Pity the Poor Soul Who Lives Without Laughter

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I met a man the other day who had no sense of humor. None. The chip was missing, as in an alien who cannot weep or fall in love. I tried to banter with him. He flat-lined. His face stared back in blank, serene incomprehension. For an instant I had a flash of Henny Youngman trying to get a laugh out of Eleanor Roosevelt.

The humorless man deflated me. I thought about how mysterious and unaccountable laughter is, and how strange that an incapacity to laugh amounts to a disability. You almost avert your gaze.

Two days later, I happened to meet Frederick Buechner. Buechner, now 74 years old, is one of the few Presbyterian ministers in the world who has a cult following. He is an author of luminous novels, memoirs, sermons. I have long been a member of the Buechner cult. When we met at last, I asked him about a sermon that had changed his life — something he had heard years ago in a church in New York City. Buechner had simply wandered in off the street. The minister, George Buttrick, had spoken of how divinity enters the heart, "amid tears, confession, and great laughter."

It was the phrase "great laughter" that captivated Buechner. It now fascinated me. Why, at such a moment, would there be "great laughter"? Relief? Some exuberance released by the act of confession? Ecstatic joy? Can you draw a direct causal line from tears, through confession, to great laughter? Laughter about what, exactly? About something in the content of the confession? Was the laughter involuntary? Isn't all laughter involuntary?

The divine comedy: Can it be that God bursts into the heart like a comic — like a hilarious surprise? Grace administered as schtick? Could be. God is a storyteller. Why shouldn't the story be funny?

I wondered if that onset of divinity might have some relationship to the physiology of tickling. I'm serious — if that is the word. The (humorless) physiologist describes laughter as spasmodic, rhythmic, vocalized, expiratory and, when due to tickling, involuntary: Those studying the neural pathways of what is called "the tickle-laughter reflex arc" postulate that tickling results from the simultaneous sensation of both touch and pain — a kind of benign assault, wherein Normality of touch (N) and a prospective Violence of pain (V) suddenly occupy the same space. N + V = H (hilarity).

I don't know. Laughter is one of the mysteries — an out-of-body experience, an exuberant jailbreak of the self: a detonation. In that, laughter resembles sex. Or do I mean sneezing? Anyway, there's an outburst, a blast of something that aspires to ecstasy. But unlike sex, laughter (unless it is bitter, derisive laughter, the weapon of scorn) has a gregarious quality: shared, social. Why not? Comedy originated with phallic pageants in ancient Greece, in which men would caper around wearing immense penises. Lots of laughs.

Buechner did not venture an answer to my question about the meaning of "great laughter." Difficult enough to talk about grace; impossible to explain laughter. We passed on to a discussion of secrets. I thought again of the humorless man I had met, and it struck me his affliction amounted to a form of stupidity. Stupidity, too, is one of the mysteries.

I had a flash in which Henny Youngman turned into Franklin Roosevelt.

Roosevelt said: "Take my wife. Please!"