When it comes to movies, I generally prefer a good drama to a comedy, although I enjoy a good laugh as well as the next person. But sometimes I struggle with what’s really funny. Several years ago my wife and I went to see the musical, The Color Purple. I vaguely remembered seeing the movie several years previously, but I had never seen the stage play. I couldn’t remember much about the movie, other than it was directed by Steven Spielberg, and was a heavy drama. One of the characters in both the stage play and the movie is an African-American named Alphonso, who beats and rapes his daughter, Celie – repeatedly. Although a despicable character to me, the audience at the stage play, which was at least three-fourths African-American, continually burst into laughter at some of the things Alphonso did and said. I didn’t know what to do. Should I laugh along with the audience (although I didn’t find Alphonso the least bit funny)? If I did laugh, would my African-American neighbors find my laughter offensive since I “was not one of them.” And if I didn’t laugh at Alphonso, would those same African-Americans think we were racist? My wife and I left at intermission. I don’t consider myself racist. It could have been any group regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or political views and I would have felt the same.
I had a similar experience but from the other viewpoint a couple of years ago when I first saw the musical, The Book of Mormon. I happen to be a Mormon, and Mormons, for the most-part, have stayed away from the musical. So I was amazed at how the crowd around me laughed loud and long throughout the entire production. My first thought was, how could they even think this is funny when, being non-Mormons, they probably don’t even get most of the jokes? My second thought was, as non-Mormons, what gave them the right to laugh at me and my fellow Mormons?
I learned a great lesson about laughter from one of my favorite romantic comedies, Roxanne*, a modern take on Cyrano de Bergerac starring Steve Martin. The lesson: learn to laugh at yourself, and encourage others to laugh right along with you. Notice I said laugh along with, not laugh at. In Roxanne, C.D. Bales, our modern-day Cyrano, has the long nose, a gift for prose, and a great ability to laugh at himself. In a barroom confrontation, a man tries to insult C.D., but all he can come up with is “big nose.” C.D. then takes the challenge of coming up with twenty different insults about his nose, all of which far surpass “big nose.” Here is the scene from the movie.
Rather than hold a pity party because of his nose, C.D. Bales embraces his unique physical trait. And that made all the difference. And in the end, Roxanne falls in love with C.D. because of the complete person he is, despite his nose getting in the way – literally.
My father-in-law, Don Harris, was a remarkable man with a story remarkably similar to C.D. Bales. Rather than an extra-large nose, Don was legally deaf, the victim of swine flu when he was about two years old, when he lost about 90 percent of his hearing. Growing up without much hearing was not always easy, but Don always figured out how to get by. But as Don started those awkward years of puberty, his self-esteem, like so many other teenagers, was put to the test. In junior high, with different teachers for each class, Don found himself giving the right answers to the wrong questions. Whenever he did so, everyone thought it was funny. Everyone except Don. One day in gym class the teacher asked each student to repeat back their locker number. Don thought the teacher asked how tall he was. “Four foot eight,” he replied. The class fell apart with laughter. Don got mad. He stomped his foot. He cried. Finally he yelled, “Goodbye! I’m never coming back to this school again.”
Don ran all the way home. Fortunately, his mother was there. “Don, you’re home early.” He explained to her why. “Son, you’re going to have a lot of people laugh at you before you leave this life. We’ll take you to every doctor we know to try to get you some help for your hearing, but I suggest the next time you give the right answer to the wrong question and everyone laughs, you laugh right along with them. I’ll be hard the first time, but from then out, you’ll have it made.”
Don decided to give it a try. The next day at school a teacher asked a question and Don gave the wrong answer. Everyone burst into loud laughter. This time, instead of getting mad, Don laughed along with them. “That sure was a dilly, wasn’t,” he said, and everyone laughed again. And Don spent the rest of his life laughing at life’s hard knocks, and encouraging those around him to join in.
Whether we have a physical deformity, a character flaw, or just do silly things from time to time, being able to laugh at ourselves sometimes takes great courage. But the rewards are worth it, if only in the growth of our own self-esteem. As Ethel Barrymore once said, “You grow up the day you have your first real laugh – at yourself.” So go ahead. Take a look in the mirror, and let the good times roll.