(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2012)
“Humor is just another defense against the universe.” Mel Brooks
Once upon a time, so many years ago it might have been another lifetime, I got two kittens, a boy and girl, and after much thought and research named them Boy and Girl. Boy was an orange tabby, Girl was a gray tabby, and in the hallowed tradition of kittens, they played and slept and mewed and ate and clawed things and were wonderfully cute.
When they were about four months old, Boy and Girl played a particular game that made me laugh until I cried. No matter how many times I watched them play this game, I laughed until I cried. Sometimes other people would watch with me as the kittens played this particular game, and some of these people laughed, too, and a few of them even laughed until they cried; but there were other people who watched the game and did not laugh at all, which was amazing to me, and troubling. Here is the game the kittens played.A heavy brown ceramic vase about fourteen-inches high, round at the bottom and narrowing somewhat at the top, stood on a brick terrace. Girl would chase Boy onto the terrace and Boy would jump into the vase. Girl would sit next to the vase, listening to Boy inside, and when Boy would pop his head up out of the vase, Girl would leap up and try to catch him, and Boy would drop back down into the vase. Then Girl would stand on her hind legs and reach into the vase with her forepaws and Boy would shoot his paws up to fight Girl’s paws, or Boy might leap out of the vase and the chase would resume. Or Girl would be inside the vase with Boy outside and the vase would tip over in the midst of their roughhousing and out would spill Girl.
Why were their antics so hilarious to me? Was it because their play was an enactment of the essential mammalian drama of fright and flight and fight—the thrill and danger of the hunt mixed with the suspense and terror of hiding in order to survive? Yes, I think so. But what’s so funny about that?
“Comedy has to be based on truth. You take the truth and you put a little curlicue at the end.” Sid Caesar
I don’t have many memories of my mother laughing. My brother and I were forever telling jokes, honing our techniques, and our mother usually responded with a droll, “Very funny,” even if everyone else was howling with laughter.
But there was a time, one glorious time, when my mother and I laughed together so hard and for so long that we literally fell out of our seats and went temporarily blind with laughter. I was fourteen when my mother procured tickets for just the two of us to attend the musical Little Me at the Curran Theater in San Francisco, with the Broadway cast starring Sid Caesar in a dizzying number of roles opposite the ravishingly sexy Virginia Martin, with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, a script by Neil Simon, and choreography by Bob Fosse.
As far as I can remember this was the only time in my life my mother took just the two of us to anything. Even more impressive, she splurged on fantastic seats, tenth row, center, which was also highly uncharacteristic of her. What I realize now after almost fifty years was that my mother was giving me the message that though she officially agreed with my father’s opposition to my pursuing a career in music and theater and writing, she unofficially supported my passion for these things.
The success of Little Me depended entirely on the genius of Sid Caesar and his ability to play myriad comedic roles convincingly, not to mention sing well, too. The same play performed with several different actors essaying Sid’s half-dozen parts wouldn’t have worked at all because the point of the play, in a way, is that all these extremely different men are essentially the same guy falling in love with the same woman over and over again. Try as I may, I cannot imagine anyone other than Sid Caesar successfully playing all those parts without becoming tiresome or silly. I knew that was Sid again and again—stumbling off the stage as one character and racing back on as someone else—yet I always believed he was an entirely new character—an astonishing feat. The songs were great, the dancing was fabulous, Virginia Martin was luscious, the chorus girls were gorgeous, the dialogue was snappy and funny, and young Todd was in heaven.
I can still recite whole scenes from the play and sing several of the songs, though I only saw and heard the musical once all those decades ago; but I cannot remember which scene it was that made my mother and I laugh so hard that we fell out of our seats, laughing along with hundreds of other people laughing so uproariously that Sid and his fellow actors froze for a time to let us get through our delirium before they came back to life and carried on with the show. That play and Sid Caesar and Virginia Martin and laughing so stupendously with my mother are burned into my memory more indelibly than almost anything else I have ever experienced.
“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.” Kurt Vonnegut
When I saw Little Me with my mother, I was a freshman at Woodside High School attempting to fulfill my father’s wish that I become a medical doctor. To that end, I was slaving away in an accelerated program for scientifically ambitious students, something I most definitely was not. Nevertheless, I had yet to work up the courage to defy my father and so was following the prescribed steps on the path he wanted me to follow. As a consequence, I was one of only four ninth graders in a biology class for upper classmen, and we four sat huddled together in a far corner of the big classroom, though we otherwise had little in common.
There came the day of the big mid-term exam, the results to account for half our grade. Everyone in the class was on edge, we youngsters especially so. Our teacher was not a good one, I was badly prepared, poorly motivated, and certain I would botch the test. As we waited for our teacher to arrive with the tests, the four of us began to free associate, someone saying osmosis, someone replying mitochondria, another adding messenger RNA, and so on until we left science behind and were reeling off the names of pretty girls and sports heroes and anything and everything until one of us said something—the ultimate non sequitur?—that proved to be the verbal straw that broke our collective camel’s back, so that just as our teacher entered the room we four began to laugh hysterically.
Our laughter spread to others in the room, but eventually everyone, save for the four freshmen, regained control and prepared to take the test. But we had gone beyond some line none of us had ever gone beyond before, and we could not stop laughing. Our teacher sent us out into the hallway where we fell to the concrete and laughed until our bellies ached. And finally, one by one, we stopped laughing, caught our breaths, and returned to the classroom. But the moment we entered that place of the test, hysteria caught us again and sent us hurtling back outside, our teacher following us out to threaten and cajole, to no avail.
Because we were thought of as good boys, our temporary insanity was forgiven and we took the test the following day, though we were never allowed to sit en masse again. One of us became a professor of Biology, one a conservative federal judge, one a professor of Art, the fourth a writer and musician and the author of this essay. We were as different as four people could be, yet in that moment of youthful hysterics, the pressures of the world too much for us to bear, we escaped into laughter—together.