Laughter, the best medicine

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

In my childhood Dolphy and his long-time show biz partner Panchito were there, singing, dancing, giving their audience hilarious Filipino translations of English pop music lyrics. 

Dolphy’s TV sitcom was bonding time for our family. We looked forward to every weekly episode of funnyman Ading Fernando’s “John en Marsha,” aired on RPN Channel 9. In the tough neighborhoods of Tondo, Manila, we could identify with the struggling Dolphy, a.k.a. John, who married Marsha, played by Nida Blanca, daughter of the wealthy Doña Delilah, played by Dely Atay-Atayan.

John preferred to live in a shanty with his wife and their two children, played by his real-life son Rollie Quizon and Maricel Soriano, rather than live in comfort in a mansion with his nagging mother-in-law and her shrill maid Matutina.

I still remember the typical concluding line in the show, mouthed by Doña Delilah, exhorting her impoverished son-in-law: “Kaya ikaw John, magsumikap ka…”

Panchito and Dely died years ago, while Nida was brutally murdered. Maricel is still in show biz; we’ve lost track of Matutina.

Younger generations of Filipinos, used to reality TV and Korean telenovelas, may not be able to relate to Dolphy’s shows. But “John en Marsha” was the longest running sitcom of my youth, staying on air for nearly two decades.

Dolphy’s dancing, singing and famous comic adlibs smacked of vaudeville. I found his performance thoroughly entertaining, in the most wholesome way. He didn’t need to resort to green jokes or toilet humor to elicit laughter. I always associated Dolphy and his friends with an Age of Innocence of sorts in Philippine entertainment, although this age more properly belongs to a much earlier era in local cinema.

* * *

Maybe because it was martial law, that Age of Innocence was possible in Philippine show business. Wholesome (safe, critics sniffed) family fare replaced the raunchy stuff of the turbulent pre-martial law years, when even pre-adolescent kids could watch hard-core porn in mainstream movie houses.

For at least two years after martial law was declared and the Marcos dictatorship banned rock ’n’ roll, long hair, micro mini and hot pants, the Catholic Church was happy, school supervisors were happy, and parents were happy. Drug dealers disappeared and teenage kids went home by curfew time.

I was too young to need curfew, and I probably didn’t miss much in the porn movies that I never saw. But I enjoyed watching TV with my parents and two brothers, and John en Marsha was high on our list of must-see shows.

The show was right up there with Reader’s Digest and the Book of Knowledge as stuff that parents and teachers wanted kids to enjoy.

Reader’s Digest had a regular section with the heading, “Laughter, the best medicine.” I read every joke in every issue I got hold of, just as I enjoyed every quip, uttered mostly by Dolphy, in John en Marsha. In eliciting laughter from Pinoys, no other actor came close to the King of Comedy.

With all the misery brought about by the dictatorship, the show was probably seen by some people as escapist entertainment. Then again, with misery ever present in this world, almost all comedy fare may be considered escapist. So I’m an escapist… who isn’t? Truly, laughter is the best medicine.

And I’m a sucker for happy endings, which is partly why I haven’t watched a Filipino movie in a long while.

* * *

Why are good Philippine movies so depressing? I know it’s reality, but misery can end and happy endings are possible even in difficult circumstances. There can be hope in the most grievous heartbreak. Even the worst atrocities can be depicted in a way that celebrates courage, love and life.

Consider the 1997 Italian movie “Life is Beautiful” – that heartbreaking story of a Jewish Italian father and the four-year-old son he hid in a Nazi concentration camp. The movie was named the Best Foreign Language Film and actor-director Roberto Benigni won the Best Actor award at the Oscars in 1999. It had a tragic ending, but the story was also of survival and hope.

In our local movies, the choices for viewers can boil down to either two hours of weeping, screaming and face-slapping, with a tragic conclusion, or two hours of silliness with a lot of toilet humor and a silly, sappy ending.

Many of the movies feature aging stars whose over-stretched and over-Botoxed faces can be startlingly distracting to those who remember what the stars used to look like. Maybe stem cell therapy will save viewers from such distractions; the octogenarian Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s youthfulness looks more natural.

Occasionally I chance upon the silly movies being featured on TV. Seeing the quality of the humor makes me miss Comedy King Dolphy.

Those who grew up with his inimitable brand of humor feel sadness at his passing, but also gratitude — for the laughter, and the memories of a bygone era.

Dolphy brought out in us something that’s very Filipino: we laugh in the face of adversity.

We laugh so hard we cry.











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