Last week in a Laughter for a Change workshop with vets at the West Los Angeles VA Center, I showed clips from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush.”   We watched The Little Tramp so down and out on his luck mining for gold, that he cooks his boot for Thanksgiving dinner, and also the sequence where Charlie falls asleep and in his dreams, the dance hall girl he loves comes to celebrate New Year’s Eve with him.  In that dream sequence he does the amazing dance with the dinner rolls. These iconic moments of film history are a mixture of poignancy and comedy from very simple ideas.

In the workshop we talked about how comedy comes out of pain – Chaplin and, as one of the guys pointed out, Richard Pryor (“King Richard” he called him) were not that far apart.  We talked about how universal physical comedy can be.  We also talked about Chaplin bringing his years of experience as a vaudeville and burlesque comic to the screen.  Set against the vast backdrop of the Alaskan Gold Rush, Chaplin keeps it simple and uses what he knows to bring his Music Hall experience to the screen.  Great comics like Chaplin or Richard Pryor use themselves, their own experience, and their own pain to create comedy.

Though I’m not a psychologist, it’s been my experience with Laughter for a Change, that no matter who the workshop participants are, from young Rwandans to PTSD Vets, if a safe environment is created, they can access themselves and their own experience (and no one is ever forced to make fun of something that is too painful).  They can connect to a place that exist beyond the trauma.  Using improv comedy and play, people can connect to a creative, more intuitive side, the part that is able to say “yes,” the part that is, in the end, bigger and more alive than what has happened to them.