make ’em laugh

Fiction, 1/5/11

Harvey Mensch is a world-famous funnyman. He cracks the jokes that make the whole world laugh, some have said—and laughter, as we’re all aware, makes the world go ’round. If you take that line, then, Harvey Mensch’s efforts keep the earth turning on its axis, which is quite a feat for one man, when you think about it. But offstage Mensch is demure, stone-faced—and surprisingly unfunny. I sought to explain this, to plumb the depths of his comedic soul and uncover the source of his genius. I also dearly wanted to make Mensch laugh.

A critically-acclaimed actor, comedian, and host of Fox’s “That’s What She Said”, Mensch has made millions making others laugh, often at their own expense. He is known best for his searing diatribes, lambasting virtually every subset of the population in his characteristically monotone South-Quebecer patois. He is also known for his far-reaching philanthropic efforts, not least of which was the founding of the Harvey Mensch School For The Comedically Impaired in 1999, in Trois-Rivìeres, Quebec.

Mensch lives in downtown Vancouver, sharing a sparsely-furnished studio apartment with his dog, Ralph, and their four cats. I met with him last fall to discuss, among other things, his upcoming comedy tour, “The Un-Mensch-ionables”, as well as his plans to fund a raft of studies testing the curative effects of laughter. “If I am to be remembered for one thing,” he has often said, “I hope that it is my unique brand of alchemy: taking the ordinary and turning it into something special, something funny—comic gold. Laughter is the ultimate renewable resource.”

When he greeted me at his door that drizzly October morning, he politely shook my hand and invited me in, saying, with a rather strange expression on his face, that I was early by exactly seven and a half minutes. I wasn’t sure if this was a joke, so I laughed, loudly, and he seemed to relax a bit. “You’ll have to excuse me, though,” he said. “I have to corral the cats still.” We had agreed over the phone two days ago that the cats be corralled, on account of my allergies. Dogs were fine, I told him, but no cats. Although I offered to meet elsewhere—anywhere, really—Mensch assured me it wouldn’t be a problem. So while Mensch crawled around on his hands and knees, whispering, “Here, kitty, kitty?” to the underside of the couch, I took a seat on the wooden crate abutting the dining table. Pulling out my pen and notebook, I began to quickly sketch my surroundings, as I am wont to do.

The walls of his apartment are lined with bookcases. From my vantage, I couldn’t see any of the titles, but most looked rather old, all leather-bound and the color of beef jerky. On each shelf of each case, there are bronze bookends cast in the shape of golden retriever heads, which, puzzlingly, is not the breed of Ralph, his dog. Ralph is a Boston terrier, and he now sat patiently in front of the couch watching his master, still on hands and knees, grope underneath for felines. There are exactly two chairs in the apartment—maroon, velvety, overstuffed—each flanking an end of the off-white couch. Two tall, curtain-less windows overlook Granville Street and the bustling downtown beyond. The walls are unadorned and painted sky blue. To my left, on a slightly raised corner of the room, are Mensch’s futon-style bed and a sparing dresser and closet. On my right I discover I am seated alarmingly close to a hooded litterbox the size of a microwave.

Mensch at last straightened up and announced that he believed the cats would stay put under the couch, if that would be all right with me. I told him fine; my allergies weren’t acting up at all, and really, I didn’t see any other place for them to go besides out the door. I settled into one of the maroon chairs and Mensch plopped on the couch, Ralph eagerly following suit. “With these animals as company, I feel as though I can relax,” Mensch said, scratching Ralph’s neck. “I don’t have to put on an act for them; I can be myself.”

I ask if there is any of the real Mensch in the Harvey Mensch shtick. “Really not much at all,” he replied, “besides perhaps the underlying desire to please, to make people laugh and have a good time. Otherwise, my on-stage persona could not be more different than my real self. I am no misanthrope, no bigot, none of those things. I see the humor in just about everything around me, and I recognize the positive power of that, rather than dwelling on the negative. I channel this power into my performances and it’s challenging, so off-stage I tend to lay very low. I am very boring in real life.” He snorted and convulsed, which may or may not have been him suppressing a laugh.

Great, I thought. Maybe this was why no one ever interviewed him. “So tell me about this upcoming tour,” I said, eager to turn back to the interesting, gut-busting Mensch. As I shifted position to re-cross my legs, I noticed with horror that the couch was literally coated with gray cat hair. This was not an off-white couch; this was a formerly white couch upholstered with the slatey, sloughed-off fibers of a most despicable creature. Four of them. I could feel a tickle on the back of my throat—the assault had begun.

Mensch appeared not to notice my writhing discomfort. The tour, he said, would kick off in Vancouver next August and wind its way around the states, and then—and this part I didn’t know—they would cross the pond and begin touring the equatorial belt around the world, starting in Liberia. “The plan is to visit as many impoverished nations that will have me,” he said. “I feel I have a gift to give, and it just makes sense to give to the places that need it the most.” I wondered aloud about translators, cultural sensitivities, that sort of thing, not to mention the price of admission: Tickets to Mensch’s shows usually cost more than the average Liberian made in a year. “Oh, we would scale the prices down, obviously,” he said. “We want the shows to be accessible to at least the sub-upper-middle classes in these countries.” I envisioned empty venues and Mensch’s deadpan being drowned out by the drone of crickets and cicadas, night after sweltering night. I wanted to crack a joke about it, but I honestly couldn’t gauge his seriousness at this point. He looked resolved, or dully impassioned, perhaps. Such a jape could bring this entire house of cards down in a heap.

So instead I asked about the research he was funding. “Oh yes,” he said, his face brightening almost imperceptibly. “It’s always been said that laughter is the best medicine, of course, and scientists are beginning to uncover some empirical truth to this adage. Laughter fights depression, makes you thin, and may even cure AIDS. We can literally laugh our woes away.” Mensch snorted again—was that his laugh? “And the best part? It’s free. And it’s fun to do. I’m funding a series of studies to definitively prove the benefits of laughter, because I believe in its power, and I want others to believe, too.”

I began tearing up and sniffling (from the cats, obviously), and I realized this reaction could be seriously misconstrued. Mensch was smiling serenely and I simply couldn’t take it anymore. It felt like my throat was about to close up. Standing to leave, I thanked him for his time, refusing his offers of tissues and back-copies of Reader’s Digest’s “Laughter is the Best Medicine” compilations. I stepped out into the cool, Canadian air and started to giggle a little bit. As I walked down Granville toward my car, I could feel my throat calming down as the laughter bubbled up from my diaphragm. Soon I was cackling maniacally. People stared, then walked faster away from me or crossed the street. Mensch was right—it did feel good.

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