Joy & Laughter

I had the privilege of spending last Friday evening in the rollicking company of Australian megastar Dame Edna Everage, who exhorted me, and everyone else in her sold-out audience, to follow her three-step instruction for living: “Eat, pray, laugh."

I couldn’t agree more. 

I shared the evening with two old friends, who happen to be funny funny people themselves. After spending two hours doubled over in laughter with tears streaming down our faces, our hilarity continued long after we left the theatre. We all realized that it had been far too long since we’d laughed that hard — and to me, at least, it was a wake-up call. Life is far too short to forget how to laugh. 

Turns out laughter’s a lot like yawning—it’s contagious. Once you start, you can’t stop. You just have to remember how. 

Clearly, I thought to myself, I need to reclaim laughter as part of my daily practice of joy.

For those of you who have not had the privilege of seeing the great Barry Humphries bring Dame Edna to life, the funniest part of his show involves audience participation — well, more accurately, audience humiliation. Dame Edna chooses unsuspecting people in the front rows to subject to her ribald wit by poking gentle fun at their clothing, their homes, their lifestyles. 

It is brutal, but not mean spirited. Under the premise that she was seeking advice about home renovations for some of her properties, Dame Edna quizzed various audience members about their own homes. One poor woman made the mistake of revealing that the color scheme of her bedroom was beige. The look Dame Edna gave her was priceless. . .”Beige,” she nastily cooed. “I’d quite forgotten about beige.” 

The reason the show works is that we’re both laughing at and laughing with Dame Edna’s “victims”, because we all know that we could just as easily be them. I certainly was imagining what she would have said about me. But her secret sauce that bring it all together is the fact that she also pokes fun at herself, at her character and at the whole conceit of the show. It’s inspired and funny funny funny. 

After the show, my friends and I had the privilege of spending some time with Barry Humphries — who was a dear friend of my father and stepmother. What a lovely man! I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he is still on stage at 81. Laughter, we will probably all come to realize, is the true fountain of youth! 

Joy & Laughter

This is one of my favorite pictures of me. It was taken a few years ago, after I had given a talk on design in California. I had just sat down with the sponsors of the talk for a photo shoot. When the photographer asked me if I wanted to take off my glasses, I demurred, remarking that I thought wearing glasses hid my wrinkles.

“They sure do!” remarked the man to my left (whom I’d only met a few hours earlier) without a moment's hesitation. His candor completely caught me off guard and I laughed out loud.

I love that the photographer captured that moment, because it will always remind me that the best antidote to my self-loathing is always laughter. The self-consciousness with which I often move through the world is completely disarmed by laughing at myself. Having friends who help me do that is essential.

Laughing with Friends: My Dad's Last Birthday
Laughing with Friends: My Dad's Last Birthday

In retrospect, I think I took for granted the privilege of growing up surrounded by famouly funny people. My dad always found the humor in every situation. He not only could make other people laugh, but he could always laugh at himself. But it is his sweetly funny stories that I remember and love even now.  

Last week, while I was photographing the roses in Santa Barbara, I found myself grinning while recalling his story of an English actress named Dulcie Gray, who famously had a rose named after her. The planting instructions for Dulcie’s rose were as follows: Not very good in a bed. Much better up against a wall.

My mother had a dry wit, peppered with wry observations and witty turns of phrase. She had a keen eye but a gentle humor that rarely missed the mark — even when it was aimed at me. Once when trying on hats in front of her, she crumpled up in laughter, and couldn’t stop. I wanted to be irritated, but seeing her response made me laugh just as hard. When she was finally able to breathe, she managed to say, “Never ever wear a hat that’s too tall for you. It makes you look like you have two heads.” She was right.

My stepmother — the inimitable Coral Browne, once reputed to be the wittiest woman alive —  was rather less gentle, relying heavily on scathing and often unkind (albeit usually true) observations of both friends and strangers.

During her lifetime, the British theatre eagerly anticipated each new Coral story — and everyone has their favorite. 

My personal favorite captures Coral’s wit, but also her loyalty — which in my view (as the stepdaughter who too often received the brunt of her unkindness) was one of her better qualities. Whatever else she may have been, Coral was deeply deeply loyal to the people she loved.

This story took place at a party in Los Angeles, shortly after Coral won a BAFTA award for Best Actress in a television play written for and about her by the great Alan Bennett. A man, whom Coral later referred to as a second-rate screenwriter, came up to her, praising her performance. But unable to resist tooting his own horn, he remarked, “But I wasn’t too sure about the writing.” 

I can picture the look that Coral must have shot him. He must have known he was in for it.

"You weren’t too sure about the writing. . .?” she exclaimed. She held him in her steely gaze with a pause that would have done Pinter proud.

And then, upping the decibels so that she could be heard throughout the room, which by this point had fallen silent: “You weren’t too sure about the writing?!?"

"You couldn’t write FUCK on a dusty Venetian blind!"

To be in Coral’s company as she hurled her brilliant but scathing observations of people was extroardinary. To be on the receiving end of them, not so much. But still, I wouldn’t trade it. Even when I was laughing despite myself, I was laughing. And given the paucity of laughter in my recent life, I’ll take the laughter any day. 

Coral making everyone laugh in Auntie Mame
Coral making everyone laugh in Auntie Mame

I’ll be honest — humor is right up there in my top two or three qualities in friendship. In fact, I’m not actually sure I trust people until they take the piss out of me. It is the one commonality between all of the people I have loved the most. They are witty, clever, irreverent, and inevitably use those weapons against me.

The other day, after posting some old pictures of myself on Facebook, my friend Pamela called me up and said, “What was with your hair? It was so. . .so. . .Big Bird.” 

I think the thing about humor is that it is a gentle way of diffusing some of the things that we often use to beat ourselves up with. I almost didn’t post those pictures because I was mortified by my huge hair. Having her say it and make me laugh made it all seem so silly — not just the hair, but my ridiculous fear of people’s responses. What a relief.

Last week, I re-connected with my dear friend Sarah, whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade. Along with having some deep deep talks about life, friendship, and remembering joy during the dark times, we fell right back into the laughter that had been such a wonderful part of our friendship. It only took one of her arched eyebrows for me to know that our friendship would fall right back into its old ease. For me, at least, it’s almost like laughter is a shortcut to love — it instantly removes all my barriers to connection, and I feel free to be exactly me.

I’m not exactly sure when I stopped having time for laughter. But I’ll tell you what—since it’s returned this past week, life has been a whole lot more joyful. 

Just yesterday, my long-suffering project manager Tracy and I were stuck on the phone with an endless series of customer service people from countries on the other side of the globe, none of whom spoke intelligible English. One actually hung up on us when we asked to speak to her supervisor, after accusing us of being terrible people for insinuating that she was unable to do her job.

Finally, we got a very sweet man who was able to help us. He was even able to refer us to a company who could complete our request. The problem was that we could not, for the life of us, grasp the name of the company. We asked him to repeat himself four times, and each time it got worse. Normally, that’s the point where I get irritated, but Tracy and I took one look at each other and started to laugh so hard that we had to put the phone on mute. We didn’t stop for five minutes, and suddenly what had been an incredibly frustrating waste of half an hour seemed like the best thing we had done all day.

We were still laughing about it the next day. 

Laughing with my dad: Always pure joy!
Laughing with my dad: Always pure joy!

Why is laughing so important? 

I could cite all the medical studies that say that laughter increases our pain tolerance, produces endorphins, reduces stress levels, and improves short-term memory. I could tell you about my sister-in-law, who decided to include laughter as part of her healing process from a deadly diagnosis in 1978. . .and is still here making us all laugh. I could share that there are now places you can practice laughing yoga, and that the Tibetans (including the Dalai Lama) make laughter a dedicated part of their spiritual practice. All of these things are true. Perhaps the wonderful Anne Lamott captured it best, “Laughter is carbonated holiness."

But at the end of the day, I can only speak for myself. I believe that, like joy, laughter may be ephemeral, evanescent — hard to define or explain. But it undeniably connects us to our hearts and to one another.

I’m proud to say that, after a week of making laughter a part of my daily practice of joy, I’m a hell of a lot happier.

Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself. Here's a little video to get the laughter rolling. . .


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