The James Clayton Column: laughing in the face of death

Having watched Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s sterling performance in the brilliant 50/50, James concludes that, when faced with death, laughter is the best response…

Once upon a time, an old one-legged man with leprosy and a case of criminal halitosis inched up to me in a hospital waiting room, guffawed insidiously and uttered these wise words: “Well, you’ve gotta laugh ‘ain’t’cha?”

Before I could reply and express my disgust, we were assaulted by terrible sounds from above, the building shook and, incredibly enough, the ceiling proceeded to cave in. A large airship (zeppelin, blimp, balloon kind) shaped like Yoda’s head crashed through the roof and brought the entire hospital down around us.

I survived, of course, but the old man didn’t. Even though the low flying Yoda blimp didn’t crush him, the shock of the whole thing sent him into such a state of apoplexy that his neural system overheated and he spontaneously combusted right before my eyes. It was like the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark where the Nazis open the Ark of the Covenant and get melted by supernatural ghastlies, except this time there was a colossal Star Wars balloon and the additional stench of cooked meat and surgical fluids. Really, I love the smell of burning leprous flesh in the morning. It smells like victory.

Assessing the scene of mass destruction surrounding me I started to laugh, first nervously (I was in shock) and then raucously, howling out to the heavens (from whence the fallen Yoda came) with great mirth and hysterical glee.

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Don’t condemn me for being callous, cruel and tasteless. If you’d have been there the day of the Great Jedi Dirigible Disaster you’d understand my instant reaction and the enlightened viewpoint I’ve acquired as a result of it. What I realised is that the old amputee with the awful breath and the infectious disease was right. It was a perfect moment of someone making a point and then having it illustrated by external factors in dramatic style with explosive irony.

The combined comments of the unfortunate gentleman and the blackly comic deus ex machina coup de grâce of an inflatable representative of the Force coming to free him from Earthly suffering brought on an epiphany. Life is indeed absurd and because life is all about death (it’s the only certainty), death is also absurd. It is therefore appropriate to laugh.

If you don’t laugh at Death, he’ll beguile you with his ice cold eyes and stark, dread presence, then challenge you to a game of chess that you have no hope of winning. If you’ve seen The Seventh Seal you’ll know exactly what I mean – no one can checkmate the Reaper, and Bill and Ted were wise to take him on at Battleship and Twister instead. If you can’t laugh at Death, sink his battleship, remind him how inflexible he is, and then invite him to play bass in your metal band to cheer him up.

Of course, His Deathness might not be anything like the dude who rocks out with the Wyld Stallyns in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (“Get down with your bad self!”) and if that’s the case, put away the board games, pull open a tin of canned laughter and chuckle mindlessly at the morbid one. Dance across the hilltops and sing along to the catchy tunes that Eric Idle is chirruping in the background and you’ll have an absolute blast – way more fun than you would have had if you dwelt on the pathos and pain of your pathetically short life.

The Monty Python attitude to the end – embodied in Meaning Of Life and Life Of Brian – is healthier, more entertaining and altogether more wholly satisfying than a demise that’s dominated by fear of the Reaper. (Remember also that Blue Öyster Cult told us to not fear the reaper – a message hammered home with a whole lot of cowbell.)

There’s wisdom in the lyrics “Always look on the bright side of death, just before you draw your terminal breath” as uttered by Idle’s ultra-happy crucifixion victim at Life Of Brian’s climax. It’s a good attitude to have, even if you’re not on the verge of joining the choir invisible, and we should always regard our mortality with a sense of humour and crack a wry smile. If we don’t, the end result is disquieting taboos and an intense dread of death, which distracts from living in the present (where you are, unless you’re a zombie, still alive).

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Death’s predestined and must be accepted, so we may as well accept it light-heartedly. I know that I’d personally rather fill the black void of oblivion with the sound of resounding laughter than float in front of it feeling depressed, living out the finite time with a miserable grimace perpetually plaguing my person.

This is why I totally approve of fresh theatrical release 50/50, which is billed as a ‘cancer comedy’ and based on the true-life illness of writer Paul Reiser. His off-screen best buddy Seth Rogen is acting and Reiser is being channelled by the great Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who I’ve had a great affinity with ever since I saw him get repeatedly beaten up in new school noir flick Brick.

What’s promised in the movie, originally titled I’m With Cancer, is semi-autobiographical drama drawn from the screenwriter’s actual experience, except it’s touched with the gags, profanity and gross out matter that makes up the kind of comedies Seth Rogen is most renowned for.

This bromantic feature thus sounds a lot more appealing and definitely a hell of a lot funnier than, say, Beaches. I’d rather see Rogen counteractively slap a stupid smile all over Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s 50 per cent chance of survival than watch Bette Midler warble Wind Beneath My Wings at best friend Barbara Hershey’s terminal cancer diagnosis.

The ultimate point of both films, I guess, is that it’s good to have friends in times of need (real friends are better than a Friends DVD boxset) and that a problem shared and slaughtered with wit, whimsy and a freewheeling defiant sense of fun is a problem made a lot more bearable.

It’s not going to cure cancer, make you invincible or save you from the full force of chemotherapy, but I do believe that laughter is the best medicine. I have faith in this particular homeopathic remedy, and shall apply it to all future ailments, starting with this leprous growth I’ve developed after close contact with that ill-fated old man.

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The growth is shaped like Admiral Ackbar. “Well, you’ve gotta laugh ain’t’cha?”

James’ previous column can be found here.

You can reach James on his Twitter feed here, see his film cartoons here and more sketches here.

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