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Purim —The Last Laugh

When Sir Donald Wolfit, the last of the English actor/managers, was lying on his death bed, one of his young actors said to him: “Sir Donald, after a life so filled with success and fame, dying must be hard…”

To which Sir Donald replied:

“Dying is easy ... Comedy is hard.”

They say a coward dies many times; the same must also be true for comedians.

Any actor who has stood in front of an audience and watched a line practiced for weeks clang helplessly to the floor to roars of silence will appreciate Sir Donald’s sentiments.

Comedy is hard because we don’t really understand what makes people laugh. We know what’s funny because we laugh at it. But trying to distill the essence of comedy into a set of principles is not so easy.

One of the basic elements of comedy is that mysterious quality called “timing.” The information that will make the audience laugh has to be revealed in a certain time-frame. Too quickly, and the laugh is stifled before it’s born. Too slowly, and the joke is “telegraphed” - people see it coming and it dies its own death.

Another aspect is incongruity: A bank manager wearing a clown’s red nose is funny. A clown wearing a red nose isn’t. And underlying incongruity is a deeper idea - absurdity. We expect the world to have a certain natural order of events. When these events are suddenly turned upside down, the result is comic.

One of the most notable aspects of the Purim story is hippuch - sudden reversal. Haman has his gallows ready to hang Mordechai. The letters decreeing the “final solution of the Jewish problem” have been sent out in all 127 languages to the far corners of the Persian Empire. Yet in a split second, everything turns upside down.

The only difference between tragedy and comedy is the ending. The Purim story is a comedy in the classic sense. All seems set for disaster, and in an instant everything is turned on its head. This combination of total reversal and perfect timing gives Purim its special flavor of joy.

Jews have always been known for their humor. It’s as if the world recognizes that there is something particularly Jewish about humor and that humor is part of the essence of Judaism. But how can something as serious as religion tolerate something as light as humor?

I remember a Jewish standup comic in LA who used to say, “Comedy is dead. What you’re laughing at is ridicule.”

Ridicule is a lot easier than comedy - and it takes a lot less talent. Comedy takes an appreciation of life, a modicum of wit and a certain amount of love of one’s fellow man. Ridicule is easy and cheap. It’s a blunt instrument that clubs large unmoving targets. Where is the real comedy that fills our mouths with laughter?

The message of ridicule is that life is absurd. Nothing is important. The best job in Southern California is to be a psychiatrist, and the second best job is to be a divorce lawyer - not surprising when life is ridiculous.

The opposite of happiness isn’t unhappiness - it’s apathy. Happiness is the knowledge that things are important and that I have a connection to them. Apathy is the feeling that nothing matters. Why get out of bed? Apathy is the air that ridicule breathes.

Humor doesn’t have to be light. It doesn’t have to lead to scoffing, to derision. Comedy is a serious business.

Recognizing life’s absurdity leads either to nihilism or to faith. Jewish humor is the grease that deflects the darts of nihilism, shielding the soul from despair.

Behind every Jewish joke there’s a Jewish tear. A wry bitter/sweet feeling of two thousand years of exile.

Tears of sadness. Tears of hope.

In the Psalm of Shir Hama’alot that we sing after a festive meal there is a line that yearns for the coming of Mashiach (Messiah): “Then will our mouths be filled with laughter.…” The coming of Mashiach is compared to a birth; the tragedies and natural disasters of our era are his “birth pangs.” In birth, great pain is turned instantly to enormous joy; similarly, when Mashiach comes, all the pain of the Jewish People will be reversed to joy in an instant. Just as in Purim, he will come in crisis, in catastrophic reversal - hippuch. He will come in the darkest hour, just before the dawn.

The bitter/sweet humor of the Jewish People will then lose its elegiac tone. Ridicule will be deposed from its throne of idiocy. Our mouths will be filled with laughter; a laughter of discovery, a laughter of total realization.

Then we will see how all the pieces in this Comedy of the Absurd called life fit into place.

Then we will laugh the last laugh.

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Comments icon February 14, 2010


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