Laughter: A touch of the divine


Laughter. There is no drug like it. No moment in life matches its charitable release. Those who provide it are like secular Mother Teresas. They don't see it that way, but only because the offer is pitched cheaply and discarded too easily.

Sacha Baron Cohen, can you read this?

Brüno, Cohen's latest film, is in theaters. No, I didn't laugh all the way through it. With Cohen I never do. I wait patiently for my two or three pearls, those luminous moments when what happens onscreen is of such a caliber of brash daring, so beautiful in its unadulterated comic timing and masterful delivery, that the floodgates open and the 14-karat laughter comes in convulsive waves of high-pitched, angelic joy.

When laughter reaches this level, one that even the great Cohen can only deliver intermittently, I am unaware of any other feeling for which I'm more grateful.

Laughter is not medicine. Medicine won't always go down so easy. Laughter is oxygen, offered to those who might otherwise choke on the world's woes. Deep laughter borders on the ineffable, and if brought to its most rarified air, it's an out-of-body experience that takes one near the playground of the gods.

Yet comedy is a kind of second-class citizen in America. A king in pop culture, perhaps, but relegated to the peanut gallery in the world of fine arts. Why, when laughter itself is hardly a second-rate feeling, when joy is not a second-rate emotion? The Oscars came about as a way to address the inferiority complex filmmakers dealt with when in the company of novelists and playwrights. You apparently don't address such "little man syndrome" by honoring laugh fests. Consequently, it's been 30 years since a genuine comedy has been awarded Best Picture (Shakespeare in Love hardly qualifies, and it's no coincidence that high-brow Shakespeare would need to be the theme before any statue could fall to the mirthful).

Few outside the world of comedy will ever fully understand the cerebral sweat that goes into a work like Borat, or Brüno. There are thousands of ways to get it wrong, only a few ways to get it right, and those ways are often agonizingly elusive. Comedy is a grand balancing act. In those moments when the gold is delivered, it's not one thing working but many, coming together in a glorious formation that only the Flying Thunderbirds could fully appreciate.

My wife has no interest in sports but enjoys watching basketball. It appears to her as a grand ballet. She sees the flow of the athletes on the court as nearing the choreography of fine art. I have a similar appreciation of great comedic feats.

Dance, sculpture, classical music, architecture, and painting have the ability to take human experience to sublime heights. But how do people share the experience? Does one know, while standing in front of the Pietà, that others gathered nearby are in the same lofty states of appreciation for Michelangelo's work? What are the signs?

When laughter reaches a level where the abdominal muscles are contracting and tears are forming, there is often an opportunity to look up and meet the eyes of someone in that precise state of ecstasy (scientists report we are 30 times more likely to laugh in the presence of others than we are to laugh alone). The experience is of a single shared spirit. Individuality momentarily fades. It is the flip side of the shared tears in a long embrace between two who have lost a loved one.

Biologists will whittle all this down to the simple release of endorphins and neurotransmitters, and the decrease of stress hormones. But in the midst of a glorious laugh, especially as I grow older, I find I'm able to get outside the moment and look at it for what it truly is: the closest I've come to touching the divine.

If this is but the simple holy pleasure of a pagan, so be it. But I have seen the statue of the Buddha, and he is not lost in thought, pensive and reverent—the fat man is chortling.

Here's a tip of the hat to whatever it was that brought such an open-mouthed, merry-eyed chuckle to that sacred soul.