March 23, 1999
The Healing Power of Humor
JEFFREY MISHLOVE: Hello and welcome! Today we're going to explore two subjects that normally don't fit well together, or at least we don't think they do. Actually, I guess Allen Klein is going to point out how very appropriate they are.
We're going to look at illness and even death and dying and humor in the same light -- the value of humor when facing the most serious crises that life has to offer. My guest Allen Klein is the author of several books on this subject, most recently, The Courage to Laugh. He's also the author of The Healing Power of Humor, Quotations to Cheer You Up, Up Words for Down Days, and he has a book called Wingtips, which shows you how to make the most of the difficulties you encounter in airplane travel. Welcome, Allen!
ALLEN KLEIN: It's great being here. Thanks.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to be with you here on Virtual U, broadcasting live from Marin County, California, to the world.
KLEIN: Good being here.
MISHLOVE: Well, let's get right into it, Allen. The appropriateness of humor is something that people often question, like, "How can you laugh? How can you make fun at a time like this? Can't you see that this is serious? That people are suffering? Why would you want to interject humor into those kinds of situations?"
KLEIN: My answer is "Why not?" You know, the big thing that humor does is that it's a great coping tool. Uses a different perspective, helps us see things a little differently. Helps us rise above the situation. And when do you need it most? Probably when somebody is seriously ill or there's been a death in the family. A death of a loved one, someone's grieving. That's perhaps the time when you need perspective most and when you lose it the quickest. So my point is that humor can help us rise above that, give us a different perspective, help us cope with that, and help us heal and get through that process.
One of the things I've done in The Courage to Laugh, the book about the humor, hope and healing in the face of dying, is some research. I interviewed 100 people who have cancer, people who have AIDS, people who have severe disabilities. People with lingering loss -- people with Alzheimerís, people who's been in concentration camps. Then I look at sudden loss. Maybe loved ones had committed suicide, disasters, things like that. I researched 100 people and interviewed a lot of them. I said, "Did you find any humor in this process?" And 98 out of the 100 said, yes, they did. And then I said, "Did it help you?" And they said, "Yes, when I finally did find some humor, it gave me hope and it gave me courage to continue living, and it helped me to heal."
So I realized what a valuable tool this was for people. Because in my first book, The Healing Power of Humor, I looked at humor in everyday trials and tribulations. You know, losing your job, not getting the raise you want, being stuck in traffic. That book has 14 techniques of how people can use humor in those situations. But then I wanted to look even deeper and find out if you could use it in those situations, could you use it in the final stages of life? And The Courage to Laugh documents that there is humor there, even though we don't think so. Even though, as you said at the beginning, you find it's like two opposite ends here. Humor and death. And yet the more I delved into it, the more I looked into it, the more I realized there's a very close relationship. And that humor and tears are very close. Laughter and tears are very close. And so I think we need to experience both in our lives.
MISHLOVE: You used a word earlier that I think is pretty crucial here "perspective". There's something about humor that is really transcendental. We get in touch with paradox, or something is so funny, it pulls us out of one perspective into another.
MISHLOVE: And instantly, that does it.
KLEIN: There's a wonderful little story I tell in my programs and it's an odd story but it really works well to illustrate what I'm talking about -- perspective.
It's about this young woman at school who wrote this letter to her parents, and the letter went, "Dear Mother and Dad, I'm sorry I haven't written but all the stationery was destroyed when the dorm burned down. I'm now out of the hospital and the doctor said I'd be fully recovered. OH, yes, I've moved in with the boy who rescued me since most of my things were destroyed in the fire, and I know you've always wanted to have a grandchild. So you will be pleased to know I'm pregnant, it's due in April. Love, Mary".
Then there was a little P.S. "There was no fire. My health is perfectly fine and I'm not pregnant. I don't even have a boy friend. But I did get a D in French. I just wanted to make sure you kept it all in perspective."
And that's what humor does, no matter what the situation. You get a different perspective with a little bit of laughter. That's why I think it's so important, no matter what the situation, even in the death/dying seriousness of illness times.
MISHLOVE: I'm reminded, Allen, if I could share with you, one of the most profound experiences I ever had in my life, an epiphany occurred when I was attending a program by Jean Houston, called the Mystery School. She was lecturing on the Creation of the World from Genesis, and she was delving into Kabbalistic meanings letter by letter, "Baray shee borah Adonoi" in the Jewish tradition.
Letter by letter in this tradition shows how God created the Earth when you look at the esoteric meaning and after an hour of this lecture, all of a sudden I was struck by "I got it!" and it seemed -- I started crying. It seemed like such an act of love and passion that God created the Earth, and I cried and cried. And then I started laughing so hard I was rolling on the floor because it seemed like the funniest thing in the world to me that God would have created the Earth. It was like, you know, a big joke.
MISHLOVE: And I laughed and laughed so hard I couldn't sit up. And then I began crying again and laughing again, and crying again, alternating for about a half an hour. Finally, Jean Houston noticed that I was in this strange state. She came up to me and winked. "So! You're having an epiphany, huh?"
KLEIN: Stephen Levine -- I don't know if you know Steve --
MISHLOVE: I have interviewed Stephen Levine, yes.
KLEIN: For many years, I used to manage his workshops in the San Francisco/Bay area.
MISHLOVE: Oh, really? He's a specialist in working with illness and dying.
MISHLOVE: He's written many books on the subject and he comes from a Buddhist perspective.
KLEIN: Right. He was my great teacher because I would manage these, say, ten-day retreats. I would have 100 people there. I would say, some of them were caregivers, some were families, some were actually people who probably would not live, one didn't even last through the whole ten days. Some were even brought in on stretchers, and wheelchairs.
So it was kind of a serious subject, for ten days. But Stephen, just as you said, people would be crying and then they'd be laughing the next minute, crying, laughing, crying, laughing, and I realized how close those two emotions are to each other. And how maybe we need to experience those when we go through a loss, both of them, not just the tears.
The way I see it, tears are important, because it gets a lot of that emotion out but it also brings us down if we continue to cry. I think it's the humor that shows us we can go on with life, even just for a moment. And that at some point, the tears will end.
MISHLOVE: You have an exquisite story in your own book about how you felt when you personally reached the end of your father's death, and you were travelling on an airplane to the funeral in tears.
KLEIN: It was two years ago. My father was dying and I was writing this book, The Courage to Laugh and my father died about 7 o'clock at night, California time. He was in Florida, my Mom lives in Florida, and so I was up most of the night packing and arranging the flight for the next morning, and left at 4 in the morning to get the 6 o'clock flight. I was sitting on the plane crying, and I was thinking, "Allen, you're not going to find any humor here. You're lying. You're writing this book about humor and death and dying, and here's a test. My father just died and I can't find any humor," and so on.
"That's it. Maybe I should stop writing this book because I don't believe in telling people to do stuff that I haven't experienced." I'm sitting on the plane, and it's like now 7 in the morning, and I just burst out in tears. I'm crying and the Flight Attendant says, "Is there something I can do?" I said, "Well, no, my father just died and I'm going to the funeral."
And he said, "Oh, I have the perfect thing for you." He brought me this cup and I said, "What is it?" And he said, "It's black coffee with two shots of Bailey's Irish Cream." For a moment I started chuckling because, one, I don't drink coffee, and, two, I'm lactose-intolerant, so I don't have any cream, and I said, "I can't have this." It wasn't big, fall-down laughter, it was this little laugh.
MISHLOVE: Some people might not find that funny at all.
KLEIN: Right. But for me, there was a little chuckle. Then I got to my Mom's house, and we're Jewish, so there's this tradition where after a death you "sit shiva" for seven days. And my Mom's on the phone with the Rabbi and she's explaining that I will be sitting shiva with her but my brother's going back to Connecticut and he's going to sitting shiva back there with his wife and kids. But she got tongue-tied. And she told the Rabbi that my brother was going back to Connecticut to shit siva. And again the laughter was really raucous, the three of us. We were in the bedroom; we just collapsed on the bed laughing.
And suddenly again we realized we can get through this, and to me it was another sign of how important humor is, and to recognize it at those difficult moments.
MISHLOVE: Well, I think part of this has to do with your own sensitivity. I mean, other people might have been through that very same circumstance and not seen the humor in it. Humor is a very idiosyncratic thing. Because you were writing the book you were naturally open to it.
KLEIN: There's something about, when we're in a crisis, we have these blinders on, so that even when humor happens, we don't see it. And I do believe that, say you just had a diagnosis of cancer, it may not be the time for humor. So there is a period when humor doesn't happen. That whole night when I was sitting crying on the plane, I didn't find humor. I thought, "There isn't any!" But at some point I realized there's always humor and maybe 'cause I'm in the subject I start seeing it, but it happened not only with my Dad, but with my wife and with my father-in-law. Each time I thought there was no humor, suddenly it rears its head, and I'm laughing and the tears stop momentarily, then I go back to the tears. But always it kind of helped me get through that process.
MISHLOVE: Yeah, because humor loosens us up inside. There are theories of humor. I've studied it as a psychologist. There are different kinds of humor. Some of them, I have to tell you, I find very distasteful, like humor that's done at the expense of some other person, some kind of a put-down. There's an awful lot of that humor in our culture, some people love it -- teasing, sarcastic humor.
KLEIN: Even comedians, like Don Rickles. He sells out in Las Vegas all the time. Somebody loves that kind of humor. I don't, perhaps you don't.
MISHLOVE: I'm working on overcoming my judgmentalism on all this. I figure, if other people find it funny and enjoy it, then maybe that should be enough.
KLEIN: Yeah, everyone has a different sense of humor, so it may not be your kind of humor.
MISHLOVE: I really have an attitude about, it's important not to put other people down, not to enjoy myself at the expense of someone else, but maybe other people transcend that the humor may be at their expense, so --
KLEIN: And it may be better to joke about someone and put them down, rather than taking out a gun and shooting them.
MISHLOVE: We'll be back!
MISHLOVE: Welcome back to Virtual U. I'm your host, Jeffrey Mishlove. My guest, Allen Klein, is the author of The Courage to Laugh, Humor, Hope and Healing in the Face of Death and Dying.
Allen, it's interesting to me that you draw somewhat on your own heritage, the Jewish tradition, as well as Buddhism, and the use of humorous stories the Sufi's tell. The Sufi's have the same thing, that humor is used not just to get a laugh, but actually as a form of spiritual teaching. I tend to think that for Jewish people who have survived thousands of years of oppressive circumstances, humor was vital.
KLEIN: The Hassidic Jewish tradition, the way you survived was with dancing and with humor, and with laughter. One of the quotes from Hassidic tradition is, "If your heart is breaking, sing and dance a lot." I don't know that exactly but that's what they taught. That's the way you get through it. Yes, I do use a lot of that.
MISHLOVE: In other words, no matter how oppressive, no matter how depressing your circumstances may be, you always have access to this divine spirit and therefore there is cause for joy and rapture and humor. There's something divine, the transcendent, within us; we need never be unhappy.
KLEIN: Exactly. We can always rise above the situation and what better way to do that than with humor because it's so instant. It's so instantaneous. You just start laughing and you suddenly feel better. You see the perspective again, you see it differently. You change your attitude. You might go right back again after the laughter stops, but for that moment, you've transcended your pain.
MISHLOVE: Now in the Zen tradition they use riddles. Zen Koans. "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" It's like a riddle.
KLEIN: Or they see some advantage in it, like, "Now that my house has burned down, I can see the moon better." There's always something to learn in the tragedy, there's always some way to change that into more positive thinking.
MISHLOVE: Part of your research involved looking at what medical professionals think themselves, how they work with humor.
KLEIN: It's interesting. When I was writing this book I was searching the Net for the topic of humor and death, but there was a nurse who was asking the same question. She wanted, apparently, to write her own book on this, and was asking for stories about humor and death. And the response was amazing, because there were a lot of angry people. "How can you possibly talk about humor and death?"
There was the other side of these caregivers, these nurses, the paramedics, the ambulance drivers, saying, "If I didn't use humor in this job, I could never exist. It would just be too devastating." So I read there were hundreds of responses. I boiled it down to seven things about death and dying. One of them was that death itself is not funny but that things that happen around death are funny. So when someone has cancer or AIDS or someone is grieving, it's like my mother on the phone with the Rabbi. We were in tears. The death itself, of my father, was not funny, but that incident was.
And so, those incidents happen all the time.
MISHLOVE: They tend to punctuate life and in a way, make things even more memorable.
KLEIN: Right. A lot of people, when I do bring up the subject of humor and death, say, "Oh, yeah, I went to a funeral and we laughed. We were trying not to laugh and because of that, we laughed even more." So, often there are humorous situations even in death itself.
MISHLOVE: And we see it in a lot of theater and movies. There are quite a few who find humor in death.
KLEIN: Right. I do have a chapter on how popular arts, movies, TV shows, stand-up comedians and how they use humor to help us get through death, to see death in a lighter way.
One movie, Steel Magnolias, many listeners might remember, there's a funeral scene and the mother has just lost her daughter, and she's very upset, naturally. She's very angry. She's screaming and saying, "I'm going to hit someone!" and all her women friends are standing around and there's a woman way over there in the corner who nobody likes, so they tell her, they push her, "Go, hit her! Hit her!" She's not a good person. "Get your anger out on her!" It's a very funny scene. It goes from the tears to the laughter in a matter of seconds. So there are movies like that.
Woody Allen is constantly showing us how we can lighten up about death and dying. In his musical Everyone Says I Love You, if you've seen that, there's a scene in a funeral parlor. It's for the grandfather. At some point the ghost of the grandfather gets up out of the coffin and all the corpses in the other coffins get up and they're dancing around singing, "Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think, enjoy yourself, while you're still in the pink." His message to us over and over is that we only have so much time, we need to enjoy ourselves no matter what the situation.
MISHLOVE: I suppose the classic movie dealing with death and dying and humor was The Loved Ones.
KLEIN: Yes. It's all about the funeral industry. But there are other movies. Harold and Maude, about voyeurism at funerals. On TV there was M*A*S*H, serious situations, life-threatening situations, and how did they handle it? With humor.
I write about an episode on Sisters where Susie Kurtz, the main actress, has cancer, and how she deals with it with humor. Northern Exposure had many shows dealing with death and dying in a lighter way, cause it's part of life! So they deal with it, and to make it palatable, they do use humor.
MISHLOVE: Even Shakespearean tragedies all have their humorous moments. That's what makes a tragedy work in Shakespeare's drama, right?
MISHLOVE: One of the interesting aspects of humor in the face of disease and death are all of the people around the world who for centuries have turned to clowns and clowning. Like the clowns who visit hospitals and hospices. They seem to serve an enormous function, maybe as much as the medical doctors themselves.
KLEIN: Yes. They're very healing. They're called "healing clowns" like the Big Apple Circus in New York City that goes to hospitals and helps people. And of course the recent move, Patch Adams that many listeners may have seen. He goes to Russia every year, and goes into hospitals and works there and brings a whole troupe of people over to help him.
I've a story in the book I'd like to read. It's about his experiences going to Russia and he says, "Two years ago when we were clowning overseas we stopped in Estonia, and went to a children's burn hospital. I saw a woman in deep tears outside the door of a patient's room. I knew they were the tears of a mother whose child's life was in balance so I barged into the room.
Estonia's a very poor country and this hospital had practically no equipment. To my horror there was a doctor and assistants working without any sterile techniques on a five-year-old boy with 65 percent to 70 percent third-degree burns, from his chin down to his knees, completely encircling his body in that area. They were doing what they call "debriding" -- cutting away bad tissue -- which is extremely painful. With no pain medication, this child was screaming bloody murder. With diligence and with great heroism, the doctor and two assistants were doing a magnificent job working against these odds.
I was dumbfounded, not having a clue that the child couldn't move his head to see me, but soon after I entered the room, they were to move away, so I went over and looked down at the boy. He gave me a smile, and I later found out that what he told me just then was that I was beautiful. Believe me, my clown character is not beautiful, but such are the ways of a child. I spent the next hour and a half several inches from his face, clowning with him while they finished the procedure. He didn't scream out again. It was very emotional."
Patch Adams says, "I cry when I tell that story. It's one of the highlights of my life to have been there and to have been with the boy at that moment."
MISHLOVE: That story reminds me of another one in your book, which is almost the opposite situation but just as funny, where a kid is all burned, and some other kid comes up to him in the hospital and says, "You are ugly!"
KLEIN: Kids are so honest, right?
KLEIN: And they really laugh at that, and they say, "Yeah, I really am ugly!" I think Wavy Gravy reported that. He has a number of stories in this book because he worked with some kids at hospitals and he told that story because it was a lesson to him, like, he could hardly look at this poor kid, and it was another kid who just came over and put it out, "You're ugly! You're ugly!" You just have to be with it.
MISHLOVE: There's a sense here that humor helps us face the truth.
KLEIN: It can help us do that. It can also help us cover up stuff, so it can help us face the truth or it can help us not look at the truth. It could put people down, or it can join them together. It can lift us up or, if someone's poking fun at us, joking about us, it could make us not feel good. All these different aspects. That's why I find it difficult sometimes to teach people about humor, because it does have all these aspects. Maybe you grew up and you were always put down, so you don't feel very good about humor. Maybe as an adult you don't use a lot of it, you don't recognize it when you do see it, so sometimes it's a fine line with humor.
I think we need to be careful about that, particularly when we're working with people that are ill, or grieving. When I worked in hospice, we always had to make sure that if the humor was there, that it was appropriate, and at the appropriate time. Usually I just would listen to what the patient was saying, and if tears came out, great. If something we laughed about came up, great, we just laughed about it. But not try to interject humor on top of the situation, because that could backfire.
MISHLOVE: You didn't come in as a clown.
KLEIN: Never. I am a clown but I didn't come in as a clown, no. So, humor sometimes is a double-edged sword and we need to be careful with it.
MISHLOVE: I'm reminded of a scene in the movie Patton. Patton has entered, or went with his armies, and there he meets the Russian general and they have interpreters. The interpreter is trying to be a real diplomat cause you've got these American and Russian generals meeting for the first time. The interpreter wants Patton to say something diplomatic to the Russian general. Patton looks at the interpreter and tells him, "You tell him that I think he is a Commie son-of-a-bitch!"
The interpreter gulps, but Patton says, "Tell him! Tell him!" And he does, and the Russian turns to the interpreter and says, "You tell him I think he's a Yankee son-of-a-bitch!" And the interpreter is going pale, but finally he says that to Patton, and Patton looks at the Russian, he says, "I'll drink to that!" They have a drink together! It's that sense of being able to make light of what could be very, very serious truths, helped at least in that instance, to get through a really tense moment.
KLEIN: Yes, yes, that's what humor does. It can help us to get through really tense moments. And it's why, I think, at funerals, giggling or humor comes out. It's a tense situation. That's why paramedics said they used a lot of humor. Policemen, nurses. It's not very healthy when it happens in front of, say, the patients, or the family.
MISHLOVE: Yes, sometimes it goes on behind the scenes, and it's a way for the people who are there professionally to deal with the horror of it, I suppose,
KLEIN: Often those industries use what's called "gallows humor", black humor, dark humor, but it's a way of them coping.
MISHLOVE: In that instance, they do have to be careful with people who are grieving, or are worried about the illness of somebody, that they be sheltered from it,
MISHLOVE: Black humor that is otherwise, perhaps, necessary, I think.
MISHLOVE: We're going to be back for another hour with Allen Klein, and after these break, we'll also give out some contact information for him.
MISHLOVE: I'm Jeffrey Mishlove, host of Virtual U, and my guest today has been Allen Klein, author of The Courage to Laugh. Allen and I will be back for another hour of discussion on the use of humor, hope and healing in the face of death and dying.
If you're interested in learning more about Allen, he's a premiere public speaker, and his website is www.allenklein.com. If you'd like to know more about Virtual U, this particular WisdomRadio program, which is broadcast live every weekday evening Pacific Time, where I am, or if you're on the East Coast, that would be 11PM, you can look up my website.
My name is Jeffrey Mishlove and the website is www.mishlove.com. Allen, we have about a minute before we wind up the first hour. Any parting thoughts -- parting jokes?
KLEIN: We talked about clowns and we talked about Jewish tradition so I thought maybe I should read this little piece about Elijah?
KLEIN: It goes, "One day the prophet Elijah and a Rabbi were standing in a courtyard. The Rabbi inquired of Elijah, 'Which ones in this courtyard are truly God's servants?' Elijah looked around and replied, sadly, that no one there could be considered God's servant. But then, in the far corner of the courtyard, they saw two men who were surrounded by a throng of people whose faces were smiling and laughing. "Elijah approached these two people and asked them what they do. They told them they were clowns. They said that they make people laugh when they are suffering, and they make peace between people when they are in conflict. At that Elijah turned to the Rabbi and said, 'These people are truly God's servants.'"
MISHLOVE: We'll be back again with Allen Klein at six and a half minutes after the hour. You're listening to Virtual U on WisdomRadio. I'm your host, Jeffrey Mishlove.
MISHLOVE: Welcome back, everybody in Wisomland. This is the second hour of Virtual U, and tonight my guest, Allen Klein, is the author of many books on the power of humor in the face of life's crises and tragedies. He is the author of The Healing Power of Humor, Quotations to Cheer You Up, Upwords for Down Days, Wing Tips, which is a book of helpful hints for coping with the difficulties of airplane travel, and his most recent book, The Courage to Laugh: Humor, Hope and Healing in the Face of Death and Dying.
Incidentally, we do take questions, and you can call in, the WisdomNetwork 800 number is 800-655-2112, and we also take questions by Email, and our Email address is Virtual@williamjames.com, and we have a question that has come in from one of our listeners, Rueben, who asks, "What is the reason for this serious attitude towards death? Doesn't it seem that this is a continuation of the seriousness we carry around in our everyday lives? Osho, also known as Rajnish, created the Mystic Rose Meditation in which one laughs three hours and cries three hours a day, and then simply watches. If we could truly laugh more about our lives, we would be taken to tears and back to laughter. What about the humor to laugh at yourself?"
Would you like to respond, Allen?
MISHLOVE: All right! So much for our listeners!
KLEIN: Well, it's good questions. Very complicated ones. I don't think there's Yes-No answers to those. Maybe Yes, if we were more joyous in our life, we would be more joyous as our death approaches, or towards death. But then, death is in some ways, it is serious. It is sad. We're losing someone we love. But also different cultures look at death differently. In Bali, for instance, the biggest cremation they have, the biggest party they have, rather, is a cremation. Because they believe when you die, your spirit leaves the body and therefore they celebrate!
MISHLOVE: It's a time of celebration. In the Irish wake, it's --
KLEIN: Exactly. The more boisterous the party, at an Irish wake, the more the person was revered, so people get drunk and party, and carry on that way, and that's very joyous. It's not cultures all over that take death very solemnly. But more so in our culture. Maybe it comes from the Christian tradition, that just like we compare it to everyday life, you have to be serious at work. When we're growing up, we're told to take that smile off our face and settle down, get serious.
And then we get serious about life, and then about death.
MISHLOVE: It strikes me that the human soul encompasses all emotions, the complete range. The tragedy of life isn't that we experience grief or sadness. The tragedy is that sometimes we confine ourselves to a very narrow range of possibilities and don't allow ourselves to experience the fullness of life.
KLEIN: Or the fullness of death.
MISHLOVE: Death is always a time of great deepening, I think.
KLEIN: I've worked for a number of years as a volunteer with Hospice, and people always say, "how can you do that? That's so sad, how can you work with people who are dying?" But every time I've worked with someone who is dying, I found life more preciouses. I opened up more to life. I found my life more joyous because I realized how precious it was. So there's always this dichotomy, this back and forth about death. And in life, I think the closer we are to death, maybe the closer we are to enjoying our life fully.
MISHLOVE: There's something very precious and something very fleeting about being alive. The universe is billions of years old and we get, we have a millisecond, the tiniest little bit of time.
KLEIN: The teeniest. It's not easy lightening up about death. But it's possible.
MISHLOVE: For one thing, death is frightening. There's something about being mortal. That we all have to die. No matter how much you might laugh about it or feel serene or cosmic about it, there are also going to be moments of fear.
KLEIN: And there's also the unknown. Facing the unknown. What is that like? That causes fear, too.
MISHLOVE: Not only did you work in a hospice situation, but you studied humor in those situations.
KLEIN: Actually, Jeffrey, when I was in hospice, I wasn't into humor, the healing power of humor, so I didn't study it at that time, but looking back, I realized all those incidents that had happened, and some of the funnier things that had happened with the patients, how the staff used it. I wished I had been more attuned at that time, but I was just learning. I talked about it with Steven Levine, how you can talk about death and yet be laughing at the same time, and crying the next moment. That was my kind of opening to this kind of work that I do now.
MISHLOVE: Can you share some of the stories that come from those situations?
KLEIN: There was a number of stories. One of my favorites, that really taught me something about working with the dying, I was a brand-new volunteer with Hospice of San Francisco, I was one of the first 12 volunteers. A woman was one of my first patients and I went in, she'd be stretched out on the couch, and the TV would be blaring away, and I felt like I wasn't doing anything. Here I wanted to be a helper, I was a volunteer, and basically I'd say "Hello" to her, and "Goodbye" and I left, and I felt I wasn't doing anything.
About the third visit, she was lying on the couch, the TV was blaring away and I said, "Listen, I'm here to help. Is there anything I can do for you? I want to help you." And she said, "Do you know how to dance?" And I thought, "I'm a volunteer, I'll do anything for the patient!" So I got up and I danced around the living room and I sat down and I said to her, "How was that?" And she kind of shrugged her shoulders and was silent for a long time. I was still frustrated and I said, "Isn't there anything I can do for you? I really want to help you. I come here a couple of times a week, I want to help, what can I do?" And she thought, she said, "Well, do you know how to disco?" I think Dating Game music was on TV so I got up and disco'd around to Dating Game and sat down. I said, "How was that?" you know, really proud that I'd done what she wanted.
Again she shrugged her shoulders and I said, "Isn't there anything I can do for you?" and she said, "Yes. You could leave!"
And my heart sank. The family came back. I didn't tell them what happened but I went back to the Hospice Office and told them. And they started to laugh hysterically. I said, "What's so funny?" And they said, "Imagine if there were a camera in the corner of the room, and you could see yourself dancing around to Dating Game music with this dying woman on the couch, and certainly I started to laugh at that in hindsight.
But I like that story. I remember that woman distinctly because she taught me a great lesson, and that was, as a volunteer I didn't have to do anything. I could just be there with this person. And if she wanted to lie on the couch and TV would be blaring, and I said nothing, that was her dying, it wasn't mine. It wasn't me that imposed something on top of the situation. And if we laughed together, great, if we cried together, great, but really, from then on, I was a totally different kind of volunteer. I was just with the person.
MISHLOVE: Even in this instance, she probably got something out of having you dance, and then being able to kick you out!
KLEIN: Right. I also realized, I was the low man on the totem pole. There were two kids, there was the doctor, there was the nurse, and then there was me, the volunteer. So if she had any anger, I was the one that was going to get it. I was very valuable at the time but it took me a while to realize that. I did see the humor in it, in hindsight.
MISHLOVE: Undoubtedly, people who are going through crises of that sort will have anger.
KLEIN: Oh, definitely. Kubler-Ross talks about the final stages of death and dying and one of them is anger. Yes, of course.
MISHLOVE: She doesn't include humor as one of the final stages.
KLEIN: Yes, that's right. I've looked in all her books and no, there's very little humor, interestingly. This is a kind of pioneering book, The Courage to Laugh, because no one else has really written a book about this subject. Or looking for humor in these more serious situations.
MISHLOVE: It's interesting since Norman Cousins' work, people have known that humor has a kind of healing power, and I think we appreciate humor when we're around it, but it's not the sort of thing that is written about the way you have.
KLEIN: Right. I think that people get so stressed out, they don't see it, as I said before. But also, you've got to remember, you've got to be conscious that you could lighten up about this situation just the same way you could get upset about it. I mean, you have that power, and I think we forget about it.
So I'm just a reminder to people to lighten up no matter what's happening.
KLEIN: And one of the chapters is about people with AIDS. Again, as I was writing this book, I thought, is there any humor here? It's a very difficult, debilitating disease that affects a lot of young people, and what kind of humor is there?
I started looking around for that, and there it was. One example came from a friend --
MISHLOVE: --An epidemic!
KLEIN: Of humor.
MISHLOVE: What could be less funny than an epidemic?
KLEIN: Right! And yet there was --
MISHLOVE: Where else could humor be more needed, perhaps?
KLEIN: Over and over, exactly. Anatole Broyard I don't know if you know his writing, but he wrote a book called Intoxicated by My Illness, and I loved this quote,. He says, "A critical illness is like a great permission, an authorization or absolving. It's all right for a threatened man to be romantic, even crazy if he feels like it. All your life," he says, "you think you have to hold back your craziness but when you're sick, you can let it out in all its garish colors."
People that I interviewed who had AIDS did exactly that. One man, for example, says, "When I wait in the doctor's waiting room -- they put you in this examining room -- and then they say the doctor will be right in.
Twenty minutes later,
MISHLOVE: You sit by yourself with your shirt off, on a cold examining table,
KLEIN: Right, right! What he says he does is that he opens all the drawers of the doctor's cabinet, he says, he takes out all the bandages, he says he swags them from the blinds, he hangs them from the --
MISHLOVE: He decorates the place!
KLEIN: He puts them on the table-legs, and then the doctor comes in and says, "What are you doing?" And this guy says, "I'm homosexual. I'm redecorating it!" And this is somebody who has AIDS, who makes the "best" of a situation, no matter what it is and plays with it and sees humor there.
MISHLOVE: You also had a similar story about a famous clown, Wavy Gravy.
KLEIN: Yes. He decorated his hospital bed and put flowers on it, and tied-dyed sheets, and the nurse thought he bled funny.
MISHLOVE: She came into the room and screamed.
KLEIN: Right, right. But a number of people found humor during their illness. One was my friend Rick, who had AIDS for eight years, and I went in his house and he had a Star of David. He had a statue of Buddha. And he had a crucifix. And Rick was a Quaker! I said, "How come you have all these diverse religious symbols?" And he said, "You never know who's right. I'm covering all bases."
MISHLOVE: You can never tell if he's serious.
KLEIN: Over and over again, people with AIDS illustrated to me how courageous they could be by using humor.
MISHLOVE: That's interesting because the title of your book, The Courage to Laugh, suggests that there is that element.
KLEIN: That they could take some time to find the humor in those situations.
MISHLOVE: We're talking with Allen Klein, and we'll be back after these messages from WisdomRadio.
MISHLOVE: I'm Jeffrey Mishlove, back again with Allen Klein, and we're exploring the uses of humor in the most dire human situations. We've talked about people who were burn victims, dying of AIDS, your own situation and the death of your father, we haven't yet talked about the death of your wife, and I know you've got a good story about that.
KLEIN: That's how I got into this business. Why don't we talk about that now?
KLEIN: It started years ago. My wife went to the doctor for a physical check-up and the doctor called her up the next day and said, "Ellen, there's something wrong here." He said, "We've got to put you in the hospital and do some blood tests." They did those tests and the doctor came back and said, "Something's dramatically wrong here." And he said she had a rare liver disease, primary biliarcirrhosis. She was 31 at the time. Liver transplants were just experimental and there really was no cure, and he said, "You've got about three years left to live." And indeed, Ellen did pass away on May 3, 1978.
Needless to say, it was a difficult time for us but Ellen had a great sense of humor. She was in the hospital with a copy of Playgirl magazine with a male nude centerfold and she said, "Allen! I really like this hunky man this month. Can you put it on the wall by the bed over there?" And I said, "Ellen, this is a hospital. A little risqué for that." She said, "Well, maybe you're right. Why don't you get a leaf from the plant and cover up that part?" Jeffrey, I did that, and things were fine for the first day, fine for the second day, but by the third day the leaf started shriveling up and we'd start to laugh every time we'd look at a leaf or a plant! After Ellen died, I realized it wasn't a lot of laughter, but it helped us rise above that situation, gave us a different perspective.
MISHLOVE: How important for you, you can look back at that time and remember the moments when you laughed together.
KLEIN: Exactly. So that's what really got me interested in humor, how here we were going through her death, three years of dealing with her terminal illness, and yet how the humor helped us, continued to help revive us, even if just for ten seconds. How it gave us that power, that courage, helped us to get through it.
And that's when I became fascinated with humor, went back to school and got a Master's degree in Human Development. My thesis was The Healing Power of Humor. It was at the time that Norman Cousins was talking about how humor healed him, and that thesis, the writing's different, but it turned into the title of my first book, The Healing Power of Humor.
MISHLOVE: Now you call yourself a "Jollytologist".
KLEIN: A "Jollytologist", yes! Because actually I am a jollytologist. Not J-E-L-L-O but
G-E-L-O-S, which is either a Greek or Latin word which means "laughter" and ology is the "study of" laughter. So officially I'm a gelotologist! But nobody knew what that was, so I changed it to "jollytologist". And now I keep meeting other "ologists". I met a woman last night at a book signing. She gave me her card. She's a "Mirthologist". There's a "Joyologist" now. There's a "Humorologist". There's an "Enthusiologist". It snowballs. But I'm the world's only "jollytologist"!
MISHLOVE: Your trademark.
KLEIN: Yes, exactly. One of the chapters in the book, because I was going to write about lingering loss, people with disabilities, people in concentration camps like Victor Frankel, who talked about humor, but then I thought, if I talked about lingering loss, I should have a chapter on sudden loss -- disasters, plane crashes, suicide -- but I thought, there is no humor in suicide. How could there be humor in suicide? Cause I thought, if people could find some humor in life, they probably would not commit suicide. So I thought, I probably could never find humor in that, don't write this chapter.
MISHLOVE: But for the survivors, it may be important.
KLEIN: Maybe. But what I even found was that people who considered suicide sometimes found humor! One was in my workshop. She started this chapter because she came up to me and said, "One day I was really despondent. I wanted to commit suicide. I went to the local bridge, I sat on the edge of the bridge. I looked down. It was about 200 to 300 feet down into the shallow water, the river. And I got ready to jump. "I looked down and I realized I had put on my brand-new shoes that I had bought a week before that I had paid $150. My first thought was, 'You're crazy! I'm not going to get these wet!" And she said, "I started to laugh so hard that I fell over backwards, and I decided not to commit suicide." She credits the laughter with saving her life.
MISHLOVE: Sometimes people need to push right to the brink. They need an epiphany like that.
KLEIN: Right. Dorothy Parker wrote a wonderful poem about suicide, light-hearted. It says, "Razors pain you, Rivers are damp. Acids stain you and drugs cause cramp. Guns aren't lawful and nooses give. Gas smells awful. You might as well live!" She made that up, but here's a woman who actually found humor saved her life.
The other place, I thought, well, what about plane crashes? How could they be humorous? People are lost, families are grieving, it just snowballs. Somebody I knew who knew I was writing this book called and said, "There's a woman I think you should interview. She lost her husband in a U.S. air crash in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania a couple of years ago. I interviewed her and she said for a month she was in terrible grief. It was like her world had ended when she lost her husband. They had two young kids. She didn't know how she could go on with her life. And she said the news reporters were hounding her, and they were going to do a ceremony about a month after the plane crash in this town to honor all these people who lost their lives. She said, "I didn't want to be there." And a friend said, "You know, there is a mall that opened ten miles down the road. Let's go to that."
So they did, and (background music), should I finish the story after the break?
MISHLOVE: Maybe we need to do that.
KLEIN: OK, that'll be fine. Hold on, folks, hang in there!
MISHLOVE: Hang in there to hear the end of this story. I'm talking with Allen Klein, author of The Courage to Laugh. This is Virtual U on WisdomRadio.
MISHLOVE: Welcome back to Virtual U. We were in the middle of a story when the break came up.
KLEIN: For people maybe just joining us, it was the story of a woman who lost her husband in a plane crash. For months she was really despondent and they were going to be giving a big ceremony in the town to honor all the people who lost their lives. She didn't want to be there so a friend suggested they go to a mall away from it all. She said, "As we walked around the mall, a funny thought hit me from out of nowhere. I began to laugh out loud and told my friend Cheryl why. In a vision in my mind, Chuck (that was her husband) and his Dad were watching over me. Chuck was saying, 'They're dedicating a memorial to me today? What is my wife doing? Shopping! Sandy's out there shopping! Typical." She said, "We both had a good laugh." I felt a short period of relief because now I knew that it might be possible to laugh and to feel alive again, even in small doses."
When I interviewed this woman she said another thing came out of that. She said, I realized, you know I had two young kids. How would my husband want me to raise the kids? Being solemn all the time? Or carrying on in a manner that would teach the kids they could enjoy life and live life to the fullest? And she said, "That little bit of laughter helped us to do that."
So even in sudden loss I think there's hope. In the sudden loss disasters, Chernobyl, the Challenger, there's all those jokes that go flying across the web, Email, within seconds after the disaster. We cringe at some of those jokes, a lot of them, and yet they're very valuable.
Jokes like, "What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts." We go, "Oh, that's awful!" But on some level, we don't cry in our society outwardly so it's a way of saying, Yes, we know about this disaster. It's a way of communicating with other people about it. So on some level it's helping us cope with it.
In the book I say, sick jokes may offend, they also affirm. They affirm that we can go on living, that we'll get through this somehow, and life will go on.
MISHLOVE: That's very interesting.
KLEIN: That's what those jokes do, even though they're kind of abrasive.
MISHLOVE: I guess that maybe there's a time when being offended is a good thing, like the movie, The Loved One, they advertised "Something to offend everyone!"
KLEIN: They did.
MISHLOVE: They did but yet being offended is sometimes a healthy thing.
KLEIN: Particularly in those kind of jokes, it's a way of us joining together sometimes, also, a common bond. You pointed out a story in the book that I really liked. This friend of mine, Steve Wilson, also does humor programs like those I do around the country. He's a therapist, and when he first did this it was one of his very first times. When he first did this, he said, a woman called him up and said, "I hear you've been doing some humor programs. Would you come and speak to my group:" Let me share with you what he told me. He said he went to a group and it was a cancer group and he felt uncomfortable because people were going around and they were talking about their cancer, and it seemed so overwhelming. Steve was there to do humor and he thought, "How can I do humor when this group has one sad story after another?" He said he just prayed. He said, "If I'm supposed to be doing this, God, give me some kind of sign."The prayer was answered in two ways. First a man who was introducing himself to the group said, "My name is Lester and I'm pissed off. I have cancer of the liver. My doctor told me I had six months to live. That was a year ago and I gave away my winter coat." When everyone in the group started to laugh, it was validation that the group wanted to laugh, and that a person in a serious condition could indeed poke fun at himself. So he went on with the group and he found that it was indeed appropriate. But there was a knock at the door and a woman opened it and stuck her head in the room and said, "Listen, I'm trying to run a support group next door and you're making so much noise!" And Wilson thought, "Now I'm really in trouble," but the woman continued, "My group would like to come in and join your group."
It wasn't until after the program that Wilson found out that the second gathering was a support group for those who had recently lost a loved one, and Wilson said this was the second answer to his prayer, that people who came together to support each other in grief wanted to be where the laughter was. So he was given this double sign, people with cancer, and people with grief were looking for, could really be healed, with humor.
MISHLOVE: One of the things I think we know is that laughter itself is in many physiological ways really good for the body.
KLEIN: Exactly. The latest research coming out of California, Loma Linda University, is showing that things like cortisol, which is an immune suppressor, is less prevalent in the blood system when we're laughing, and there are other more important immune boosters. So it's physically good for us when we're laughing.
MISHLOVE: There's something about the contagion of laughter, too. Once you get going, things seem funnier and funnier. I recall our Email from Reuben earlier, he talked about this exercise of Osho, known as Rajneesh, where people were taught and were told to laugh for three hours. It would seem almost impossible, but once you get started you can keep it going!
KLEIN: Exactly. Do you know that right now there are all over India, there are hundreds of laughter groups that meet early in the morning, like 6 or 6:30 in the morning, and they do all of these laughing exercises to start the day!
MISHLOVE: Oh, it's a yoga!
KLEIN: Right. A form of yoga.
MISHLOVE: Right, I've heard of that.
KLEIN: There are hundreds of these, like 200 around India. Every morning they meet and they laugh.
MISHLOVE: That is something. Can you imagine committing yourself, I'm going to laugh three hours today?
KLEIN: That's a lot! I don't know if I could do that, three hours.
MISHLOVE: Maybe we'll do a two-hour radio program, just laughing all the way!
KLEIN: We could just do it now!
MISHLOVE: We'll be back again with Allen Klein after these messages from WisdomRadio.
MISHLOVE: That was perfect, that last spot, order your copy of A Course in Kufe because we have a course in death here!
KLEIN: Of course, one of the leaders in death and dying is Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who wrote on death and dying, and was on the N.Y. Times Bestseller List for many years, and taught us about the five stages of dying.
MISHLOVE: Five easy lessons for the dying, huh?
KLEIN: Five easy lessons, right. I think she even says -- and it's kind of taken out of context, when people thought you go through these [stages] one after the other, and that wasn't true. In talking about humor and death, I wrote a little song that I call Ode to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. And Jeffrey, I'm going to ask you to help me with the chorus here. It goes like this:
"Thank you, Elizabeth, for teaching me about dying.
Without you where would I be?
Without you, Elizabeth, I'd be crying,
Trying to die properly.
"Your five stages are outrageous
Your photos of deceased divine.
I'm not afraid of others' dying.
I'm just scared stiff of mine!" (You ready, Jeffrey?)
KLEIN & MISHLOVE: "Thank you, Elizabeth, for teaching me about dying,
Without you, where would I be?
Without you, Elizabeth, I'd be crying,
Trying to die properly!
KLEIN: "You I really do admire,
Teaching me how to expire,
In five easy stages so clear.
I thank you a lot,
Teaching me how to plotz,
And I could do it in less than a year!
"I could work on my denial in December,
Anger in April, if I remember,
Being depressed in the summer
Is not such a bummer,
If I can bargain till fall leaves appear,
KLEIN & MISHLOVE: "Thank you, Elizabeth, for teaching me about dying,
Without you, where would I be?
Without you, Elizabeth, I'd be crying,
Trying to die properly.
KLEIN: "Now I know life's just a joke,
I'm ready to croak,
I'll accept Acceptance with glory and glee,
But there's one query unsaid,
Before I am dead,
Elizabeth, won't you come with me?"
MISHLOVE: It has one of those tunes that just keeps going,
KLEIN: Has anyone every sung on this show before?
MISHLOVE: This is a first!
KLEIN: A first tonight, for you folks listening!
MISHLOVE: That's right, a musical experience. Here on Virtual U.
MISHLOVE: The purpose of this program, Allen, I usually tell our listeners, and I didn't tell you, it's called Virtual U because I'm trying to create the kind of experience for people that I always wished I could get in college and never could. I found that my favorite instructors, the ones with real passion, the ones with commitment to their work, always quit or got fired.
KLEIN: Right. I had one. I was an artist. I used to be a scenic designer so I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and where you say "passion", one professor stands out, our Art History Professor had such passion for his subject. He would get on top of the desks! And sometimes he'd take his shoes and socks off, and walk from one desk to the other as he was talking and projecting the painting on the screen for us to see. He'd tear his jacket off and throw it across the room!
MISHLOVE: How long did he last?
KLEIN: He didn't last very long, but he was a great teacher. I don't remember what he talked about. I remember his passion, though, for the subject.
KLEIN: A great, great Professor.
MISHLOVE: Well, that's what you have for your subject as well.
KLEIN: I think so. I hope so, at least. Yes. Because maybe it's time that we learn to not take life so seriously. And maybe move on to, not take death so seriously.
MISHLOVE: Yes. They're related, aren't they?
KLEIN: Yes. My mom, she's on my mind because she just came home from the hospital today, she's 88, she broke her hip two years ago and I flew down to Florida to help her, but we got a Home Health Care Aide, we got Meals on Wheels, we got someone to clean the house. Within two weeks she fired them all because she said, "No, I can do this myself!"
MISHLOVE: With a broken hip?
KLEIN: She did it, and recently -- the reason I bring her up is her great sense of humor and that's maybe where I get mine -- but she went to the eye doctor and they were closing at 6 o'clock and the van hadn't come to pick her up and so the doctor said, "Why don't you wait next door at the pizza place. The van should be along any minute." So she went into the pizza place and she said, "Do you deliver?" and they said, "Yes," and she said, "Well, I'd like to order a pepperoni pizza and I'd like to go with it." So she could get a ride back! "I'd like to go with the pizza." That's the kind of spirit she has at 88 and I hope when I'm 88 that I have that kind of joy and spirit towards life.
MISHLOVE: Yes. That's the Harold and Maude concept.
KLEIN: Yes, yes.
MISHLOVE: One of the things we haven't touched on yet is "gallows humor", right?
KLEIN: No, we have. We talked about the disasters and --
MISHLOVE: "Tombstone humor".
KLEIN: Tombstone humor! It's a good place to wind up, because often the tombstone humor gets in books and people become immortalized because of it. One gardener, for example, had one word on his tombstone. It said "Transplanted". I love that one. One man had on his tombstone, "Here lies a father of 29. There would have been more, but he didn't have time." My favorite says, "I told you I was very sick." (You didn't believe me.)
This book's filled with tombstone humor. Then there's also the famous people and what they wanted to have or what they hoped to have when they died. Albert Schweitzer said he wanted on his tombstone, "If cannibals should ever catch me, I hope they will say, 'We have eaten Dr. Schweitzer, he was good to the end, and the end wasn't bad.'"
MISHLOVE: I recall one we always used to laugh about when I was a kid, "Here lies Lester Moore, no less no more."
KLEIN: And Joan Rivers wants, "Wait! Can we talk?"
MISHLOVE: We've been talking with Allen Klein, author of The Courage to Laugh, and The Healing Power of Humor. You're listening to Virtual U on WisdomRadio. We'll give out Allen's WorldWideWeb address after these messages.
MISHLOVE: If you're interested in learning more about Allen Klein's public presentations, log onto his website, as well as all of his books: www.allenklein.com.
We were talking earlier about the ability to laugh at yourself, and I thought your website was really delightful, with the little animated logo, the bald guy. It really is the archetype of laughing at yourself.
KLEIN: The little red nose bouncing around, the clown nose, yes!
MISHLOVE: Allen, it's been a joy, and I know you've got one last story to share with our listeners.
KLEIN: This comes from the Talmud, and I like the story because it expresses what I really express in the book. Two ships sailed into harbor, one going out on a voyage, the other coming into port. People cheered the ship going out, but the ship sailing in was hardly noticed. Seeing this, a wise man remarked, "Do not rejoice for a ship sailing out to sea, for you do not know what terrible dangers it may encounter. Rejoice rather, for the ship that has reached shore, bringing its passengers safely home."
And so it is in the world. When a child is born, all rejoice. When someone dies, all weep, but it makes just as much sense, if not more, to rejoice at the end of life as at the beginning, for no one can tell what events await a newborn child, but when a mortal dies, he has successfully completed his journey.
MISHLOVE: That's a beautiful thought to leave with our listeners and of course WisdomRadio will actually repeat this program again. If you missed the first hour, check the broadcast schedule.
Goodnight to all. Thank you, Allen.
KLEIN: Thank you!
[End 3/23/99 Program]
Transcribed by Joyce Rosenfield
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