Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Heinrich Böll’s “The Laugher” tells the story of an actor whose specialty is laughing. He has refined the art of laughing to its highest degree; as Böll says, “in my breast I harbor the laughter of America, the laughter of Africa, white, red, yellow laughter—and for the right fee I let it peal in accordance with the director’s requirements.” He has mastered the timing of his laughter as well; Böll writes that “My hearty boisterous laughter must not come too soon, but neither must it come too late, it must come just at the right spot; at the prearranged moment I burst out laughing, [and] the whole audience laughs with me.”
The laughing specialist takes his skill very seriously, and for this reason he is in great demand. He laughs on records and on television; he laughs in theaters. His skill has “made me indispensable to third-and-fourth-rate comedians, who are scared—and with good reason—that their audience will miss their punchlines, so I spend most evenings in nightclubs as a kind of discreet claque, my job being to laugh infectiously during the weaker parts of the program.” He can do chuckles, guffaws, snickers, titters, crows and cackles. He can let forth side-splitting roars. His laughter, because it makes other people laugh, brings great enjoyment and pleasure to those fortunate enough to hear it.
But the irony of Böll’s story is that laughter does not bring great joy and pleasure to the professional laugher. In fact, when he goes home to his wife, he does not laugh at all. At first he says this is because he’s simply too tired from laughing all day long. But later he suggests that something one does for a job simply ceases to be fun any more. “I am happy when I am free to relax my tense face muscles, my frayed spirit, in profound solemnity.... So our marriage is a quiet, peaceful one, because my wife has also forgotten how to laugh; now and again I catch her smiling, and I smile too.”
The laugher considers himself a serious person at heart, and consequently his laughter, as joyful as it may sound, is false. Only when we do what we love, Böll suggests, can we be truly happy.
“The Laugher” can be found in the collection The Collected Stories of Heinrich Böll, available from Amazon here.
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