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Bringing Comic Relief to Play in Workplace : Lecturers Are Serious About Their Crusade to Get the Fringe Benefits of Fun on the Job

May 22, 1986|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

The world, at least on television, appears chock-full of comic relief, what with Bill Cosby enshrined as the patron saint of ratings, nearly all nighttime talk shows entrusted to comedians, the networks' fall line-ups dominated by sitcoms and Joan Rivers set to go on the air as an alternative to the 11 o'clock news, Nightline and Johnny Carson.

Likewise in publishing, perennially best-selling humorists such as Erma Bombeck and Art Buchwald have been joined at the top end of the sales charts by such literary yuksters as Garrison Keillor, Lewis Grizzard and Roy Blount Jr.

In film, comedies such as "Back to the Future," "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Ghostbusters" have ranked as top-grossing movies in recent years.

Comedy clubs have become one of the nation's growth industries. And even Broadway has expanded its lighter fare by starring comedians such as Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg in one-woman shows.

Humor is clearly having a heyday--everyplace but where people spend most of their energies: the workplace.

But even the country's citadels of seriousness are beginning to be assaulted by corporate humor crusaders, three of whom recently gave presentations in the Los Angeles area:

--Ritch Davidson, senior "vice emperor" of Playfair, a Berkeley-based international consulting firm that provides "playfulness trainings" for more than 100,000 individuals each year. When it was based in Pennsylvania, Playfair was called "The Games Preserve," because its intention was to preserve playfulness for adults. But according to Davidson, the name "Games Preserve" resulted in "strange calls in the middle of the night--people wondering if we were some sort of weird, X-rated summer camp for adults or else people who would call up and say, 'Hey, I've got a moose in my backyard.' "

--Terry Paulson, a former clinical psychologist who lectures on the value of humor and other subjects for corporations, also presenting workshops through his Los Angeles firm Humorworks. Paulson used to give assertiveness training seminars through a company he founded called "The Assertion Training Institute"--until he discovered that "the people who were the least assertive weren't assertive enough to call up."

--Gabe Cohen, a Canadian-born actor who is one of Paulson's Humorworks partners and a Second City comedy troupe veteran now starring in Pizza Hut commercials.

The strange thing about all these humor lecturers is that a good deal of what they have to say on the subject is not funny at all. In fact, they note that the reason they're in business is a fairly grim one indeed.

Consider Davidson as he addressed a convention of the National Employee Services and Recreation Assn. on board the Queen Mary in Long Beach.

'Good for You'

"Laughter not only feels good, it actually is good for you," he said, unwittingly suggesting his talk might be as much fun as cod liver oil, marathon running or Brussels sprouts. Then, in semi-scholarly fashion, Davidson outlined a few of the physiological benefits some researchers believe laughter creates in T-cell counts and endorphin production.

By their initial reactions, Davidson's standing-room-only crowd of more than a thousand people didn't seem too thrilled. But when he demonstrated that laughter and playfulness are forms of "kinesthetic communication"--by having his listeners stand up, throw up their arms as if they had just won Olympic gold medals and yell "I'm depressed"--the room was instantly convulsed with laughter.

Why was this madness so effective at making people laugh?

As Davidson explained, getting somewhat serious again, the audience had just experienced "a meltdown of the mind, a disorientation of the left brain hemisphere."

In other words, the bodies that threw themselves into victory postures had physically experienced a feeling of "I feel great" (feelings are a function of the right brain) while their mouths screamed "I'm depressed" (speech is governed by the left brain). Hence the mental double-take.

Only Logic Developed

Davidson went on to describe how the world's typically humor-free education systems are great at developing the logical left brain, to the detriment of the fun-loving, creative right brain. By the time students get to college, he said, they've entered "veritable temples of left-brain worship."

In addition, Playfair's vice emperor observed that infants come into the world thinking that it's a place "populated by giants, smiling and dedicated to making them happy. Babies are what we call inverse paranoids, people who think the world is out to do them nothing but good."

As a result of believing the world is limitless and out to help them, Davidson feels babies experience largely positive lives--until they become programmed to expect negative results.

He emphasized, however, that he is not recommending adults become more childish, merely that they "get back in touch with celebrating life."

This notion, of course, brings out the critics who tell him "I'm not a stand-up comedian. I can't even tell a joke."

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