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Out of the Gate: Laughing Through Tears

September 2, 2015
by Seth Freeman
theater masks Image source: Detail of Illustration by Dan Hubig

In 1966, the same year that I finished my studies at UC Berkeley, the psychology department made a scientific breakthrough. A graduate student discovered that watching an extremely graphic film documenting the subincision rites (the ritual cutting of the undersides of the penises) of Australian aboriginal boys could raise stress levels, particularly in men.

The film showed adolescent boys having their penises sliced open with a sharp rock, a bloody procedure performed without anesthesia. Needless to say, the boys suffered tremendous pain and trauma. The purpose of the first part of the experiment was to establish that watching a film of this activity increased stress in male viewers. It did.

The second and more central part of the experiment was to compare techniques for ameliorating stress in the test subjects, who were male viewers of the film drawn from the Berkeley community. Different narrations to the film, each using a separate technique of stress reduction, were recorded and melded with the footage, and the viewers’ stress was carefully measured. In the technique called “Intellectualization,” a professorial narrator drily described the meaning of the ritual in which the boys were participating. In “Denial,” the narrator told viewers that the boys were not in any pain at all, despite their obvious agony. With these special voiceovers, the stress in those watching the film apparently was reduced, somewhat.

Now we come to one of the locals’ most endearing traditions … as that sturdy chap there with the rock is about to … to do something … something with the sharp rock … to that young lad…. What is he…? Oh dear…

Another technique the experimenters wanted to test was “Humor,” and that is where I came in. The psychologists asked Berkeley playwriting professor Marvin Rosenberg to recommend a writer with humor. Based on work I had done in Dr. Rosenberg’s playwriting seminar, and knowing that I was a recent graduate who might be looking for work, he passed on my name. I was excited to receive my first-ever real assignment as a writer—for pay.

To get things started the psychologists showed me the footage of drums beating, young boys being undressed and seated on the ground, their penises scored like an orange peel, the blood pouring out into the sand as the boys grimaced in pain. I’ll be candid. I’m a male person: Watching the film raised my level of stress. A lot.

Having viewed the silent footage—several times, to make sure I got all the nuance—I now had to figure out what to write to accompany these disturbing images that would make viewers laugh. In those days we didn’t have the Internet and the spam advertising that might have offered an opportunity for at least some passable penis enhancement jokes. At the time (and still today in fact), inflicting excruciating pain on young boys’ genitals struck me as, among other things, distinctly unfunny. Having to write the narration was further ratcheting up my stress level, but I gave it my best, creating a narrator with the persona of a goony explorer stumbling through a lecture: Now we come to one of the locals’ most endearing traditions … as that sturdy chap there with the rock is about to … to do something … something with the sharp rock … to that young lad…. What is he…? Oh dear…

It was comedy, of a sort.

I don’t know if this particular narration lowered anybody’s stress hormones, but whether or not it had the desired psychological effect on viewers, it was a boon for me. For the first time in my life, I had the validating experience of being paid for my work as a writer. I was handed an envelope containing $30 in single bills, held together by a rubber band. This princely compensation funded a couple of frothing pitchers of beer at a Northside café, which, I quickly discovered with my own keen psychological insight, significantly reduced the stress of the author and a group of his friends. 

Seth Freeman lowered his stress and went on to become an Emmy-winning writer/producer of television, a journalist, and a playwright by wisely focusing on other subject matter.

Detail of Illustration by Dan Hubig

From the Fall 2015 Questions of Race issue of California.

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