In November it will be two years since I had the idea to hire a comedian to cheer my mother up. For those of you visiting Laughter On Call for the first time, I had moved her to Los Angeles near me from New York City because Alzheimer’s was getting the better of her. Initially she adjusted well, but after realizing she was not in a glamourous hotel and was not returning to her home, she became depressed. I was desperate to see her laugh again, something that defined the party girl she’d always been. I decided to hire a professional comedian to help and that relationship, along with a cast of compassionate comedians that followed brought joy and laughter to my mother the last years of her life. It also inspired the creation of Laughter On Call where we have been able to visit over 50 residential communities with interactive storytelling shows and train over a hundred comedians to be paired with seniors like my mother who need to laugh.
A steady stream of e-mails flooded my in box, “Sorry, we can’t have you in,” “Sorry, closing our doors,” “Sorry too dangerous.” That was Friday March 13th. It was raining. I remember because I made an impulsive decision to start livestreaming our interactive storytelling shows to our clients that Monday and I needed more light to pull it off. I jumped in the car and drove to the place everyone in LA goes to with shooting needs, Samy’s Camera. I walked in as the lights in the store were being turned off,
“What do you need miss, we’re closing.” I heard his question clearly because no one was wearing a mask yet.
“Light. I need light. I’m going to be shooting out of my office and my face can’t be in the dark.” He showed me a few options, I bought one I could figure out how to do myself. On Monday morning I called my head of operations, the only young woman I’ve ever met who is more game than me to follow an impulse, and we launched. I called it “Lunchtime Laughter,” because we go live at 12 noon and I hoped people would be laughing. I can’t tell you how we got participants on that first day, probably friends, communities we had put the word out to, comics who wanted a job, but we had a full ZOOM room. I welcomed people and invited them to say who they were, where they were and some time in their life where they got through something tough and lived to laugh about it. We played some Improv games. We told the truth, we laughed together, and we all felt better.
That was 112 episodes ago. Has our pivot to livestreaming been seamless? No, it has not. We joke frequently about having t-shirts that say “You’re muted!” But, have we given people a way to connect Monday through Friday so they feel a little less alone and anxious midday? Yes. We also inadvertently formed a community and taught people comedy tools that don’t only work on stage, but are great for communication in real life too. We also had a lot of laughs.
Three months ago, friends started sending me articles from Forbes, the Atlantic, and a whole series of them from The Harvard Business Review, on the importance of laughter – shared laughter- to tackle the anxiety, the uncertainty and….wait for it…the isolation of employees struggling in quarantine.
People afraid and isolated, this all sounded very familiar.
After one of our Lunchtime Laughter episodes, a particularly strong one where we shared something truthful about our lives, played some games and felt better, a feeling I had experienced before hit me. It was the same feeling I had when that first comedian sat down with my mother, said the word schmuck and made her laugh. The feeling that this kind of connection through shared laughter in this specific crisis needs to be everywhere.
I began formulating how Lunchtime Laughter – and programs like it – could be replicated for everyone who is feeling isolated in quarantine. Not just corporations and hospital workers, but also children stuck at home. I pulled the team together and we brainstormed specifics. We quickly outlined everything from a half hour laughter “gym,” for employees, to hour long Improv training that teaches skills to help all communication, and even a kids’ camp on ZOOM. I starting reaching out to leaders. On Linked In, through Alumni directories, friends, family, fans of our Alzheimer’s work, and maybe a few people on line at Trader Joe’s.
A month later we ran our first summer camp for three weeks. It was supposed to be two, but the kids were so engaged and parents were so relieved we extended. We now have a number of workshops lined up with executive teams and caregiver organizations. We’ve also run webinars for 100’s of caregivers that specifically teach comedy tools that will help serve communities long after COVID has been defeated.
To be clear, this is an expansion, we will never abandon our roots. We will always be Laughter On Call from the Alzheimer’s block. Jennifer Lopez, anyone? Caring for those in cognitive decline is in our blood, we love and miss our seniors. We feel grateful and excited that we can take everything we learned about creating connection through shared laughter with the toughest audience – people isolated by Alzheimer’s – to those who need the physical and mental health benefits of shared laughter. As I have been saying for at least a month now, we can see COVID-19 as the end of work cultures and family life we have all worked so hard to create or we use it as an opportunity to introduce new ideas and risk new ways of communicating with levity that will serve us well beyond this moment in time. And we can laugh together as we learn.
Resilience with a sense of humor.
Comedians are standing by.