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Working on Laughing Can Keep People Going On and Off of the Job

December 19, 1987|DAVID STREITFELD | Washington Post

When a young mother became frightened by obsessive thoughts of murdering her infant daughter, she went to see California psychologist Harvey Mindess.

"Naturally," Mindess concedes, "this was not too funny." But after a couple of visits, he became convinced there was no way the mother would harm the girl.

At the next session, he used a new approach. "I walked out to the waiting room and said, 'Did you kill the kid yet?' "

Incredulous, the woman did a double take. Then she laughed.

"It cut through the issue and said, 'Look, we both know you're not going to kill the kid, so let's get on to more important business,' " Mindess recalls with satisfaction. "E. B. White said humor at its best is a kind of supertruth. It helps you expand your perspective."

A cartoonist who draws on real-life incidents, a Presbyterian pastor who sometimes clowns his way through rituals, a 27-year veteran of stand-up comedy, a writer helping hospitalized teen-agers remember their funny bones and Mindess, who teaches humor at Antioch University in Los Angeles: All have integrated laughter into their work. And all consider their lives richer--not to mention funnier--because of it.

"We are no less troubled than anyone else," Mindess says, "and the fact that we know a lot about humor doesn't make our lives a bowl of cherries. But when any of us are in a crisis situation, we might be more apt to eventually resort to humor as one of our coping devices--more likely than other people, perhaps."

Take New York cartoonist Gahan Wilson and the escalator, for instance.

"One time I was on an escalator in Bloomingdale's, and there were these two nuns, and one of them got her habit caught," he says. "The escalator stopped, but it instantly gave me the idea for a cartoon showing an escalator sucking in quantities of people, really drawing them down into the works."

The punch line: One floorwalker says to another, "God, it's been one of those days."

Matters Get Out of Hand

And then there was the time Wilson was driving on the expressway and matters got out of hand.

"Everything was mechanical in the car--it had an automatic shift and everything. I got to a tollbooth, and there was a mechanical money taker. I clawed out some money, threw it at the slot--and missed. So I opened the door and leaned out. . . .

"Then the car started moving. There I was, caught between these machines. And you can never challenge those things because you never know what they've got stored up in the works against you. It was a wonderful moment. I'm sure it'll turn up in a cartoon."

For Wilson, 55, finding the humor in daily life can be as simple as reading the newspaper.

"Any newspaper is a godsend to a cartoonist, a constant deluge of hilarious stuff," he says. "Most people take it all overly seriously, but it gets so bizarre, I don't see how they can keep a straight face. I'm very grateful to the politicians for behaving as they do. It gives me my livelihood."

Uproar Over Santa

And it's an amusing life, says Wilson: "While some people don't get the jokes, it's very difficult for me to get the serious." Every once in a while, however, there can be trouble. The worst time people didn't get the joke was about 20 years ago, when he drew a desiccated Santa clogging a chimney.

"That got more angry mail than anything I ever did. You can mess around with religion, but when you kill off Santa Claus, there's an uproar. You never know."

Tom Niccolls knows a little about messing with religion. A Presbyterian chaplain at Hiram (Ohio) College, Niccolls sometimes dresses up as a clown to preach a sermon or perform other religious duties.

"Many people find that a ritual that is repeated in the same way becomes routinized," he says, "so the clown has opportunities to break through to fresh meanings. For example, in most Christian liturgy the bread and wine are spoken of as the gifts of God."

Thus, Niccolls the clown may transport the bread and wine in a large gift-wrapped box. He'll open the box, discover with great delight the contents, and mime a feast. "It's a way for people to realize again the meaning of the words they have heard so many times."

The decision to adopt a clown face for Niccolls, 56, stems directly from his own experiences. A veteran of campus life of the '60s--and the discouragement that eventually resulted from the civil rights and the Vietnam War protests--he was also going through a "mid-life crisis, and oppression began to hang heavily on me. The clown represented the spontaneity that you sense you're losing track of in your 40s."

He doesn't, of course, do every sermon in clown face. "Occasionally there will be persons who are uptight about this. People bring such expectations to the formal worship that sometimes a radical challenge can get in the way of their just enjoying it."

In Touch With Spirit

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