I watched a really good documentary about comedy on The Discovery Channel last night, covering all aspects including "what is laughter?".
Long time comic Shelly Berman (remember his telephone call routines of the early 1960 era?)was asked to define laughter and although his explanation is much better than what I am going to put down now, I am sort of paraphrasing what he said.
Laughter, like crying, is the other side of the two headed coin that happens when you are triggered out of a normal state into a strong emotional state that brings on similar physical responses, including uncontrollable vocalization and even tears.
It got me to thinking about a gig I did long ago in Duluth, Minnesota. I remember it for two specific reasons: When I arrived to set up, one of the elderly members of the organization was at the piano, practicing the national anthem while sipping on a double.
By the time dinner rolled around, he was more than half in the bag. The anthem started out well enough, but instead of doing the second verse, he musically took it to the middle section -- "and the rocket's red glare" while the attendees followed it musically, but sang "who's broad stripes and bright stars" -- I, luckily, was not in the main dining room when it happened as I had difficulty not losing it entirely as it turned into a musical pile up on the interstate and came to a stumbling halt.
That in itself made it an evening to remember. But there was more to come. Just before I was scheduled to come out and make them laugh after dinner, the vice president got up and did a long salute to the president of the organization, announcing that their president was dying of a terminal disease and would not be finishing his term.
By the time he finished, there was not a dry eye in the house as he had moved them well beyond a normal state and into that strong emotional state that evoked such a strong response.
There I stood in the hall, waiting to go on, and thinking "how can I possibly go on after this? I am going to die a miserable death!"
I am introduced mid the sound of sniffles and blowing of noses. I plow into the opening laugh line of my routine and when I hit the punch line I am astounded to hear an incredible outpouring of laughter.
The rest of the show goes really well and as I am driving south on Highway 53 I think my way through the phenomena that I have just experienced, finally concluding that the reason the first punchline got such a strong response is that they really needed to release again -- this time from the other side of the coin.
It wasn't until I heard Shelly Berman's explanation of laughter that the memory of that occasion was tripped in my head.
I thoroughly agree with his premise.