On Longevity and Laughter

When I was in first grade I found that I could turn my eyelids inside out. There was another kid in my class who was a bit of a bully, but he stopped harassing me — and protected me from other harassers — when my trick made him giggle. I did it only once a day and just for him. At six years of age I’d discovered the power of laughter.

Now, at ninety-three, I look back with a smile at such memories. Thirty-three years ago, at sixty, I expressed it in my notes this way:

I’m very interested to see what kind of an old man I’ll be. I don’t want to rush it, but I approach that period with considerable interest.

Twenty years before that, at forty, I thought I’d be an old man when I reached my seventies. But by the time I reached sixty I figured I wouldn’t dodder until perhaps my eighties.

The big surprise to me is that the dodderer has yet to arrive, and that today I still don’t feel old. I continue to look down at my arm as I peck away at the computer and wonder what my father’s hand is doing hanging out of my sleeve. Maybe the fact that I’ve been thinking about longevity as far back as I can remember has something to do with it.

At twelve I had a giant shock of black hair, so thick that I had to wash it daily in order to comb and brush it, and then apply a hair-dressing called Slickum. One day I thought, “What if this is the secret to a long life, washing your hair at the same time every morning?”

From that moment to this, there have been dozens of other odd activities that have caused me to ask myself the same question. Most people shower in the morning or before they go to bed. I shower only when the thought of getting all wet appeals to me, and that could happen at any hour of the day or night. How do we know that that — showering irregularly and only on impulse — isn’t the secret to longevity? There isn’t a single piece of scientific evidence to challenge that possibility.

The same is true of a kid who, in his teens, then in his thirties, his fifties, later in his eighties and now in his nineties, frequently finds himself dancing to music in front of a full-length mirror, absolutely and ridiculously naked. There is no guarantee that three minutes of such buck-naked tomfoolery does not add a decade to one’s time here. Has any parent, any professor, any scientist ever proven that dancing nude before a mirror does not add years to your time on this planet? Case closed.

But, fanciful guesses aside, I believe — as did Norman Cousins, whose book Anatomy of an Illness chronicled how his watching the Marx Brothers and Candid Camera reversed the progress of a degenerative disease — that one of the most effective life extenders is laughter. No wonder so many hospitals and ambulatory care centers have incorporated special rooms where materials, and sometimes people, are there to help make people laugh.

My experiential guess is that a good laugh can add four to twelve seconds, perhaps a full minute to one’s life.

And while my habits of getting regular exercise and eating healthily are likely to have contributed, I give even greater credit for my longevity to how hard and often my risible has been tickled.

For me it could have been anything from a slapstick scene in a Laurel and Hardy film, to an exchange by Noel Coward, to any given moment I’m living that reflects the foolishness of the human condition.

Before my tenth birthday my father was arrested for selling phony bonds and was sent to prison for three years. My mother, unable to bear the idea of continuing to live among our neighbors in such disgrace, instantly decided that we had to move to another city, and she opened our home to let friends and relatives purchase our possessions. As I watched a stranger buy my father’s living room armchair, someone — maybe an uncle, maybe a neighbor, but definitely a horse’s ass — placed his hands on my shoulders, looked deep into my eyes, and declared somberly, “Remember, Norman, you’re the man of the house now.” Then, noticing the tears I was fighting to hold back, he added, “No, no, son! A man of the house doesn’t cry!”

This had to be the moment when my awareness of the foolishness of the human condition — the absurdity that accompanies the gravity of our existence — was born.

I’ve never been in a situation since, however serious, fictional or otherwise, where a hint of humor didn’t serve to elevate an empathic reaction. A good laugh, like an intravenous, can carry an otherwise unwelcome thought or emotion to the very heart of a viewer or an audience. And there is nothing more rewarding than to stand behind an audience when they are experiencing comedy that way and laughing from the belly. They tend to come out of their chairs in unison, fall forward and rise back up — a swelling wave of bodies in ecstasy.

It has been my privilege to have experienced that thousands of times, and that is why I think: If my fates originally saw me leaving this earth long before I turned ninety-three, nearly ninety-four, it’s because they weren’t informed that I was going to be involved with the likes of Martha Raye; Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis; Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton; Sherman Hemsley and Beatrice Arthur; Redd Foxx and Louise Lasser, to name just a few of those who made their audiences and me belly laugh together. With their truth-seeking madness these people were adding time to my life.

So, here I am in my nineties. I don’t walk as sturdily as I did, I have aches and pains I choose not to dwell on, and I am well aware of my mortality. Despite these physical realities, and however old I may look, I do not feel like an old man. I feel more your peer. Whether you are fifteen, thirty-five or seventy, I am your peer.

This I know, too. For all I’ve lived through in my nine-plus decades I still have a lot to learn. Give me time.

The documentary, “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” opens in theaters on July 8. Learn more from filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady here.

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