paragraph I promised to bring the games and stories we so often use when we want to set a tone for positive emotions at the Hope Foundation. My stated objectives were threefold: to demonstrate games, to engage the participants in play and to make them laugh. The atmosphere in the room, I knew, would be a happy one. Even as I wrote the description, I had begun looking forward to the evening. How I applauded these wise organizers for their wisdom in offering variety to their students.
But things did not go as I had expected. A surprise awaited me. My description was redrafted and returned for my final approval. The title remained, but the objectives had changed beyond recognition. I would, the description said, review the research on the biological and psychological effects of humour and discuss its application in mental health service environments.
I could, I knew, present the session they were describing. I should, I knew, agree to do just that. The scientific community has done a lot of hard and credible work toward the goal of understanding how humour works and the counselling psychology community has worked to assess its effectiveness in counselling. But just below my cultivated professional surface, as my colleagues know, there slinks a troublesome diva who does not like to be crossed. Shock her a bit too forcefully and she will burst forth, the very model of righteous indignation. On the day when the email brought the redrafted description of Fun and Games In Counselling and Group Work, she hit the reply button and furiously typed, “Over my dead body!!! I’d rather spend the evening eating old memos, or sitting on thumb tacks.” Fortunately for both of us, I was able to stay her hand and subdue her impulses one second before she reached for the button marked “SEND!”
Negotiations began, and a compromise was offered. They would advertise the evening presentation in professional language—something they said they were required to do by authorities who govern the content provided in the context of educational professional practice. I, in turn, acknowledged as an expert, could take charge that evening and present whatever I chose. I told the diva in no uncertain terms that we would have to settle for that. In deference to her, I chose to play games, tell stories that make me laugh, and hand out a short list of professional resources which would lead a reader to current theories on humour’s biological and psychological attributes.
Good chemistry aside, there’s really no accounting for humour’s warming effects. Present an evening of fun and games to an audience of tired professionals who’ve been promised an academic framework of positive psychology and they’ll not even mention on their evaluation forms that you forgot the research part. Perhaps E.B. White was correct in saying, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”
Similarly, there’s no accounting for exactly how humour gets to be humour. Take a David Sedaris recording on a crowded bus and you might not be able to hold in your laughter, no matter how hard you try, even if you might normally be offended by such language, or content, or characters. Could it be that it’s not the total conquering of humour that interests people like me? Might it simply be the funniness, the mystery of it, the unexpectedness, the sweet surprise? Might we just be in it for the laughter?

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