My son said something weird to me one day over the summer. “Daddy,” he said over his Cinnamon Toast Crunch one warm day, “I haven’t laughed since November 21st.” I was fumpfing around at the counter, like an adult does, and I stopped what I was doing at the cutting board with the sink and the faucet and the knife and I looked at him.
“What?” I asked, in that irritating way people do when they have actually heard exactly what they’ve just heard but somehow need it repeated for their own selfish benefit. It was such a bizarre statement — so random, so casually stated, so goddamned specific — that it took my breath away for a moment. He deposited another milky spoonful into his mouth and crunched, his eyebrows raised, as if mirroring my astonishment.
“Mm-hmm,” he affirmed, “it’s been a while, right?”
And so I did what what I do — I saw them off on the bus and I watched it roll noisily down the road and I obsessed over what he had said to me for the better part of the day. That can’t be true, I thought to myself. Our house is fun. I countered — we laugh all the time. I’m always doing idiotic shit — antics and whatnot — and we’re all funny people; we have funny bones. And we wrestle and mess around and tickle and bust each other’s chops. He laughs — doesn’t he?
But then I actually tried to think about what his laugh sounds like; this fair-skinned beautiful boy with the straight, soft brown hair and the lashes that most grown women would kill to have. I tried to put the tape in the cassette player and listen to it, but it didn’t play. And I wondered what was broken.
That’s what we do, right? As parents, as men, as people? What’s broken? Where are the wires? Where’s my pen? I need a Phillips’s head. I need the thing that does that… that thing because it’s broken and what the fuck is he even talking about and what is going on in the drawer and the envelope and what’s inside and can I even look?
It bothered the shit out of me. I chewed on it like a pencil. I used to absolutely macerate my pencils when I was his age with my ugly stupid dragon teeth; up and down the length of those Dixon Ticonderoga #2s like they were some kind of Indonesian delicacy on a stick. The way in which my teeth could sink through the surface of the pencils, the feeling in the back of my jaw as I bit down, just hard enough to feel that sinking feeling, that very, very sinking feeling of going down — we’re all going down together — ashes to ashes, pulp to pulp. And I would hide the shards inside my desk that opened up like the hood of a car and I used to pretend that my desk was a car and I don’t know that I laughed very much when I was his age either because it’s hard to laugh when there’s a goddamned pencil in your mouth and nobody ever said anything about the small mountains of pencil shavings inside my desk because it was the 80’s and we didn’t talk about that.
I don’t think I laugh anymore either. Unlike my son, I can’t remember the specific date of my last guffaw but I’ve made adjustments. That’s we do as human beings; we adjust. I fucked up bleeding the radiators a couple weeks ago and the radiator in my son’s bedroom shot out water overnight everywhere and shorted out the electrical wiring in his bedroom, and our bedroom. So, while we’re waiting for it to be fixed; we’ve made adjustments. We charge the phones via an extension cord in the bathroom. We have a portable, rechargeable lantern. We read our bedtime stories in my daughter’s bedroom.
I’ve adjusted to the dearth of my own laughter by watching other people laugh. I call it Outtake Porn.
The Office outtakes are good, so are Parks and Rec. There’s a 5 minute 13 second collection of outtakes from Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Season 6 that I love. There is nothing better, though, than outtakes from The Carol Burnett Show. Watching Tim Conway messing with Harvey Korman; knowing exactly what buttons to push to send Harvey into a spasm of adorable giggles is about as good as it gets.
It’s strange. The Curb collection has almost 1.7 million views. A particularly choice collection of Tim and Harvey outtakes was uploaded in May of this year and it already has over 2.3 million (I swear they’re not all me) and it makes me wonder about all the other people out there who are getting something from somewhere that they’re maybe not getting in their own lives. The laughter; sure — of the actors, the camera crew and, in the case of the Carol Burnett Show, the live audience — but there is something else, something else that I remember somewhere in the back of my brain, from when I used to do live theatre regularly.
That something electric and dangerous and knowing, about what it takes to break someone else. When you know someone during a rehearsal process, when you know what they’re about, and you know their weak spot, then you can play. Then you can look at them in a certain way, or even just pause at the right time, and they’re gone — descending into a naughty moment where they’ve broken character and you’ve won. I think it’s something like love; I know that’s what it was with Tim and Harvey — you can see it in their eyes, even through the grainy 1970's footage. It’s the moment right before the laugh, it’s the twinkle in the eye, it’s the brain snapping and cooking. It’s playfulness and it’s alive and maybe we’re all missing that because we’re afraid of playing with each other.
I connect with people in a very different way now than I used to — over earnest cups of coffee or over lengthy emails, and the content is about mental health or suicide or depression and I don’t know where the laughter went but now there’s outtake porn and my YouTube history is littered with it and I don’t laugh at the outtakes either, I just watch them, silently, waiting for something or wanting something or wishing for something, but I smile a downturned smile sometimes because Tim and Harvey are both dead and Vicki and Carol won’t be around forever and my son is serious and earnest as a cup of coffee and what will be the next arresting thing he will say to me in the kitchen one morning while I am playing at being an adult and embarrassed over my YouTube history like the other 2.3 million people out there who are wanting and wishing and waiting too. What do we need and why are we coming here to get it?
We want to feel good. Us hedonists. And the tank is so often empty because grown ups don’t understand and there are kitchen surfaces to wipe down and the electricity is out and there’s water all over the floor and so we clean it up, brush it off, pay in full, and we’re empty. And so we fill up; by any means necessary: a comedy club, Blazing Saddles under a blanket, an unnecessarily expensive hot chocolate, a foot massage, a Hitachi Magic Wand, an affair, an impulsive eBay purchase, a field trip, a needle, a salty snack, a sweet memory, a weekend in the country, a magic trick, a giraffe eating lettuce, a kitten in a box, a test-drive, a YouTube clip. Wasabi peas. Gin and tonic. Applause.
I want to be in a scene with you again. Not in a show; just in rehearsal. I want to be holding a script in my hand and I want to look up at you in that special way. And I want my son to be there watching.