There certainly exist vast studies and scientific research that shed light on the laughter of a child. Even writers and filmmakers have elicited the smiles of an adolescent with the goal of having a consolatory effect upon him or her. Ever too often, though, it has been about the stereotypical loss of innocence – a projection of the adult world. However someone like Dario Fo, who has encountered that laughter from the stage on a daily basis, is able to offer a never before seen – and not banal – vision of it. Vincenti, a comic from the early 20th century, who stood out for his fiery satire against Nazism, said something I find interesting regarding the relationship between comedy, irony, the dynamics of the grotesque and children. He intelligently differentiated those moments when a child’s laughter was liberating from those consisting of a type of sadomasochistic game that, even when finished, is hypocritical of laughter itself. We know that the boys and girls often laugh to indulge, they laugh to please, they laugh to be likeable or out fear for certain individuals. For them laughing becomes a tool of endearment, a way to be accepted with goodwill. We well know that often teachers awkwardly try to be funny and many times they are a complete disaster when it comes to humor, but to indulge them the child-hypocrite will let out tremendous laughter, thereby allowing the teacher to say how funny he or she was that day. The teacher simply created a situation of conflict, of expectation, acting from a position of power, which children naturally appease by subjugating themselves.
The child obviously learns these games from adults, from their reality.
Of course. Children immediately learn their worst behaviors from adults, because they see it as being the only way to find equilibrium, a way to continue drawing on the sources of survival in order to remain present in the world. These behaviors are dictated by their families, teachers, those they see on the street, TV shows, and from advertising directly targeting them. Above all, children are fully aware that it is all a matter of power, which must be resolved in their favor. Yet, they have no true power of their own to be able to fight back. The love and attraction children have for mammoth sized trains; toys of war; life-like robots that first break into thousands of pieces and then self-repair are determined by the fact that once the initial dread is overcome, love can spring from that very same source of fear, obsession, and from the nightmares that these monster toys create in their dreams. When we talk of a child’s laughter, we must always start at the power-action dynamic from which it derives as well as from conscience, knowledge, gloom, prohibition and repression.
What distinguishes a child’s laughter from that of an adult’s?
The key to children’s laughter in largely tied to the repression an adult exerts on them. Let’s be clear in saying that this repression is not always negative. To better comprehend this, we need to study clowning. That’s where we always need to begin. We must return to the origins of comedy to be able to understand and interpret it. Clowns entrust themselves to primordial mechanisms. Children always laugh when someone falls down. It is certain this laughter is tied to the angst of having to always walk upright, or rather, with a precarious equilibrium that accompanies them throughout their lives. From a theatrical standpoint, however, the child lets out a laughter of relief which is more significant when he who falls is playing a character who holds himself in high esteem, dressed in the garbs of a king or emperor, and takes a great tumble when exiting the stage – all this after the character has already intimidated and frightened the child. At that point, the child erupts in applause, guffaws, and is filled with immense joy. This is one of the classic comic gags used by the authoritarian character of the circus master of ceremonies (in its multitude of variations). During the entire show the master of ceremonies scolds August, the humble and somewhat oafish clown to which the child likens himself. The child sees himself in that character who is disparaged by the sequin dressed ballerina walking the tightrope, the elephant tamer and the watchman overseeing the lions. They show him no mercy: they make him carry buckets, they insult him, they tell him not to pick his nose, not to raise his voice, not to laugh this way nor that, not to waste time with the butterflies because they sting, not to eat cake, not steal sugar, and to refrain from bothering the elephants. They create an environment of sufferance and constraint, which, however, is turned upside down at a certain point. The tight rope walker slips on the animal droppings, the master of ceremonies falls by tripping over his whip, the bucket ends up being full of firecrackers, the elephants lose their wits over a piece of candy, etc. When this happens, the child inevitably lets out an unbridled laughter. It’s sufficient enough execute the gags with a minimum of comic timing and theatre know-how and laughter is inevitable.
Of course, the most uproarious laughter is heard at the circus and at children’s theatre.
A person of power who falls, who trips, or a situation of power which is substituted by some variation that is close to the spectator, to his emotional state, are prerequisites for comedy that has an effect on a child. “You face has jam all over it. Your hands are dirty from eating. Didn’t you wash up? Haven’t you washed your hands?” are all elements that finally evoke a trigger. So, we see the king with a dirtied face, the master of ceremonies with a dirtied face, the circus owner with a dirtied face–that says it all. Then there are the relationships with the child’s father, mother, teacher, grandparents, and the rest of us. Hence, the mechanical gag of falling, that we spoke of earlier, isn’t purely and solely mechanical, but also allegorical.
Can we say that it is possible to establish rules to make a child laugh?
There aren’t rules. We can’t establish any because they hinge on a game of playing the opposites. Ideally, when a comic actor gets to a square, to a school, or a to venue where he’ll perform, he should ideally inquire a bit and ask what has recently made the kids cry or what has moved them. Or else, what great fears they have of things currently threatening their community. At that point, one would have the exact elements necessary for a comic performance. One has to be aware that the “game” of searching for that which makes one laugh is accompanied by the use of irony needed to establish a parody of the banality of dogmas, rules and regulations, and of habits and norms–for example, the sanctity of a king’s power (of hierarchies) and all its modern day equivalents. There are thousands of more intelligent ways to tell a story by tying it to current events, things that happen at home, in a child’s personal life, or on the street, rather than formal approaches to narration or those which have been traditionally established. Bad educators don’t often notice the comic blunders they make while teaching. If they took advantage of good communication with children, they would escape the state of tedium and heaviness into which they are continually propelled. They would gain authority and credibility. Even the gossip that normally circulates in a classroom can be molded into a new and healthy shape, by getting rid of the inevitable gloom and doom that accompanies it and by taking advantage of comic tools that are always readily available–tools that will appear evident in a light of laughter.
Excerpted from the forthcoming book
FARFALLE CHE PUNGONO
Il Ponte Vecchio Publishing