Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Last Laugh

These are dark days. Indian summer is over, and the fog and rain have taken its place. Newsom’s ad campaign warns us to be prepared for disasters, and on lampposts there are pictures of earthquakes and lightning attacking toy houses. Yesterday as I watched a Jell-O replica of this city tremble, it seemed a grim portent of the Big One. Trapped at home by the rain, responsible citizens may take the opportunity to review the contents of their disaster readiness kits, inventory their possessions for insurance purposes, or perhaps prepare backup photocopies of important documents. I, however, intend to work on my courtesy laugh.

The courtesy laugh is your fake laugh, the laugh you do when something isn’t really funny and you’re being polite. I used to hate the courtesy laugh, especially when Jordan did it. If my joke fell flat, I’d rather he just didn’t laugh. His half-hearted courtesy laugh, more of a courtesy chuckle really, seemed to add insult to injury.

Laughter has many positive effects, including strengthening the immune system and relieving stress. It also makes it easier for people to work together. It makes people like you more. And happily, it is contagious.

This is all very well, you say, but that’s real laughter. Fake laughter doesn’t have the same effect, any more than Smart Bacon gives the house that delicious bacon-cooking smell. Not so. This is one of those rare cases where the fake version works just as well as the real stuff.

And in any case, when you start doing a fake laugh, it quickly becomes a real laugh. I once accidentally found myself in a laughing yoga class. We had to roll around on the floor clutching our knees and chanting “Ho ho ho!” like demented Father Christmases. In a few minutes, we were all rolling around in genuine hysterics.

Thus the organizers of the World Laughter Tour, “a clearinghouse for the global grassroots laughter movement,” do not bother to amuse their followers. Instead, they teach you how to laugh without the aid of jokes, or even tickling. In these dark times, when nothing seems very funny (not even a Jell-O Frisco), this is a useful skill indeed.

If you can laugh when nothing amuses you, in time you may be able to laugh when things actively alarm you. If you practice hard enough, you may even be able to laugh during a major catastrophe. Let’s face it, in the event of a tsunami or a terrorist attack, batteries, a radio and a few Power Bars aren’t going to help you much. Why not finesse your laugh instead? Unlike a disaster readiness kit, the courtesy laugh is free, and as a final gesture, it has a kind of elegance. Practicing it may not protect you from the apocalypse, but at least you can chuckle in its face.

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