When I Made Dick Van Dyke Laugh (A Hollywood Valentine) [Hippie Squared][Best of FaN]

I like this tale. What’s more, I like this telling of it. Hippie Squared is often mined from my personal oral tradition–oft-told tales of my adventures. But sometimes I get the nagging feeling that I told it better years ago at a party somewhere. Not here. This time, I feel like I finally nailed it.

The first thing I can ever remember specifically laughing at was Dick Van Dyke’s slapstick tumble over a footstool, when he walks in the front door in the immortal credit sequence from The Dick Van Dyke¬†Show. Certainly it’s the first wellspring of laughter from which I knew I could draw a fresh laugh every time. (And isn’t that much of what we love about TV–those reliable comforts?)

Van Dyke’s a dancer. Even when not doing slapstick, his comedy was physical. He put his whole lanky rangy body into everything, his long rubber band limbs and his long expressive face animating every line he spoke, every reaction off someone else’s line. His slapstick itself was a kind of physical comic poetry. A living limerick.

My friend Fritz and I used to imitate that footstool tumble over and over with the stool in my basement family room. So it’s also no doubt the first bit I ever practiced in a conscious effort, as a routine, to elicit laughs from others.

That’s why it meant so much for me to make him laugh.

Which is not to advertise any great display of wit forthcoming on my part. I got the feeling that Dick Van Dyke laughs easily. He likes to laugh, he likes to make people laugh. He’s generous with his laughter. A man in the right line of work, you might say.

Anyway, one sunny afternoon in the mid-eighties when I was clerking the front counter at Crown Books in Westwood near UCLA, an area crawling with celebrities in those days, I looked up and there he was, with his big hearty tanned face and shocking white hair. I knew him instantly.

In his left hand he held an ad ripped out of a newspaper, for a diet book, and he pointed at it with the long index finger of his right.

“Do you know where I can find this book?” In that deep, resonant voice.

I played it cool. It’s my strict policy not to be fawning or invasive with celebrities. The more so the bigger they are. If they’re just going about their private business I generally won’t even acknowledge who they are. They know I know. I know they know I know. That’s enough.

So I started to give him directions. “Walk halfway back past the sale books and turn left–” But then, “You know what, here, let me show you.” And I marched around the counter and past him, looked back over my shoulder to see that he was following, and being a fairly tall, long-legged fellow myself, I led us both striding jauntily back toward the Health section.

When we got there I stopped and gestured grandly at it. “Here we go!” I began to survey the shelves. “What’s the title again?” I leaned in to look at the ad. He leaned in to show it to me.

I straightened, quickly scanned the display and found it. Then grabbed it right up. “Here we are!” I said, and marched back with it to the cash register, leading Dick Van Dyke behind me, just like a cockney chimney sweep leading a band of children on a singing dance-walk through a London park.

I rang up the book, he handed me bills. I handed him back smaller bills and change. And he spilled the change. It rolled across the counter. He pounced and scrambled after the tumbling skittering coins. His glance darted up at me from under arched eyebrows. “This is not one of my routines,” he said.

“Well if it is,” I said, “I’ve seen you do better.”

And he laughed. Less than a belly laugh, but more than a chuckle. A rhythmic, spasmodic burst of rolling breath. That’s what laughter is, really, isn’t it? A spastic outburst, a shock to the regular rhythm of breathing. A musical breath attack.

He gave me a little one of those. He laughed for me. Generous with his laughter. After all, I just stepped into it. He set me up with an easy shot. Lobbed it over the net, so I was almost obligated to smash it back. But I did not fail to do so. He offered me the chance to make him laugh, and I snatched it.

There are many kinds of love, and laughter is one of them. (Laughter can be hate, too, but this is not that kind of story.) On that day, Dick Van Dyke gave me just a little bit of love.

Tell me your own favorite celebrity sighting in the comments section.

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