Monday, January 12, 2009

June 2008: Annual Health and Fitness Letter – Laughter is the best Medicine

Recession, the Armenian Genocide, Food Shortages… enough already! It is easy in today’s world to worry about war, the economy, elections, terrorism, the war on terrorism, and so on and so forth. I do need to lighten it up a bit. No, I need to lighten it up a whole lot.

June has been the month I write about Health and Fitness. I could bore everyone with yet another bicycling vegetarian lifestyle droning sermon. Let’s instead talk about life and laughter, the sustaining force of humor and comedy. I borrowed the title of this letter from the Reader’s Digest feature of the same name.

Why laughter, why humor, why comedy? I simply believe people feel better, they cheer up, when they have something to laugh about. It always works for me. Except for the saddest moments, an inane infantile slap stick movie will cheer me up and make me forget about all the troubles, lunacy, and mania of the day. Yes, think The Three Stooges, always a perfect remedy for what ails me.
Humor is reason gone mad
- Groucho Marx
One of criticisms of focusing too much on comedy is that “life is serious business.” Anyone who has too much fun with things sees the amusing side of things, or laughs too much just cannot be taken seriously. Surely, this is in part true. During the saddest times humor definitely has to take a back seat.

I remember watching David Lettermen when he first came back on the air after the tragedy of 9-11. He was back on the air September 17, 2001. He was the first comedian to come back on the air after that horrible day. His first guest was Dan Rather. The show was appropriately more teary and touching than funny. His monologue was not comic. It was more a somber reflection on the senselessness of what happened. Even with all of this, he did get a laugh at the end when he said, “And thank God Regis is here so that we have to make fun of.”

I have also been to many funerals where humor helps ease the pain and sense of loss. People in the back or just outside of the room where the deceased is laid out quietly telling each other funny stories of the deceased said or did. People laugh and cry at the same time.

I do like to laugh. I love to be amused. It can be slapstick mayhem that is the hallmark of the classic Three Stooges shorts. Or, it can be social commentary as one would find on The Daily Show. There are certainly serious aspects of life and sad moments we all have cope and deal with. Yet, I do believe that most of us take too many things too seriously. We are unable to see the light side of situations and predicaments. We are certainly not able to easily laugh at ourselves.

Even though I love to laugh, love to be amused, and love to see the lighter side of things, I am not immune from taking things too seriously. Often the seriousness is not do anything all that important in the large scheme of things. No one close to me has died. There are no national disasters or terrorist attacks. Yet, I am in a most somber mood. Why? Isn’t it better to put things in perspective with a bit of humor and levity? Why not laugh a bit at the absurdity of what was causing the serious mood?

When I started writing this letter and decided that I was going to include quotations, I had one in mind to illustrate the point I just made is:
Don’t sweat the petty things and don’t pet the sweaty things.
- George Carlin
I love George Carlin’s observations. He has that biting humor that dances on the edge of blunt reality and complete cynicism. Sadly, George Carlin passed away at the age of 71 on June 22. I was sorry to see him go. Luckily, we have many of his bits and quips readily accessible through the magic that is the internet. Consider the following gems:
1. One can never know for sure what a deserted area looks like
2. Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?
3. Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist
In each observation is a core of truth. Each truth is exposed to the light of day, albeit a cynical light. Humor can certainly put things in perspective. This is the basis of political humor and satire. It is the basis for late night monologues of Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Conan O’Brien. They poke fun at our leaders and presidential candidates. I suppose some people can be offended especially if their political affiliations are extreme or extremely intense. I can disagree with a joke but still laugh at the counterpoint of satire.

One type of humor that people can and do take offense at is humor that is off color, humor that uses curse words and obscenities. George Carlin certainly used such language. In fact, every obituary I read with his passing referenced his famous Supreme Court case in 1978, FCC vs Pacifica Corporation. Carlin had a routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” On July 21, 1972 he was arrested in Milwaukee and charged with breaking the obscenity laws. I would include the words here but this is a family e-letter. Those interested can simply Google Carlin and quickly find them. Over the ensuing six years, the case worked its way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled against Carlin 5-4 upholding the government’s right to control the language used over the public airwaves. This whole thing was made moot over the years with the advent of cable television where Carlin himself thrived with his comedy specials on HBO. The same articles I read placed Carlin as carrying on the legacy of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.

Another comedian that relies on blue language is Eric Bogosian. Bogosian is of Armenian heritage. I find him hilarious but he is dropping f-bombs left and right in his act using the most graphic and pornographic language. He used to come to Norwalk Community College to try out his latest stories and gags before incorporating them in his standup acts or plays. I took advantage of this once and my wife, Judy, ever the trooper went along especially since Bogosian is Armenian. She was not quite informed in just how off color his humor could be. We sat in the front row and I was roaring. She was totally offended and turned off.
Sometimes I lie awake at night, and ask, 'Where have I gone wrong?' Then a voice says to me, 'This is going to take more than one night.'
- Charles Schulz creator of the Peanuts comic strip
One thing that always has fascinated me is if humor and comedy is part of creation, part of God’s design. As is my habit, I did an internet search. Talk about funny, the first thing I typed in the search window was “divine comedy.” Needless to say the search returned with countless pages about Dante’s famous work The Diving Comedy. What was I thinking? I then did searches using the keywords “God, humor” and “God, sense of humor.” These searches were a bit more fruitful but not too insightful. Most of the sites that popped up are religious websites on which has a section like “Does God have a sense of humor” among other topics like “Why does God love us?” and “Does God change his mind?” One site was a discussion page on which people posted responses to the question, “Does God Have a Sense of Humor?” There was not an example on this entire website that I found remotely humorous. That in itself is kind of funny.
Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing
- Mark Twain

The answer to the question, Does God have a sense of humor, seems to be the same on each of these websites. God has a sense of humor because people have a sense of humor and God created man in His image (Genesis 1:27). This is not probably a valid PhD Thesis for the Harvard Divinity School. But it works for me. It is even more apparent when I look at the interaction of men and women. There is an inherent difference, a lack of understanding, that have kept poets, philosophers, psychologists, novelists, artists, songwriters, and comedians busy trying to make sense of it for years. “Women, we can’t live with them, we can’t live without them.” This age old truth, this age old adage, is evidence to me of a degree of whimsy in the Divine Design. It is part of the human comedy.

Consider the very act of physical love. People drop all reason and intellect and turn to the basic animal like behavior. There can be a confusing array of feelings and consequences positive and negative when it is over and reason has returned. This can be viewed as something of a paradox and possibly more evidence of a Divine sense of humor. To me it is an intricate architecture with definite comedic elements.

I know I am on thin ice with the devout and seriously religious. Salvation and belief are very serious things indeed. Suggesting God may have a sense of humor and perhaps even designed the aspects I just wrote about with a smile on His face is either sacrilege or perhaps real amusing. It is a matter of point of view. It is a matter faith, on more than one plane. Sure, I can see a very serious God, a vengeful God. I can also see a very benevolent God. I can also see a God with a really good sense of humor.

There is happiness and sadness in this life. There are things wonderful and horrible in this life. Sometimes there are no explanations of why these good or bad things happen or why others cause us such great joy or pain. Part of the good, part of the happiness, is levity and humor. It is part of the yin and yang of it all. We should embrace it and enjoy it.

I am not going to get into the various aspects of comedy. Simply Google “Analysis of Humor” and there will be plenty to read and study, more than most of us would probably want to read and study. One source that I did spend some time on is which is a book by Warren Shibles a professor of philosophy in the University of Wisconsin system.
Humor, like poetry, transforms the world. We can thereby express what we could not otherwise express.
- Warren Shibles
To me, music and humor go along. Listening to and performing music is a joy. The musicians that I love to play with are a fun bunch. We laugh as hard as we play. We joke and enjoy a good joke with the same enthusiasm and joy we take in the music that we love and we play. It adds a dimension to this life that none of us would trade-off. I would add that it provides an insight into our souls and perhaps the Divine Design that no one could ever preach with serious words from any pulpit.
Never under any circumstances take a sleeping pill and a laxative on the same night
- Dave Barry
I define humor into two basic categories: Inane and insightful. I value both. The inane, which includes the stupid, the idiotic, and the slapstick is wonderful. Except in the most dire circumstances, good slapstick lightens both my load and spirit. I also know that so many just do not like this kind of humor. What can I say? It simply amuses the heck out of me and I like it.
The Three Stooges inherited a Beauty Salon in Mexico. They went there to take over the place. A lady came in and got Curly as her beautician. Their dialog went something like this.
Lady: I would like you to dye my hair.
Curly: What color?
Lady: Henna...
Curly: Lady, we got henna color you want.
The second kind of humor is insightful. This includes satire, political humor, and commentary on the general human condition. The Daily Show is an excellent example of make light of current events and politics while providing great insight. Consider the Armenian Genocide a topic of recurring and lengthy discourse in my letters. During the recent non-binding Genocide brouhaha this past October, the Daily Show had some real fun with this and provided some insights to the US Government and its relationship with Turkey. Watch the clips below in sequence.
This is pretty brilliant stuff and delivered without an obsenity.

I close the letter with a quote from William Saroyan in the preface of his Pulitzer Prize winning playoff 1939 The Time of Your Life. This puts kind of what I have been writing about into perspective especially the last line:
In the time of your life, live -- so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding-place and let it be free and unashamed. Place in matter and in flesh the least of values, for these are the things that hold death and must pass away. Discover in all things that which shines and is beyond corruption. Encourage virtue in whatever heart it may have been driven into secrecy and sorrow by the shame and terror of the world. Be the inferior of no man, nor of any man be the superior. Remember that every man is a variation of yourself. No man's guilt is not yours, nor is any man's innocence a thing apart. Despise evil and ungodliness, but not men of ungodliness or evil. These, understand. Have no shame in being kindly and gentle, but if the time comes in the time of your life to kill, kill and have no regret. In the time of you live, live -- so that in that time wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.
So, smile and even laugh “to the infinite delight and mystery of it” all. You will probably live longer

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