Opinion — Having My Say: Just want to get a laugh

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Editor's note: the author has entertained residents and staff at elder care and rehabilitation centers throughout the New York Metropolitan Area. He's convinced that laughter promotes hope, recovery, and a general sense of well-being. Dr. Velting is a former assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University.

Ask any working comic and he or she will tell you that stage time is precious. Stand-up comedy is a competitive business. Because it's often difficult to find new venues, I've been doing a lot of charity events lately – mostly nursing homes. And I have to tell you, it's very rewarding because your typical nursing home crowd is just so incredibly responsive – that is, after the nurses have dispensed the morning medication dose.
Talk about a tough crowd. I've even considered bringing a recorded laugh track to these shows, just to jump-start any type of reaction. Prolonged silence is a comedian's worst nightmare. But I've learned that behind at least some of the vacant stares and expressionless faces, people are laughing; I may not be able to see it, or hear it, but I know they're amused.
I did leave several residents rolling in the aisle at one event – they were in wheelchairs. Of course, I wouldn't want you to get the wrong idea. I love performing at nursing homes – but I am working my way up to assisted living. Maybe one day I'll make the big time: retirement communities.
Or maybe I'll just retire myself and hope that someone as desperate for laughs as I am will entertain me.
Then there's the heckling. (Did he say "heckling?") That's right, heckling. In fact, I've been heckled more frequently at nursing homes than anywhere else. It's not mean-spirited. No name-calling, no drunken taunts, no boos, no hisses. The audience members are generally non-threatening – in many cases, they're asleep. And, unlike their comedy club counterparts, they are generally not overmedicated with alcohol.
But there are interruptions. Take the first nursing home show I ever did – please. Halfway through my set I find myself being heckled by one of the female residents. She doesn't think I'm funny, but can't remember why:
"Thanks for the feedback," I tell her.
"About what?" she says.
Great to be there
Heckling can assume many different forms. Last year, I played the Parkview Care & Rehabilitation Center in Massapequa, NY. You may know it, a popular venue on the Long Island healthcare circuit. So I decide to kick off the show with: "It's great to be in Massapequa."
As if on cue, a woman sitting up front loudly interjects, "Where is that?" She's serious, but gets a laugh.
"I think that's where we are now," I say, trying my best to be diplomatic. To which, she responds, "You mean, you don't know?"
And for a brief moment, I consider saying something unkind. But on second thought, I don't. I just take a deep breath, try to collect myself. And proceed to disconnect her IV.
Later at the same show, I'm trying to do a bit about "procrastination." Even before I've finished the setup to the joke, one of the residents raises her hand and asks, "How do you spell that?"
You would think she could've at least waited until after the show.
At another nursing home, the recreation director decides to get creative and allow one of the higher functioning residents to emcee the show. Makes perfect sense, especially if you're cognitively impaired.
Imagine my surprise: I arrive at the facility and I'm told that an 80-year-old man with a walker will be hosting the All-Star Variety Showcase. He does an OK job until it's time to introduce me. Instead of "New York's Funniest Psychologist," he bills me as "New York's Filthiest Psychologist," a slip of the tongue that would make Freud proud.
A few residents look troubled. I'm not sure what to say, but after an awkward pause, I address the comment directly: "Thanks for that wonderful introduction. And by the way, in some circles, I'm also known as New York's Funniest Psychologist."
Determined to get the last word, the emcee gets back up to the microphone and adds, "Whatever you do on your own time is your business."
What did he say?
I recently completed my "Long-Term Care Tour" to celebrate National Nursing Home Week, the finish to a series of 20 comedy shows in three months. And I have to tell you I'm exhausted. At this rate, I'll need an ambulette to take me to my next performance. Not a bad idea, really. Maybe I should hire two EMTs to bring me in on a stretcher. How about that for an entrance?
But I've enjoyed the experience and learned something from it all. Now I open with material that's at least more salient for the aging population: "I've fallen and I can't get up." At one show a resident actually offered to help me get to my feet.
Now when does that ever happen at a comedy club? n

Drew Velting, Ph.D., is the former assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University. More of Dr. Drew Velting's comedic touch can be found in the soon-to-be-published revision of Joke Express: Instant Delivery of 1,424 Funny
Bits from the Best Comedians. For more information, visit www.psychcomedy.com.