For a few raucous, crazy years, I lived in Hollywood, California—which, as an actual place, has very little relationship to the Hollywood of the imagination.
The Hollywood of the imagination—overflowing with glamorous movie stars, shiny limousines and sunny Southern California optimism—doesn’t really exist anymore, and probably never did. Today, most films and television shows aren’t made in Hollywood, either. Instead, the real Hollywood looks a little down and depressed these days, dealing as it does with homelessness, drug addiction and broken dreams.
Anyway, during my sojourn in Hollywood I quickly discovered that living there means you need to find ways to laugh, emphatically and often.
Hey, it’s a rough, ludicrous place–you’re always dodging the falling rubble of those broken dreams. So some friends and I, being young and fun-loving and generally broke, became regulars at The Comedy Store every Monday night, because it was open mic night and because it was free and because it was unbelievably hilariously wonderful. Also, because the Baha’i teachings urge me to be happy:
O Ye that sleep, Awake! O ye heedless ones, Learn wisdom! O Blind, receive your sight! O Deaf, Hear! O Dumb, Speak! O Dead, Arise! Be Happy! Be Happy! Be full of Joy! – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, pp. 126-127.
… the world needs more happiness and illumination. The star of happiness is in every heart: we must remove the clouds so that it may twinkle radiantly. Happiness is an eternal condition. When it is once established, man will ascend to the supreme heights of bliss. A truly happy man will not be subject to the shifting eventualities of time. Like unto an eternal king he will sit upon the throne of fixed realities. He will be impervious to outward changing of circumstances and through his deeds and actions, impart happiness to others. A Baha’i must be happy, for the blessings of God are bestowed upon him. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 4, p. 81.
During the time I hung out at the Comedy Store, the comedic art form staged a big comeback. The Vietnam years were over, and the old-style, not-very-funny-anymore comedians (“Take my wife – please.”) had mercifully faded away. The new generation of comics had a completely zany, existential take on the absurdity of this physical life, a refreshingly strange and skewed and sweet brand of disarmingly oddball humor that had my friends and I, and I’m not exaggerating here, laughing so hard we would fall out of our chairs and roll in the aisles. Literally, no kidding, I mean knocking over tables, spilling our mineral water everywhere, roaring with gut-busting laughter. I still have bruises.
On Monday nights, admission was free because the Comedy Store management tried out unknown new talent, and established comics tried out new material. You never knew who would show up. Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, Eddie Murphy, Steven Wright and some, like Sam Kinison, who were equally funny but sadly never got to grab the gold ring, all spread hilarity and delight and joy. At that point, they were all unknowns, so each new stand-up routine felt like a fresh discovery of comic insight into the human condition. They weren’t just jokes—they were psychology and philosophy and deep spirituality all rolled up in laughter.
Yes, you had to ignore the crude stuff, which wasn’t that funny anyway, and wait for the profound, true, transcendent humor. (“Death is nature’s way of saying ‘Your table is ready!’”)* We laughed so hard our diaphragms hurt. I swear it’s true. I would wake up the next morning and my face would ache, and my sides would, too. I started to realize, hey, guess I haven’t been using those smile-and-laugh muscles enough. (“Laughter: jogging for the insides!”)*
On those Monday nights, I learned a valuable life lesson—when you laugh so heartily and so fully, it lifts your burden, makes things easier, convinces you that your life isn’t that bad. Laughter truly is therapy, because afterward you look at things just a little differently, see the daft humor in all of life and realize that it’s possible to actually transcend the seriousness of our material existence. When you go beyond the occasional chuckle and laugh long and hard enough it makes you aware that yes, life on this Earth can be deeply, preposterously funny. (“I’ve actually gone to the zoo and had monkeys shout to me from their cages, ‘I’m in here when you’re walking around like that?’”)*
So I’m convinced: that’s why we love the comics who can crystallize life’s absurdity for us, who can point out humanity’s follies, foibles and foolishness, and who can make us laugh uproariously.
Long story short: as a Baha’i, the joy and lightness of spirit those comedians gave everyone made me start looking for humor in religion. Not the first thing that comes to mind, right? Almost everyone thinks of religion as dead serious. I did, too, until I immersed myself in comedy and began to figure out how to laugh about this life. Guess what? Laughter and happiness are downright addictive. You get a little, you like it, you want more. Pretty soon, I wanted every night to be Monday night.
So I started to think deeply about the repeated advice and encouragement in the Baha’i writings to be happy:
The soul of man must be happy, no matter where he is. One must attain to that condition of inward beatitude and peace, then outward circumstances will not alter his spiritual calmness and joyousness. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 4, p. 161.
For the first time, I diligently tried to seek and understand and explore what leads to lasting, true human happiness.
*all one-liners courtesy of Robin Williams, God rest his soul.