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  • Kelly Petronis

Two Fat Men in a Boat

As a kid I loved scaring people. As an adult I wish I did it more, but the older you get the more people tend to think you're deranged if you pop out from behind the milk in the grocery store, or wait around the corner to jump out at a business person getting off the elevator. Scaring people is one of the funniest things you can do (certainly for the scarer, and hopefully, if they can take it, for the scared) because it gets right down to the essence of what is funny, which is awareness and recognition. It's funny because after you jump out from behind the corner, you smile, revealing yourself as a friend rather than a foe. But it's funny even before you jump out, while you wait in anticipation; not so much because you know the scare is going to be funny but because you feel an odd swirling of emotions deep in your gut.


One of these emotions is your instinct to kill (yes, even your sweet old Gam Gam has it). Another emotion swirling around is your instinct for compassion and generosity. You could kill your friend who unwittingly walks into an ambush. You really could (please don't). But the non-seriousness of the situation is what triggers the laughter of relief arising from the strange brew of paradoxical emotions, play and death. The thing is, to be non-serious, you need to understand what is serious about the situation. If you don't at least bear your teeth a little when you jump out, the effect is going to be decidedly less fun. It also wouldn't be very funny if you actually attacked your friend (it would be a headache of biting and scratching, lawyers and therapy). When I was a child I also liked playing practical jokes on my siblings. One time I propped a box above a slightly-open door, filled it with heavy objects, and lured my brother through the door to have a stapler and some coins fall on his head. It hurt. It wasn't as funny as I thought it would be. Just because a situation hurts doesn't mean it's not funny, though. Often it just takes time. Some say Tragedy + Time = Comedy. I wouldn't disagree, but I would also say sometimes you don't need the time, or at least you need less and less if you practice breaking your funny bone, so to speak. My friend called me today to say he broke his ankle skateboarding. His foot popped right out of the leg. Hurt like hell. He's been practicing improv and standup with me, and he said, "Somewhere in there, there's a bit. It's going to be funny given time. In fact, it's kind of funny even now." Sometimes you can laugh at the moment of the scare, sometimes you have to sleep on it and make sure you're still alive, that all your pieces are still put together. Before you can laugh properly, before you can get the deep, satisfying, tear-streaming laughs, you need to lose a little bit. Just a piece of your life. Maybe it is an ankle, or a job, or a dog. Like rocks falling off a mountainside these losses show us -- if we really look at them -- how massive our life is, even without them. Maybe the loss is a landslide, or an entire half of the mountainside cracks off and falls into the ocean. We're still left with half a mountain. Even the loss of a spouse or the untimely death of a good friend will reveal how much that person meant to us, how much they actually gave us in their time, instead of what their leaving seemed to take away. Comedy is not about being funny. It is about being aware and generous of spirit. The higher the level of awareness, the deeper the laugh of recognition. It's like listening to the echo of the falling rock, the echo revealing both the rock and the mountain range from which the sound reports. The greater the awareness of the mountain range, the more intricate the echo. You can witness this echo in an audience. A joke ripples outward, sometimes from the front of the stage, sometimes from key people who are quick on the uptake, and it echoes back in the form of laughter, which is a recognition of something they have experienced or identify with. Otherwise they wouldn't laugh. They wouldn't be able to. The ripple would go right through them. Some of the most painful moments are also the most truthful -- and therefore the funniest if we allow it. Often the moments that give us the biggest scares reveal our place in the cosmic order, which is, unavoidably, as mortals with relatively little time to live. If we can only acknowledge the paradoxical combination of the seriousness of living life and the non-seriousness of luck we've encountered to be born at all, maybe we can laugh a little about the whole ordeal. The bigger the rock, the bigger the ripple, the more we need to stand back to appreciate it.


This reminds me of a poem by the 14th Century Sufi poet Hafez: God and I have become like two giant fat men

Living in a tiny boat. We keep

Bumping into each other

And laughing.

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©2020 by Kelly Petronis