When I was two years old, I was taught the capitals of all the states, and being only two, I must have sounded funny mispronouncing them. My mother liked to show me off as a party trick, and people would laugh and applaud. I don’t know why I thought I was being mocked, but I did, and I tried hard not to cry.
Later, when I was about four, I’d taught myself to read, and the party trick changed. Somebody would grab a book or a magazine, point to something, and ask me to read it out loud. One time it was a story about Psyche, and I’d never heard that name before. I took my best shot, and the crowd howled when I said “Pee-sick.” My insides shrank about five sizes.
When I went from the farm-country township elementary school to the town’s junior high, somebody found out I had a good memory, and I was asked to memorize a poem to recite for the Columbus Day assembly. It was Joaquin Miller’s “Columbus,” pretty long and bloated, and every verse ended with “Sail on! Sail on! and on!” and the kids were just about falling off their chairs. Laughter was not my friend.
Once I started acting, that began to change. A lot of what I did was serious stuff and my stock in trade was to cry real tears at the drop of a hat. It impressed people, and the cherry on top was that my mother wasn’t there to yell “Stop crying!”
Tears and laughter were no longer my nemesis, and in our years with Theatre X the short-skit format was great training in comic timing. I relished being able to make people laugh on purpose. Once we broke off and formed our own duo company, though, things changed. Now what I was doing was our own writing, and there was only one other person on stage. Vulnerable doesn’t begin to describe it, but it worked, and this time, when people laughed, I drank it like sweet wine.
Little by little I got funnier in real life and learned in my bones how laughter, like music, is its own bonding. When we did King Lear, my Fool character even hassled the audience as they came in, a strange cross-gender Don Rickles insult comedy. I had come full circle and was cracking people up with what had crumpled my kid-self.
Of course, nowadays it’s just the two of us, but the saving grace is that we make each other laugh. A lot. Laughter is my friend.