Bob Basso Believes You Can Laugh Your Troubles Away—and Big Business Is Buying His Therapy

updated 09/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It's time corporate America started taking itself less seriously," declares Bob Basso. To that end, the 45-year-old actor and drama coach has devised a kind of employee therapy that is, quite literally, a joke. And when sobersided groups such as New York Life Insurance and the Internal Revenue Service shell out as much as $15,000 ($75 a person) to put a smile back on harried executives' faces, Basso can't help but laugh all the way to the you-know-what.

Basso's Completely Outrageous Workshops (yes, the acronym is COW) are a refresher course for working adults who have forgotten how to play. During each three-hour session, Basso reaches into his comic trunk of 200 games devised as a tension-relieving Rx for stress, burnout and other causes of employees' blues. The setting for these encounters can be a sterile conference room at a San Fernando Valley hotel (above) or a plush ladies' lounge in a Manhattan office building.

Basso recently took 17 students from the American Association of Training Directors—who train personnel—through a typical routine. The room was festooned with crepe-paper streamers, balloons and signs with such admonitions as "DON'T BE SO FULL OF THE ADULT THERE IS NO ROOM FOR THE CHILD IN YOU." Basso greets each student with one-liners ("I'm lonely, please hug me").

Then he slides into his scare spiel: "Do you know that 52 percent of all American executives die from stress-related causes?" he asks, while removing his jacket, vest and tie. "Look around this room. Half of you will die of stress. Seventy-nine percent of American workers hate getting up in the morning. How can you do your job with that kind of negativity?"

He continues peeling off his shoes and trousers to reveal warm-up pants and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. Before the session is over, Basso will have his initially apprehensive students hamming it up in tutus, girdles, hats and E.T. masks. They draw pictures of coworkers of whom they are not particularly fond.

Basso devotes part of the class to individual problem solving. One student-executive asks how to shed his reputation as an unexciting gray-flannel sort of guy. "If you're dull," says Basso, "you're not going to get anywhere as a trainer. To get people on your side, tell them you've been told you're boring, and ask for suggestions for changing." One student, Burt Durbin, decides to incorporate a few of Basso's tricks into his own routine. "I travel all over the country doing training programs," he says. "Now I'll take a few props and work in a few games so the meetings are spontaneous and funny. It's a good way of defusing resistance to new ideas."

Basso's love of laughter dates from his childhood in Brooklyn. "I always wanted to be a stand-up comedian," the fireman's son remembers. But after graduating from St. John's University in 1960, he did just the opposite, touring the country as Judas Iscariot in a passion play. In Texas he quit to become an extra in the John Wayne movie The Alamo. After five years in the Navy and stints as a deejay and a television news director, Basso got a Ph.D. in communications from Pacific Western College in Van Nuys, Calif. In the years that followed, he landed jobs in about 200 television sitcoms, including Laverne & Shirley, Archie Bunker's Place and Lou Grant. "I usually played the comedic foil or loudmouth car salesman," he says. In 1967 he toured in The Odd Couple with Neil Simon's brother, Danny, and also taught comedy and acting on the road from Philadelphia to Dallas.

Basso hit on the idea of laugh therapy while writing in Las Vegas in 1976. "The chorus girls knew I taught a comedy workshop in Los Angeles," he recalls. "They asked me to teach one there. It quickly turned into comedy therapy because they were under a lot of pressure and complaining about work conditions. I realized that laughter coupled with game playing was a great coping mechanism."

The guru of giggles runs some 60 workshops a year, using his modest one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles as his headquarters. There he spends much of his time on the telephone with students, discussing their problems with them.

Basso's work has its contradictory aspects. His nonstop devotion to laugh therapy was part of the reason his nine-month marriage to Gayla Kalp was annulled last year, but they have continued their partnership in the workshops. "She told me my projects are my life. And she was right," he admits. That's not going to daunt Basso, who says his next goal is "to hit the top-level management of the FORTUNE 500." That way he figures on having the last laugh after all.

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