There is this one woman who, when she passes me in the market, smiles.

Actually, she laughs quietly every time she sees me. One day I stopped her and asked her why.

“Because you’re funny,” she said.

She said my columns make her laugh, and when she sees me on the street it reminds her, and she laughs again. It’s stuff like that that makes my day.

One day when it was raining so hard the street seemed to be moving, a woman ran up to me as I was huddling in the doorway of a store. She told me that she was recovering from breast cancer, and that her chemo day was the day my column was printed. She said she read it several times as the poison was running through her veins.

“It got me through it,” she said. “It got me through it.”

It’s stuff like that gets me through rainy days.

I’ve probably told you these stories before. As I get older, I tend to repeat myself. I know I told you about the actor I gave a ride home from an audition one day in Hollywood. He was very quiet and only spoke a couple of times on the long ride down, and then it was about failure, about feeling he would never make it, never get another job, never find a partner to share his life with.

I’ve probably told you these stories before. As I get older, I tend to repeat myself. I know I told you about the actor I gave a ride home from an audition one day in Hollywood. He was very quiet and only spoke a couple of times on the long ride down, and then it was about failure, about feeling he would never make it, never get another job, never find a partner to share his life with.

He was beginning to depress me, so I told him stories about my family. Some were true; some I made up. As he began to laugh, I went on a riff and made up a whole bunch of stories that had only a gram of truth.

I didn’t know it then, but I was learning to write comedy.

When I let him out on Hollywood Boulevard at the corner of Hollowell Avenue, he was laughing so hard he couldn’t get his breath. Years later, he told me that he had been contemplating suicide and that I had changed his mind just by making him laugh. I’ve seen him a lot on the tube these past years. He’s alive and working. Stuff like that gets me through my hard times.

A couple of years ago, as I was writing the sad part of my memoirs, I got a letter from a woman who told me about her brother, the stroke he had some years ago and how she and her sister were taking care of him. He would sit in the living room and stare out the window, and for 10 years he did not speak or make a sound.

One day as she was making lunch for him, she heard him laughing, actually laughing. Her sister said that she had been reading my column about my father setting the Christmas tree on fire. Ten years, she said, and now he was laughing. I dumped the memoirs. It’s stuff like that that keeps me writing funny.

Bill Cosby once said, “You can turn painful situations around through laughter. If you can find humor in anything, even poverty, you can survive it.”

You who have survived the Great Depression know that. When bread lines were longest and nobody had a job, comedy was king. There was Fred Allen and Jack Benny and Laurel and Hardy. Sometimes the lines at the 10-cent movie houses were longer than the bread lines. They went to see a man slip on a banana peel and to laugh. Democracy survived because Groucho Marx was funnier than Karl Marx, and that comedy pays.

I became an actor to do tragedy and make people cry. I was very good at death scenes, but I wasn’t having any fun. If you die in the first act, you’ve got the rest of the evening with nothing to do, and you can’t take a curtain call.

Then one day I took this actress from Maine to dinner and for an hour made her laugh so hard the tears ran down her face. At that dinner I learned two things. One: I could make people laugh. Two: If the girl laughs hard and long enough, she’ll pick up the check. Comedy pays.

 

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