What Distinguishes Man from Beast? – It’s Laughter.

~ Sharing laughter with someone is a very intimate experience. But with benefits. The benefit being you don’t have to call them the next day. It’s only laughter. You shared a joke, not a membrane. ~

~Robin Williams~


Who needs words? I’ve got laughter.

I had gone to the pool simply to enjoy the gravity-defying magic of our buoyant friend water. I anticipated my usual routine: swim for a bit then imagine the pool drained of water while I floated in space, insensible to the gravity of my situation. I hoped to make this body of water not so much a sensory deprivation tank as a sensory augmentation tank. In other words I was crafting an out-of-body experience on the cheap. You see, it’s still fun to play make-believe – even at 60.


An Unbidden Epiphany

While I pursued this ersatz meditative experience, little did I expect the epiphany that would soon visit me. No one expects an epiphany. You can’t. That’s why they’re epiphanies. They’re designed to materialize without warning – kind of like my Uncle Leo. Epiphanies are unscheduled wormholes to understanding that don’t telegraph their presence – they shower it on you like a coach’s Gatorade bath. And it is this aforementioned unexpected insight which prompts this essay.


The Epiphany

I began my watery meditation ritual by laying out my towel on the chaise and trying to put my iPhone down so I could read my book which, in 3 weeks of lugging it to the pool, I managed to get past the Table of Contents and deep into the Introduction. As I finished my 4th game of online solitaire, a young couple with a baby entered the pool area and took up residence at the far end amidst a menagerie of water wings, beach towels and mini-coolers. They settled in, set up shop and the daddy lovingly introduced his baby girl to the wonders of liquid water. As the attentive father began dipping the legs of daddy’s little chicken pot pie (his words not mine) into the water, the tiny girl squealed in sheer delight. Each dip was a little deeper and more revelatory than the previous. And each squeal was now followed-up by cloud bursts of thunderous little baby giggles. She was experiencing indescribable joy.


I would’ve gladly traded places with her if only society didn’t frown on a 56-year old man squealing in delight while being dipped in the water by a guy half his age sporting an Eminem tattoo. As I bore witness to the little chicken pot pie’s celebratory peals of laughter, I experienced an epiphany: that this humorous faculty the baby girl so uninhibitedly demonstrated is what separates us from the animals. We’re the only specie that laughs.

Defining My Terms

Oh sure my dog may flail his leg against the air when you rub his belly, but so does my Uncle Leo. That’s not laughter. And a hyena’s supposed laugh is more a menacing cackle than anything else – also like my Uncle Leo’s. The bonus part is, laughter is the best medicine and since it’s a pre-existing condition you can’t be denied its benefits.


(If you exclude cartoon animals) animals do not laugh – and don’t tell me I can’t begin a sentence with a parenthetical statement. See, your laughing. You’re like the Elephant Man now – “You are not an animal.” The closest thing I ever saw to an animal expressing anything akin to laughter was when I was at a park and an obviously annoyed German Shepherd rolled his eyes after his owner faked the throw for the 3rd time. Otherwise animals don’t process humor in any discernible manner. This is sometimes true of humans too. For example, some people possess the capacity to know instinctively when something is funny. Others can’t seem to laugh unless the joke begins with “You might be a redneck if…” or ends with, “Get-R-Done. But irrespective of socio-economic circumstances, everyone gets their jollies from executing the reverse shampoo suck-back.*

*The reverse shampoo suck-back is that thing you do after you’ve squirted too much shampoo into your hand and you try to vacuum it back into the bottle by doing the reverse shampoo suck-back. This usually is done in the shower, but I’ve also seen it done at picnics with ketchup.

Elementary School Drama

In 4th grade I experienced a harrowing moment while walking the razor’s edge of inappropriate laughter when a trickle of stifled giggles soon swamped me in a flash flood of torrential hysteria. However indecorous and unwanted this burst dam of pent-up laughter was, it remains one of my fondest memories to this day. It happened in 4th grade when our prim teacher Mrs. Glazer decided it would be a good idea to have each student read aloud in front of the class while she recorded our voice (tape recording was still high-tech gadgetry in 1969). Afterward we would all listen to what our voices sounded like on tape and learn to feel bad about it for the rest of our lives. When it was my turn to record my book on tape, I walked up with my hardcover in hand and sat down at the solid oak table facing the class. My passage was selected from a biography of that ever-happenin’ statesman Henry Clay – the Great Compromiser. How happenin’ was he? Let’s put it this way – we probably won’t see a Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway musical called Clay.


But in 1969 the accomplishments of Senator, diplomat and Secretary of State Henry Clay still redounded down the corridors of time powerfully enough to warrant a place in our school library. Nowadays his biography would be replaced by Ryan Seacrest’s or Justin Beiber’s. As it was, this volume was part of a series of books entitled: The History of Great Americans in Words of 3 Syllables or Less (yes, really). In any event there I sat feeling both mischievous and a little tight-throated as Mrs. Glazer turned on the tape recorder and cued me to read:

“Henry Clay had always been a good li-sten-er. His li-sten-ing skills helped our country stay un-i-ted. That’s why he is known as the Great Com-pro-mis-er.”


And then it began. For no discernible reason I begin to titter, which grew into a chortle and then metastasized into a full-blown chuckle. I felt all 59 eyeballs of 30 adolescents students (Joel Felber had lost an eye in a meteor accident) scrutinizing every quaver in my voice, every mal-e-diction. I grew hyper aware of my predicament (on display, being recorded) and in my panicky self-consciousness I became uniquely sensitized as the dread spread. I could feel my hair grow and I could see the lives of other students flash before my eyes. I was out of control. 


With titanic resistance I attempted to stand firm on my slippery slope of silly. But with the encouragement of my fellow students who enjoyed a car crash as much as the next 9-yr old, and relishing the sheer panic of inappropriate laughter, I succumbed to this freakish force of nature and descended into an irretrievable abyss of hilarity. In my desperate attempts to suppress the irrepressible, I punctured some kind of primordial cosmic joke pouch and an avalanche uncontrollable taboo laughter came tumbling out of me while I stood by and watched helplessly. This was another kind of out-of-body experience on the cheap.  


In mid-convulsion I realized that not only would my descent into morbid silliness be memorialized by my peers, but it would also be recorded verbatim by the tape machine, although I’m not sure if a laugh is something that can be repeated verbatim. Laughter’s verbatim-ability aside, this was exquisite agony writ large over a 4th grade landscape. It was sweet to lose it – to be swept up and to surrender to a divinely benign and powerfully silly force greater than thee. It was at that helpless point – in mid-convulsion – that I finally got it. The cosmic joke. The one Oscar Wilde so capably described: ”Life is too important to be taken seriously.”


You Can’t Prepare for Unguarded Moments

Just like you can’t expect an epiphany, you can’t prepare for an unguarded moment – that’s how it gets its name. In this next instance another uncontrollable laughing fit visited me – under the most dreadful circumstances and with the stakes exponentially greater.


Now I know this event may sound trivial and quite ordinary as it appears on the page, but a potential powder keg of public opprobrium and familial censure was almost sparked by my helpless indiscretion. The circumstances surrounding this “near miss” act of infamy were tragic. In 1975 my dear Uncle Don died in a car accident and the immediate and extended family were all gathered for an Irish wake at the Goddard & Crandall Funeral Home in Syracuse. This funeral home was a converted residence so its dimensions and ambience were quite cozy. As the grieving mourners stood hanky to hanky during the benediction, Uncle Don’s life was sweetly solemnized by the soothing words of Father McDougal.


My older sister Gail stood nearby me in the crowded parlor. I was 13. She was 17. We each had some emotional investment in the sad event. We listened with veneration and felt quite stunned by the premature demise of this kind man already into his 5th decade. Meanwhile the priest droned on and on about worthy lives, the struggles of mankind and something about flocks of sheep coming home. But when he attempted to draw some kind of murky connection between God’s Will being unerring and the crash worthiness of a ’74 Ford Torino, my thoughts and eyes began to wander. Apparently Gail’s did too. And in the midst of this reverent quietude, I just happened to look to my left into a nearby mirror located on a landing leading to the upstairs. My sister for some reason (God’s unerring Will perhaps?) did likewise. Not good. We caught each other’s eye and in one fleeting glance punctured the solemnity of the occasion like a circus balloon. We were not prepared for this unguarded moment. We couldn’t be. It was unguarded.


While surrounded by a sea of sober, grieving family members, the most innocent of snickers began to emerge from our lips, followed by some not so innocent guffawing. Soon a landslide of giggles overtook us in some kind of jovial binary synergy, and we were both convulsed in powerful closed-mouth laughter. It was an agonizingly ticklish hell. The only strategy available (we couldn’t leave and we couldn’t stop laughing) was to somehow morph the hysterical laughter into hysterical crying – they are similar releases (twin aspects of the opposite thing). To make matters worse my decorous mother recognized the impropriety of our behavior and deftly sidled up to us and announced through clenched teeth, “If you two don’t stop imediately, I will disown you” – reserving special venom for the word “disown.” Also not good. Mother’s scolding words were an inflammable accelerant and only added gasoline to the spreading flames of laughter. An already untenable situation had become impossible. So we attempted to adjust our breathing so our stifled laughter sounded like deep crying.


The stakes were high – who publicly laughs when a loved one is being buried? What scoundrel would disrespect a solemn event needed by others to process grief. So infernal and disruptive, yet there we were stifling our way to sobbing. While trying to tamp down my hysterical giggling and put the laughter back in the tube, I tried to think of the saddest thing I could conjure to counteract the giggles. Like what if I had a wonderful uncle who’d died tragically in a car accident and we were all gathered in mourning for him – that would sober me up – Right? Well that’s what was happening. I didn’t have to imagine it and yet it had no effect at all on our predicament. This laughter was bigger than both of us. It came from a place deep inside that scoffs at danger and laughs at worry because it knows all is well in the scheme of things. It knows it’s eternal and safe. And, more importantly, it will indulge itself in a good joke whether it’s funny or not.     


So we come to see that nothing is sacred in the way we think it’s sacred. I surely respected the gravity of this good man’s unfortunate death, it’s just that, at that moment, waves of laughter were what was called for. I didn’t wish it – it just happened. Like being in the incinerator footprint of an atomic blast, it just blew me away.


After the eulogy, when the mourners began commiserating, many took special notice of my “emotional” outburst and consoled me with great tenderness. They’d heard how affected I was during the ceremony and sought to heal this distraught teenager, when in actuality I’d been giddy with suppressed laughter the entire time. It was the immediate family that needed the healing, not me.


Laughter is as Laughter Does

You won’t see an animal going to those lengths with laughter. Oh you might see a possum, playing possum or a deerkill feigning injury to draw predators away from its egg-laden nest (my Uncle Leo would do this when his wife was pregnant). But you’ll never see bear cubs stifling laughter so the rest of the clan thinks they’re crying. Laughter is not for the birds, or for any other animal for that matter. 

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