I can recall two episodes during which I was seized with uncontrollable laughter,
oddly both connected with music.
The first happened many years ago, when
I attended a chamber concert with my father at a private home. It was all pretty
informal, but when the music began, people sat down and listened
All went well at first, until a group of four musicians
stepped up. Three of them behaved as expected, but the fourth – a small fellow
of middle age – just couldn’t “get comfortable.” He started off playing one wind
instrument, but it was apparently not to his liking.
While his colleagues
played on, he bent down to his carrying case and extracted another instrument –
which he also abandoned in short order. If memory serves, he repeated this
maneuver maybe twice more; which meant that he spent most of the group’s
performance bent over, rummaging in his bag, and hardly any of it actually
The absurdity of this unplanned comic turn – or whatever it was,
I never found out – totally cracked me up; the more so when I saw my father
shaking silently, trying to keep a straight face. The fact that no one else
seemed to find any of it out of the ordinary only made things worse, and I had
to exit the room post-haste.
THE SECOND episode will remain forever
emblazoned on my memory as “The Chinese Choir.”
It happened just before
my aliya in the early ’70s, when I was teaching English to foreign students at
the Language Tuition Centre in London’s Oxford Street. To my twenty-something
self back then, the center was a weird and wonderful place where a class of 30
students could easily include a dozen or more nationalities.
So it was
that my class contained five Chinese students.
Since I had the class for
three consecutive periods – three hefty hours – each morning during the course,
I eased up during the last hour and devoted it to culture, asking different
students every day to plan presentations that would teach us about their
That request gave rise to some unforgettable experiences: an
evocative and astonishingly moving Temple Dance performed by a shy Burmese woman
who hardly opened her mouth during class; an authentic tea ceremony, complete
with elaborate donning of kimono and obi sash by a diminutive Japanese girl who
had informed me the day before that “I have Japanese tea ceremony in my
suitcase”; a lecture on cheese-making, including plenty of samples, by a Dutch
student, and so on.
Then it was the turn of the Chinese.
sing,” their leader said. “First, war song.”
Without any perceptible
starting sign, faces impassive, all five broke into a monotonous singsong; then,
quite suddenly, after a few minutes, again without any obvious cue, they
“Now, song to nature.” Again, with the same abrupt start and
sudden stop, they produced a monotone which sounded identical in every way to
By this time, the rest of the class were stifling giggles – as
was I – but they were sitting behind the choir, unseen; while I, facing the
class and the singers in front, was wretchedly exposed. As their teacher, I was
supposed to set an example of sobriety, not battle a rising wave of
We were mostly Europeans, ignorant of Chinese culture, and thus
had little appreciation or understanding of its music, which was certainly not
to our credit.
But when the third offering – “Now, love song” – began,
indistinguishable in every way, to our Western ears, from the first two, I
couldn’t hold back any longer, especially witnessing the reaction of the other
students, who were by now laughing more or less openly. Desperate, I held an
open book up between myself and the Chinese and somehow – don’t ask me how –
managed to save face, mine and theirs.
Who knows, perhaps I averted an
ALL OF which brings me to the unexpectedly
delightful June 5 item by Jerusalem Post
Knesset reporter Lahav Harkov headlined
“A minister with a case of the giggles,” topped by a photo of a beefy Shai Piron
convulsed with helpless laughter, his face all creased up.
delightful because it showed a different, very human side of a public figure, a
side we could all identify with.
It emerged that after midnight a couple
of days previously, “after hours of voting on the panel appointing judges,
extending the Law to Prevent Infiltration, increasing the deficit, and more, the
time came for the government to present its position on a law increasing the
penalty for smuggling phones and dangerous items into prisons to up to five
years in jail.”
An “exhausted but cheerful” Piron, asked to present the
bill, “began reading the legislation and cracked up laughing when he got to the
words ‘penetration of prohibited objects in prisons.’” Laughter being
contagious, other MKs in the plenum started laughing along with the education
minister, who became so convulsed with mirth that he could not continue, and
another minister had to take his place.
IT REMINDED me of the story my
father told me about the uncle of the bride at a wedding he attended, who got up
to say a few words, and instead got a fit of the giggles. The more he laughed,
the more he laughed – if you get my meaning – until he finally sat down,
red-faced, not having uttered a single word.
EXPERTS HOLD that there can
exist a variety of underlying medical causes for repeated laughter (or crying)
at inappropriate moments, sometimes referred to as involuntary emotional
Piron was, indeed, briefly hospitalized several days
subsequent to the Knesset incident after experiencing chest pains on a return
flight from Poland. One trusts that he underwent a thorough medical checkup, and
that his inopportune Knesset laughing fit was no more than one of those
embarrassing episodes most of us experience at some time in our
CONTRARY TO appearances, neuroscientists hold that most laughter
is not the result of a joke, but rather a form of social communication embedded
in our brains. In other words, it’s a deep-seated instinct.
are a dynamic set of interconnected structures with wiring forming a system that
has evolved over millions of years. It has been established that neural circuits
for laughter exist in very ancient regions of the brain.
crying depend on flexible interplay between these brain structures, and this
interplay often takes place without our conscious selves knowing anything about
it, like our brain telling our hearts to beat.
Young children laugh a lot
while engaging in rough-andtumble play, even though they are not yet adept at
verbal humor. When chimps wrestle, they make panting noises that sound like
laughter. On YouTube I watched a newborn orangutan smile angelically at its
mother, and heard another one shriek with laughter. Had I not been watching, I
would have said it was a woman laughing hysterically.
high-pitched squeaks resembling giggles when tickled by a human handler, and
come back for more.
Mice also laugh, it appears, albeit in “ultrasounds,”
which humans cannot hear.
While we should guard against the tendency to
anthropomorphize animals, these examples do seem to offer evidence of the
ancient evolutionary roots of laughter.
A RATHER funny YouTube clip
titled “How to stop laughing at an inappropriate time” puts you at a dinner
party where one of the guests is describing a tragic incident involving a
beloved pet, everybody is looking appropriately serious – and you suddenly get
an irresistible urge to burst out laughing. What do you do? Together with advice
such as biting the insides of your cheeks or the corner of your mouth, pinching
your arm or the back of your hand and avoiding eye contact at all costs, it
recommends focusing on something completely different from what is going on,
such as “reciting your address backwards, saying the six times table, or naming
all the players of the England football squad.”
All these sound like very
solid tips. If only I had been familiar with them before the Chinese Choir got
up to sing.