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The Peekaboo Paradox

"I mean," Vicki said, "what's the hook?"

Now, the Great Zucchini was eating toilet paper.

"I mean, are you that desperate?" she asked.

On the floor in front of us, the kids -- 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds -- were convulsed in laughter. Literally. They were rolling on the carpeted floor, holding their tummies, mouths agape, little teeth jubilantly bared, squealing with abandon. In the vernacular of stand-up, the Great Zucchini was killing. Among his victims was Trey, who, as promised, had indeed been re-transitioned into his own party.

The show lasted 35 minutes, and when it was over, an initially skeptical Don Cox forked over a check without complaint. The fee was $300. It was the first of four shows the Great Zucchini would do that Saturday, each at the same price. The following day, there were four more. This was a typical weekend.

Do the math, if you can handle the results. This unmarried, 35-year-old community college dropout makes more than $100,000 a year, with a two-day workweek. Not bad for a complete idiot.

If you want to understand why the Great Zucchini has this kind of success, you need look no further than the stresses of suburban Washington parenting. The attendant brew of love, guilt and toddler-set social pressures puts an arguably unrealistic value on someone with the skills, and the willingness, to control and delight a roistering roomful of preschoolers for a blessed half-hour.

That's the easy part. Here's the hard part: There are dozens of professional children's entertainers in the Washington area, but only one is as successful and intriguing, and as completely over-the-top preposterous, as the Great Zucchini. And if you want to know why that is -- the hook, Vicki, the hook -- it's going to take some time.

Even before they respond to a tickle, most babies will laugh at peekaboo. It's their first "joke." They are reacting to a sequence of events that begins with the presence of a familiar, comforting face. Then, suddenly, the face disappears, and you can read in the baby's expression momentary puzzlement and alarm. When the face suddenly reappears, everything is orderly in the baby's world again. Anxiety is banished, and the baby reacts with her very first laugh.

At its heart, laughter is a tool to triumph over fear. As we grow older, our senses of humor become more demanding and refined, but that basic, hard-wired reflex remains. We need it, because life is scary. Nature is heartless, people can be cruel, and death and suffering are inevitable and arbitrary. We learn to tame our terror by laughing at the absurdity of it all.

This point has been made by experts ranging from Richard Pryor to doctoral candidates writing tedious theses on the ontol-ogical basis of humor. Any joke, any amusing observation, can be deconstructed to fit. The seemingly benign Henny Youngman one-liner, "Take my wife . . . please!" relies in its heart on an understanding that love can become a straitjacket. By laughing at that recognition, you are rising above it, and blunting its power to disturb.

After the peekaboo age, but before the age of such sophisticated understanding, dwells the preschooler. His sense of humor is more than infantile but less than truly perceptive. He comprehends irony but not sarcasm. He lacks knowledge but not feeling. The central fact of his world -- and the central terror to be overcome -- is his own powerlessness. This is where the Great Zucchini works his magic.


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