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With humor spreading from boardroom to pulpit to police station, is it any wonder some people are asking: Is this . . . Any Place for a Laugh?

December 10, 1989|BETH ANN KRIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Funerals are, traditionally, a time for seriousness, the one ritual at which belly laughs are notoriously disrespectful. . .unless, say, Berkeley's Rev. Doug Adams is in the pulpit.

A minister who often tops his somber, black preacher's robe with a Snoopy stole, Adams is renowned for telling the favorite jokes of the dearly departed--at their own memorial services.

And if the jokes are too blue for church consumption?

That doesn't stop Adams. He still alludes to the material just to get the congregation laughing, carefully skipping the offensive details.

"A funeral should be a place you laugh, you know. Those who understand the faith know that death is not the end," says the United Church of Christ preacher, who is also the author of "Humor in the American Pulpit" and a professor of religion at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.

"In counseling of the family (after a death), I always ask the family what were the favorite jokes of the person who died . . . When you tell a joke, it doesn't tell people what to think. It opens up space to think. That is the gift of humor. It honors the audience as people of capacity."

Audiences at funerals aren't the only ones subjected to surprise comedy attacks of late. More and more airline travelers are being delighted by (or held hostage by) stand-up flight attendants issuing such directives as, "Well, folks, it's time to sit up, drink up and buckle up. Federal aviation regulations require that we pick up all cups, glasses and 18-karat gold jewelry."

Errant motorists have learned that the most painless way to keep traffic tickets off their records may be to enroll in a comedy traffic school. In Southern California alone, about 20% of the approximately 200 traffic schools are now comedy-oriented, estimates G. Vernon Hensel, president of the Traffic School Assn. of California.

It seems no place is safe from yuksters these days. Perhaps in response to the grim pressures of late '80s life--gang warfare, economic and ecological calamities--silliness has struck even more unlikely targets.

For instance:

The Los Angeles Police Department recently invited a humor therapist to address the 250 officers who serve in its peer counseling program. Laguna Beach-based Lola Gillebaard worked the group much like a stand-up comic, but police Chief Daryl Gates scored the heartiest response of the day when he was introduced by Sgt. Dick Clark.

"He's been around a long time--about the same length of time Moses was lost in the desert: 40 years," said Clark, to much laughter, after which Gates deadpanned, "I didn't think the thing about Moses was funny at all . . . correct (but) not funny."

Humor abounds in the AIDS community, especially at Louise Hay's Hayrides, the weekly and often wacky West Hollywood gatherings for people with AIDS. The meetings, which draw in excess of 400 participants every Wednesday night, emphasize living with joy as best one can despite circumstances. Thus Hay, a best-selling author and metaphysician, routinely exchanges wisecracks with her audience. And five minutes of each Hayride is devoted to audience joke telling.

According to Alan Peterson, a Hayride regular who's creating a stage musical based on the meetings, joke tellers can be as raunchy as they want as long as the material doesn't put down anyone. About 50% of the jokes are about homosexuals or homosexual practices, he estimates. Although there have been no AIDS jokes yet, there has been an occasional joke about gay men being tested for disease.

A Midwestern insurance firm that thought its agents were too dull decided to remedy the problem this fall by enrolling them in improvisation workshops at Chicago's famed Second City. To loosen up business students, the University of Chicago's graduate school of business has created a joint program with Second City, which allows first-year grad students to take improv workshops for credit.

According to Second City administrator Cheryl Sloan, the workshop is also popular with non-students. For instance, new hires in the creative department at Chicago's Leo Burnett advertising agency automatically take a Second City workshop as part of their employee orientations.

In the view of Flinn D. Allis, Burnett's manager for creative recruitment and development, the workshop provides young people in the firm's training program "a good forum for getting to know each other, for creating partnerships, and it certainly enhances their presentation skills and elevates their sense of confidence."

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