Sunday, September 13, 2009

Heinrich Böll: "The Laugher"

When someone asks me what business I am in, I am seized with embarrassment: I blush and stammer, I who am otherwise known as a man of poise. I envy people who can say: I am a bricklayer. I envy barbers, bookkeepers, and writers. All these professions speak for themselves. They need no lengthy explanation, while I am forced to reply to such questions: I am a laugher. Then I am always asked, "Is that how you make your living?" Truthfully I must say, "Yes." I actually do make a living at my laughing, and a good one, too. My laughing is - commercially speaking - much in demand. I am a good laugher, experienced. No one else laughs as well as I do. No one else has such command of the fine points of my art. For a long time, in order to avoid tiresome explanations, I called myself an actor. My talents in the field of mime and speech are small, so I felt this title to be too far from the truth. I love the truth, and the truth is: I am a laugher. I am neither a clown nor a comedian. I do not make people gay, I portray gaiety: I laugh like a Roman emperor, or like a sensitive schoolboy. I am as much at home in the laughter of the 17th century as in that of the 19th. When occasion demands, I laugh my way through all the centuries, all classes of society, all categories of age. It is simply a skill I have acquired, like the skill of being able to repair shoes. In my breast, I harbor the laughter of America, the laughter of Africa, white, red, yellow laughter. For the right fee, I let it peal out in accordance with the director's requirements.

I have become indispensable. I laugh on records. I laugh on tape. Television directors treat me with respect, I laugh mournfully, moderately, hysterically. I laugh like a streetcar conductor or like a clerk in the grocery; laughter in the morning, laughter in the evening, nighttime laughter, and the laughter of twilight. In short: Wherever and however laughter is required - I do it.
It need hardly be pointed out that a profession of this kind is tiring, especially as I have also -this is my specialty - mastered the art of infectious laughter. This has also made me indispensable to third - and fourth - rate comedians, who are scared - and with good reason - that their audiences will miss their punch lines. I spend most evenings in nightclubs. My job is to begin to laugh during the weaker parts of the program. It has to be carefully timed. My hearty, loud laughter must not come too soon, but neither must it come too late. It must come just at the right spot. At the pre-arranged moment, I burst out laughing. Then the whole audience roars with me, and the joke is saved. But as for me, I drag myself exhausted to the checkroom. I put on my overcoat, happy that I can go off duty at last. At home, I usually find telegrams waiting for me: "Urgently require your laughter. Recording Tuesday," and a few hours later I am sitting in an overheated express train bemoaning my fate.

I need scarcely say that when I am off I duty or on vacation I have little desire to laugh. The cowhand is glad when he can forget the cow. Carpenters usually have doors at home that don't work or drawers that are hard to open. Candy makers like sour pickles. Butchers like pastry, and the baker prefers sausage to breads. Bullfighters raise pigeons for a hobby. Boxers run pale when their children have nosebleeds: I find all this quite natural, for I never laugh off duty. I am a very solemn person, and people consider me - perhaps rightly so - a pessimist.

During the first years of our married life, my wife would often say to me: "Do laugh!" Since then, she has come to realize that I cannot grant her this wish. I am happy when I am free to relax my tense face muscles in a solemn expression. Indeed, even other people's laughter gets on my nerves. It reminds me too much of my profession. So our marriage is a quiet, peaceful one. Now my wife has also forgotten how to laugh. Now and again I catch her smiling, and I smile, too. We speak in low tones. I hate the noise of the nightclubs, the noise that sometimes fills the recording studios. People who do not know me think I am taciturn. Perhaps I am, because I have to open my mouth so often to laugh.

I go through life with a calm expression. From time to time, I permit myself a gentle smile. I often wonder whether I have ever laughed. I think not. My brothers and sisters have always known me for a serious boy.

So I laugh in many different ways, but my own laughter I have never heard.


  1. I can relate to this story because I work as a reservationist, I answer the phone all day long at work and greet people with a nice voice. After work I dare not pick up the phone, and my friends and family always say, "why don't you ever call?" If and when I do call I find myself to be bland. I can't imagine what it would be like not to want to laugh.

  2. Seems as though his profession comes so effortlessly. That it is a normal day to day thing that he and the people around him are used to. But in a way it seems to bother him because now he is finding it hard to find laughter in other things. It also affects his wife because they have been together so long. It is his profession but not him when he gets home. An exercise that could be done is describe in a poem how you would desribe/ explain your profession if you were asked,

  3. I really like this piece because he finds a commonplace and turns it on its end. Everyone laughs, and true laughter is something special. He's found a commodity to sell that will always be needed. I would never think that someone would be sought out for their laughter, but it makes perfect sense.
    It actually reminds me of my brother. I used to say he didn't have a real voice. He was the guy that could mimic everyone's voices and sound hilarious or somber, old or young. It earned him friends in school, but when it's just us, we're comfortable in silence. He's not really a talkative person.

  4. After reading this I became saddened. It's sad that a person would come to hate the one thing that can make us feel truly alive. I can also see how forcing laughter might cause a person to come to hate it, but without laughter can we truly be happy? The author mentioned that his marriage was a quiet one. Oh what a wonderful marriage it would be if they could experience laughter together. Why should laughter be silenced? How can it be silenced? It shouldn't be, and it's truly sad that the author is not allowing laughter into his personal life. I mean he laughs for a living, and he does it consistently. However, at home he hates to hear the sound of it. How really sad.

  5. Wow, through much of this piece I laughed thinking what I that was my profession. I think anyone can somewhat relate to that. As said before I am a dispatcher. I answer 911 calls and talk on police and fire radio. In some cases I have to be very emotionless and serious, and that is totally opposite of my nature. I am very outgoing and love to laugh.