Jos Houben | August 2009 issue
For the past few years, I’ve been traveling the globe with a show called “The Art Of Laughter,” a mock lecture in which I analyze the basic principles of silent comedy. I try to make people laugh using my body rather than my words. At a certain point in the show, I demonstrate tripping. Some people laugh at the trip itself. More people laugh when I play with my reaction, looking back over my shoulder at the spot where I stumbled. But without fail, everyone explodes into laughter when I add a third movement: I trip, look over my shoulder, then furtively look around to see if anyone has noticed my misfortune. At that moment, the whole audience is in agreement. They recognize and accept a truth about themselves, something they somehow already knew and also freshly discovered in that moment. Through laughter, people acknowledge together that they’re not alone.
Many serious thinkers have been busy with the supposedly not-serious phenomena of humor and laughter in their attempts to understand the human condition. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein stated that a valid philosophical work could be written on any subject that would consist entirely of jokes. Wittgenstein knew, as comedians do, that humor is a way to understand not only ourselves but the world.
I, for example, am the proud father of a 4-month-old boy. It strikes me how adults who meet him actively solicit this smile. It’s as if we seek confirmation that we’re unconditionally loved. We want the fact that we’re here to be acknowledged, not just by a person but by humanity. An infant’s smile is the universe’s seal of approval. “Being” goes with “laughing” from the start.
My son’s learning is also deeply connected to laughter. I observe him as he alternates between quiet fascination and chuckles whenever he’s paying attention to something. What makes sense, what’s accepted, produces a smile; anything else is immediately rejected. He moans and cries not just when he’s uncomfortable or in need, but when he’s bored.
At every age, learning and development happen through play and fun. Where there’s no amusement, learning is stifled. Numerous religious and spiritual teachings use humorous tales and anecdotes to initiate and enlighten. During a workshop I attended, participants related the instances and conditions during which they learned something quickly and easily. Without exception, people said they were on holiday, in love or otherwise having a great time. In other words, they were doing something that made them smile. This is why children learn so quickly. They engage with the world through curiosity and play. They learn to walk and talk without having to take an exam.
For me, laughter is also connected to understanding, insight and awareness. The word “wit” is related to the word “knowledge.” As we focus our attention on something, we go quiet. Then we smile or laugh as we come out of our trance, as we become aware that something has changed.
We build patterns of thought and behavior to make sense of the world. But we can also get stuck in them. We enjoy freeing ourselves from their grip, which is why nonsense and absurdity are fun. We constantly want to liberate ourselves from old, known patterns and clear the decks for new insights. Laughter blows the dust from our eyes. We all need gravity but dream of flying and scream with laughter on roller coaster rides. We understand gravity’s laws better when we play around with them.
Like a hypnotist or magician, a comedic performer skillfully manipulates the audience. To do this, you must understand the audience’s understanding. One of the most common reactions I get after my show isn’t how funny it is, but how touching. The audience laughs most when they recognize themselves. Nothing has changed, but they’re reconciled with themselves and with the world. Making people laugh is connecting them with their humanity. In laughter, we grow. When we stop laughing, we’re in trouble.
Jos Houben is a theater director, performer and teacher at the Jacques Lecoq International Theater School in Paris.