CHAUTAUQUA - If laughter truly is the best medicine, Rev. Al Staggs has certainly been keeping up with his prescription.
On Friday, Staggs presented his "Laughter for Life" one-man program at Chautauqua Institution's Hall of Philosophy for its last afternoon lecture of the season.
The premise behind Staggs' presentation, entitled "Laughter for Life," was that elements of humor can be found in the most serious of situations. Stagg shared several personal experiences where laughter helped to sustain him, such as: helping to cheer his mother during a bout of debilitating depression, being drafted into the U.S. Army in the early stages of its involvement in the Vietnam War and losing his wife to cancer in 1998.
Staggs went on to dedicate the performance to his late mother, whom he said imparted wisdom which he continues to live by to this day.
"I'm here, mom, because you gave me life," he said. "And you affirmed me in my hilarity. Mom, you're here. And the message I heard from you, mother, after you had departed was, 'Son, live life with joy. Don't let anything steal your joy.'"
Staggs' Laughter for Life program focused on the spiritual, emotional and physical benefits of humor, and he often lapsed into comical impersonations of several iconic figures to help in the narration of his story. Some of his impersonations included: Paul Lynde, Jerry Lewis, Gomer Pyle, George Burns, Jonathan Winters, Frankie Fontaine (Crazy Guggenheim), Rodney Dangerfield, Redd Foxx, Red Skelton, Robin Williams, Flip Wilson as Geraldine, Willie Nelson, Jim Varney (Ernest), as well as impressions of Bill Clinton, George H. and George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
According to his website, Staggs began expanding his repertoire in the mid-1990s to include original interpretations of the lives of Clarence Jordan, Walter Rauschenbusch, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther, Roger Williams, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, William Sloane Coffin and William Stringfellow.
He also shared stories of the role humor and laughter played in the lives of historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, who delved into works of humor to stave off depression, and Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor who managed to laugh in the face of the atrocities he witnessed.
"I just finished a one-person characterization of Abraham Lincoln, and I had to enter into a depression zone in order to try to encounter this man who's melancholy was well documented," Staggs said. "And Lincoln said that humor gave him relief. He said, 'If it were not for jokes, I would die.'"
Beginning in 1999, Staggs said he channeled his belief in the power of laughter into his work as a hospital chaplain.
"What I discovered when I became a chaplain is that I had left my humor somewhere," he said. "Because, as a pastor, you're supposed to be reverent, holy, dignified - at least look dignified - and you're not supposed to joke; as I discovered when I would do impersonations in my sermons. That greatly offended many Christians, it was fabulous."
As he concluded his presentation, he commissioned his audience to, "spread 'hilarious' all around."
After serving as a parish minister for more than 20 years, Staggs began a new career as a performing artist presenting his highly acclaimed, original one-person dramatization entitled, "A View From the Underside: The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer" to churches, synagogues, colleges and organizations throughout the world - as stated by his website. In 2008, he published his first book, a collection of poetry entitled, "A Pilgrim in Rome: Cries of Dissent," accompanied by endorsements from Walter Brueggemann, Bishop John Shelby Spong and Bill Moyers.