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A Laughing Club For When Life Just Isn't Funny

It's not easy to find levity in today’s world. 

That's why Northampton, Massachusetts, acting teacher Gabe Levey created the Pioneer Valley Laughing Club

It’s a chance to act like things are funny, even when they're not. 

At the first Zoom meeting of the laughing club — pandemic edition — Levey hosted about two dozen people for an hour on a Saturday, to help them attain the lightheartedness they craved.

“My name is Gabe. I’m in Northampton, in my parents’ attic,” Levey began, and then he laughed heartily.

This is not a comedy class. It’s really all about the laugh, even a forced one — and many of them throughout the hour were. 

To get things rolling, Levey asked each person to introduce themselves, describe their biggest problem, and laugh.

The problems included the fairly mundane (“It’s too cold to paint the mudroom.”) and daily frustrations (“My problem is shopping for food.”).

But they also ramped up to poignant and alarming – from a woman who lost out on an eight-week engagement at the Metropolitan Opera because of the COVID-19 shutdown, to a man who had to close his production of Angels in America, to a woman who got at the very heart of why there were all there: 

“I'm just not feeling well for eight weeks now with the coronavirus.”

And after every sad telling, the group guffawed loudly, as requested. 

The Pioneer Valley Laughing Club on Zoom.
Credit Screen Shot / Karen Brown / NEPR
The Pioneer Valley Laughing Club on Zoom.

The fact that people are dealing with very unfunny things, Levey told the class, is exactly the point.

“Especially in times like this, why not have a big belly laugh and maybe a big cry and maybe a big rage or who knows?” he said.

As the hour proceeded, Levey used different methods to get the laugh. Sometimes it was simple command — “let’s just start with a little chuckle” — or he would tell just the punchline of a joke: “And then the egg said to the chicken, 'Well, I guess now we know who came first!'” 

And with that dangling line alone, the group burst into laughter.

To Levey, revving up to an unforced chuckle “can be like getting the carburetor started or a chainsaw, where you kind of have to fake it to make it.” 

But he insists the body doesn’t care whether the laugh is genuine or not. To Levey, the act of laughing is about mental and physical health. Many practitioners claim laughter builds immunity, though, according to some major studies, the scientific evidence is lacking. 

Mostly, though, Levey said laughter builds resilience, “which seems especially important right now, the ability to really still find pleasure and fun and vulnerability inside of such immense worldwide crises.”

Levey knows a little something about resilience. Ten years ago, at the age of 26, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He said the best advice he got came from a holistic doctor he visited after chemotherapy. 

“The first thing that he said was, ‘You need to smile and laugh more. Nothing will come from fighting...Just live inside of it, stretch it out, have some fun,’” Levey said. “And that became kind of my mantra.”

He’s been trying to laugh about his tumor ever since. He studied acting and clowning at Yale, then became a teacher and coach, first in New York and now in western Massachusetts. 

“Because I find so much pleasure in laughing myself and making other people laugh that maybe, just by proxy, it has kept me more resilient,” he said, “since that's the world I try to keep myself in.”

Levey said his medical condition, while stable, has kept him from a traditional acting career. So he’s made the best of what he’s got. 

In between teaching gigs, he wrote a one-man show, which premiered in Northampton a few months ago. Its title: “A super serious and not-at-all funny reading of stories I wrote after brain surgery.”  (Levey assured me it was, of course, funny.)

But just as the show was finding an audience, the coronavirus forced him, like most performers, to shut it down. And that’s how Levey came to launch the Pioneer Valley Laughing Club, based on a class he’s taught before. 

“It's not therapy, but it is very therapeutic,” he said. “You look at the faces on people after going through this hour and they are much more open, their eyes are kind of gleaming. Some people have tears streaming down their face. Maybe it's a little bit of a purge.”

Levey lets people pay what they want, if anything. The money goes to his company, Completely Ridiculous Productions, and the Northampton Center for the Arts. 

The first meeting had a waiting list. Levey said he plans to continue as long as there’s appetite for a good hearty laugh.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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