In 2002, I covered the Aqsa Intifada for the New York Daily News. The Israeli-Palestinian "Peace Process" was in ruins, and it was a bleak and heartbreaking story.
Already saddled with the lugubrious genes of a bitter, negative Polish-Jewish grandmother, the despair and the bloodshed worked on me until I fell into a familiar pattern of depression. But in my late twenties I'd made a vow to myself — to never again allow depression to feel comfortable enough to stay for a long visit. So I went on anti-depressants. I started to exercise regularly and I discovered the writings of David Sedaris.
I developed other strategies. My Welsh boyfriend's brother very kindly sent us the first season of Ricky Gervais' “The Office,” a precursor to the Steve Carell iteration. Gervais's David Brent is so wonderfully self-deluded and unlikeable that my sadness had no choice but to hide.
After a decade's hiatus, I resumed watching “Saturday Night Live.” My Welsh boyfriend protested that the comedy was juvenile and repetitive, but that's exactly why I loved it. I welcomed sophisticated wit, but dumb, tasteless humor was just as good. Rachel Dratch and Will Ferrell making out in a hot tub was evidence that the world was still a good place. And at the movies, “Zoolander” really spoke to me.
Laughter as a cure for depression isn't a revolutionary idea. Laughter releases endorphins, also known as the happy hormone. Laughing relieves stress and encourages the production of the body's natural pain killers. Laughter Therapy is a thing. So is Laughter Yoga. I may have not pioneered this technique, but I had a great time discovering it for myself.
Perhaps most fun of all, I revisited the films of Mel Brooks. I remembered watching “Blazing Saddles” for the first time as a kid and cracking up, even though I probably missed half the jokes. I rented that film, and “History of the World Part I,” and then “Silent Movie,” followed by “Young Frankenstein.” I laughed and laughed and felt much better. Because comedy isn't just funny. It's comforting and uplifting. Not only because it distracts you from the sadness of the world, but because it can even transform the sadness into a punchline. If you let it, comedy can take the darkness of your soul and make it sit on a whoopee cushion.
When “History of the World Part I” came out, I recall some of my parents' friends complaining about the "Hitler on Ice" scene. I was ten at the time and sufficiently inculcated with the idea that there were things you mustn't ever laugh about. Which of course gives evil all the power in the world to keep you in a state of grief, or at least, grievance. Mel Brooks understood that. He thought, why not take evil and ... make it sit on a whoopee cushion instead?
There's a scene in the 2005 “The Producers,” which is probably one of the most cathartic moments in cinema. In it, Gary Beach, who plays Roger Debris playing Hitler, rises from the stage. He really looks like Hitler here. His body and expression are rigid, his arm is raised in "heil." Then with one note of the band, his figure erupts and releases, his heil hand flops and his body sashays into an over-the-top camp Vogue pose, and he heils himself. After that, Beach does Hitler as Judy Garland, but that's another story.
I live in a country where people fight over land they believe to be sacred. I'm guessing that Mel Brooks doesn't believe anything is so sacred that it can't be laughed at. Thank you, Mel Brooks, for getting your priorities straight.