Happy 125th Birthday, Stan Laurel!
(Born June 16, 1890)
How Joyful Laughter Can Strengthen Faith
What is an antidote for anxiety, worry and generally feeling down? Laughter is one of the truest lights in the darkness, especially when the humor that inspires it is not mean-spirited or crass. Laurel and Hardy, two kings of comedy, are also kings of innocent humor, making fun of themselves and each other with a spirit of love, making us laugh with a delight that brings us back to the most happily unguarded moments of childhood.
In the eleventh letter of The Screwtape Letters, a fictional, epistolary style satire of correspondence between a senior devil and his junior trainee and nephew, CS Lewis distinguishes four causes of laughter: Joy, Fun, The Joke Proper, and Flippancy. The latter two are destructive types of laughter, their types skew for the worse the way we look at life. Fun is harmless unless it distracts from what we are supposed to be doing. But joy does nothing to serve hell. In fact, it helps the person who experiences it draw nearer to heaven.
A wise friend of mine (a priest with a PhD in Psychology) once said that nothing dispels the presence of darkness quite as quickly and efficiently as laughter. Joyful laughter (as opposed to mean-spirited laughter) strengthens faith because it lightens the journey, renews the spirit. There’s nothing like a good belly-laugh to shake out the cobwebs.
In a classic moment from The Screwtape Letters, the senior devil writes, “Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is especially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble’, and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt—and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don’t try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humor and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.” At its best, laughter chases away the day’s ghosts of regret and worry and smoothes the sheets for a joyful rest. Try it some time. Having a look at this might help:
Today is the birthday of the great Stan Laurel. He was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in England in 1890 and grew up in Scotland. After a career on the stage and early film work in the 1920s, he was paired with Oliver Hardy and together they became the legendary comedy team, Laurel and Hardy. Their roots were in silent film, though their career continued to include many classic “Talking pictures.” The years on stage and starring in silent film made Laurel an expressive actor and comedian, his face trained to register even the most subtle of emotions with pinpoint comedic accuracy. On screen the friendship of Laurel and Hardy was a match of seeming opposites who were actually perfect in their mutual simplicity, propensity for finding trouble, and loyalty. They tussle and butt heads, yet remain devoted to each other like later best buddies Bert and Ernie or Felix and Oscar. Off screen, the friendship of Laurel and Hardy was a profoundly deep one, and Stan refused to appear on screen without Ollie after Oliver Hardy’s death.
Last year saw the release of the final recorded footage (in color!) of Stan Laurel.
Stan Laurel was unusually accessible and kind to fans, notably keeping his phone number listed in the phone book and surprising fans by answering his own calls. At Laurel’s funeral, Buster Keaton said that Stan Lauren was funnier than Keaton or even Charlie Chaplin. Ironically, Stan Laurel had been Chaplin’s understudy.
What character does Stan Laurel play? A man it would be impolite to call dumb, because he is childlike in his simplicity. His face and voice, as with a toddler, can move from happy to devastated in a split second. His delight is irrepressible, his sorrow is lovable, and the laughter he incites unburdens and heals. Though childlike in his comedy, don’t be fooled: he is a comedic genius. Only a brilliant person could play a dunce with such subtlety and charm. Laurel was a wit in every sense of the word. “If anyone at my funeral has a long face, I’ll never speak to him again,” he famously said.
By the time I was six years old, I was already a member of the Sons of the Desert fan club, the International Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society. My father was an ardent fan of Laurel and Hardy, and I had caught the fever, riveted by their hilarious charm. As the littlest member at the meetings, on one occasion I was handed a glass of grape juice and asked to lead the toast. “To Ollie, because he’s misunderstood. He’s really very nice, even though he gives Stan a hard time. And to Stan, because I love him,” I said, holding up my glass. I still do. Here’s to you, Stan Laurel!