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Gusts and Gales Of Sidesplitting Laughter

Laughter - not unlike people, or jello - takes many different forms. It can be hollow, affectionate, sardonic, light-hearted, mocking. Because it can hurt others, laughter is not always at its best. But when it is, few transitory states rival it.

The kind of laughter I mean comes all over you in gales and gusts, sweeps you off your feet, doubles you up, makes you ache. This sort belongs especially to children. But I believe most adults retain the capacity, however solemnly intense or efficiently crisp they like to think themselves.

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There have, admittedly, been adults so humorless as to be overtly anti-laughter. The improbably opinionated Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773) claimed that ``since I have had the full use of my reason, nobody has ever heard me laugh'' and called audible laughter ``ill-bred.'' But the Puritan poet John Milton, in ``L'Allegro,'' showed no contempt for ``Laughter holding both his sides.'' In our time, Sigmund Freud may have tried to undermine laughter by suggesting it is nothing but fear, but I prefer Peter Ustinov. In his autobiographical ``Dear Me,'' he says: ``I was irrevocably betrothed to laughter, the sound of which has always seemed to me the most civilized music in the world.''

When it takes you over, anyway, it hardly matters whether you are for it or against it. I remember some Sunday afternoons as a child, purportedly playing Monopoly with friends, but really spending the time in surges of irresistible laughter. The more we laughed, the less we knew why. It was laughter as an end in itself - only it wouldn't end. It might subside for a second, because of exhaustion or a half-hearted attempt at seriousness, only to return with increased helplessness. It had no victimization, no sophistication, and no point other than its own continuance.

Once or twice since the age of about 22, I have found myself in the lap of such laughter. Most recently it was courtesy of Steve Martin in ``Housesitter'' when he is forced to sing with apparently seamless sincerity in front of admiring wedding guests, an Irish lullaby ``Toora-Loora-Loora'' - a song he may not even know. After a formidably long, silent struggle with himself, he finally begins. Out it comes, with consummate sweetness of tone: ``Tooooo - ra loooo-ra....'' and, in the cinema, my wife and I were reduced to an inchoate degree of laughter that nearly finished us.

Only one thing takes such laughter to even more sublime heights. And that is when it is something you yourself have said or done that starts it rolling. Then, with everyone joining in, your laughter is at its most glorious. You have relinquished without reserve all semblance of self-admiration in favor of a cosmic, insupportable hilarity. There's nothing quite like it.

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