Hank Rosenfeld has a transcendent vision of laughter, as it lifts up, teaches and serves. But can it really heal, and still get a few nyuk-nyuks on the way?
In Norman Cousins’ 1979 bestseller, Anatomy of an Illness, the noted editor and writer described how, flat on his back in bed, he was able to belly laugh himself well by watching Marx Brothers movies and reading books of humor. Every ten minutes of genuine laughter, he said, “had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.”
The Book of Proverbs tells how “a merry heart doeth good as medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” So, in face of evidence old and new, just in time for the new millennium, “Laughter Clubs” are spreading communicable giggles across the globe.
“YOU CAN CHANGE THE WORLD WITH LAUGHTER! PROMOTE HEALTH AND WORLD PEACE!” Yes, world peace. I can hear you now: “Ha!” you’re saying. See? Made you laugh.
In order to examine what method may lay behind this mirthness, I signed up for the training session to become a Laugh Leader. Okay, so the truth is I couldn’t afford to “Track the Path of Rumi” through Turkey in ten days for $3500. Or to do Dr. Virtue’s Angel Therapy either, available at a much lower price in Van Nuys. And because my two sisters, Jill and Nancy, live in San Diego, accommodations for the WLT (World Laughter Tour) would be sweet.
Invented in India by a Dr. Madan Kataria, more than 200 laughter clubs have now been established, meeting before work for twenty minutes of fun and gains. Now, thanks to Steve Wilson, an Ohio “joyologist,” Dr. Kataria’s smile assemblies have headed west. We need lightness after all, in these days of rolling blackouts, military blunders, and Bush. As clown/poet/avatar Wavy Gravy once told me, “You know, Zippy”-my clown name at the time-“if you lose your sense of humor, it just isn’t funny anymore.”
Luckily, here’s the good news! Former Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop said recently that evidence shows “laughter protects the heart.” I take these findings very seriously. I happen to do freelance work as a semi-professional fool (though I prefer the term “humorist”). Yes, I go from town to town, hovel to hovel, singing in my wackiest postmodern Willy Loman voice, “Jokes for sale! Who will buy this wonderful funny?”
But sadly, humor now tastes like burgers; it’s just another watered-down to the bottom line quick fix fed 24/7 to an entertainment-nation full of junk junkies. I expect the laughter to do more, so much more. The comedy should “reveal the grace of the sufferer,” in the words of John Hawks. I want the laughter that gives us power over politicians, that is our defiance and our victory, as Martin Buber said. Why? Because “they say truth comes into this world with two faces: sad suffering and laughs. But it is the same face” (the Talmud). Because “it is the duty of the humor of any given nation to attack the catastrophe that faces it so the people who laugh at it do not die before they are killed.” (Hallelujah, Lord Buckley!)
I’ve had that transcendent vision of laughter, as it lifts up, teaches and serves. But can it really heal, and still get a few nyuk-nyuks on the way? My motivation for trying this WLT is so I can be part of that new wave where, as Mark Twain wrote, “against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”
“Angels are the laugh of the universe.” –Alan Watts
So here we are, thirty people in a room: nurses, doctors, counselors and dairy farmers, ages 30 to 70. Plus, a nice man with a jolly white goatee, joyologist Steve Wilson, who’s president of the Laughter Clubs of America. Right now he’s blowing a wooden train whistle to get our attention. He’s full of little goofy tricks like this. He first developed this class at Columbus State Community College and teaches with the ebullience of the two great Yogis: Bear and Berra.
Did you know only 5% of people can tell a joke well? Steve cites such statistics. No wonder the U.S. spends $9.2 billion a year on various “stress reduction” sessions held daily in offices-at-risk-of too much seriousness-across the continent.
“Our method is non-threatening,” Steve assures us. “Nobody has to be a comedian because it doesn’t rely on telling jokes or making comedy.” Some call his method “self-induced laughter,” laughter for the joy of laughing, based around a systematic structure that encourages people to get involved.
“In today’s world, most people don’t find much to laugh at,” he continues. “They don’t have time to laugh. Or they know they don’t laugh enough. They want the bigger car, the faster modem. This takes the joy out of life.”
Steve has trained over fifty leaders so far. “And you don’t have to have a sense of humor at all,” he grins secretively. “You can still come week to week and receive great benefits.” His co-facilitators today resemble that remark, as neither seems very funny at all. (Perhaps, like Lord Byron, they “laugh to keep from weeping.”)
The joyologist submits findings for our approval, just published in the March issue of Nature Neuroscience: “A new study, which investigated how the human brain processes jokes, identified a particular area of the brain that appears to be involved in your sense of humor. Lead author Dr. Vinod Goel said that this area is known as the medial ventral prefrontal cortex.”
A believer in “right livelihood” and Buddhist loving-kindness, Dr. Kataria’s original technique is being used in prisons and nursing homes. We watch laughter club footage from Sweden and Denmark, not known as funny countries. (Well, Denmark. Maybe.) We see a video of Steve’s cousin Kenny laughing for fifteen seconds. Then we’re up and standing in a circle repeating the following WLT mantra: “Ho-Ho! Ha-Ha-Ha!” while slapping our thighs and clapping in unison.
Huh? Half a minute of breathing and then we move into what he calls the “Vowel Movements,” where we lean over and lift up again reciting “A” or “E” or the others, while faking a laugh.
“Fake it ’til you make it” goes a watchword of WLT faith. “Simulation leads to Stimulation” is another. We make some funny faces at each other for awhile. This must be the “yoga” part of the practice I saw advertised. Suffice it to say, the eight limbs of yoga are not at risk.
After twenty minutes of this, Suzy, a comedic performer from New York-and my ride back to LA-tells me she wants to leave the conference early. She is, in fact, rather depressed by the whole program.
Steve notices and sends a shout-out. “Even if there’s no stimulus, you can find humorous!”
“Look,” he suggests. “Babies laugh in the crib. We don’t say, ‘Gee, that kid’s got a great sense of humor.’ It is something very innate and primal we’re doing.”
Karyn Buxam and Jacki Kwan, his co-facilitators, explain that these fake laughs are good at getting rid of toxins too. That any outward breath is good.
Suzy says she hasn’t had a real laugh the whole weekend.
“Coughing is good,” I try encouraging her. I’m not about to leave. Soon we’ll have a break, and speech pathologist Pam Wilson, Steve’s wife and road manager/marketing guru, will serve up ice cream sundaes.
Eventually, refilling my bowl with nothing but syrup, I corner Suzy: “If you laugh you can change the world,” I pitch her. I believe this too. Dr. Meatloaf, a friend of mine, is a clown in the Big Apple Circus hospital clown care unit. He once told me that if he made his mom and dad laugh before they hit him, they couldn’t hit him. Dr. Meatloaf had a whole theory behind it. “Levity is the opposite of gravity,” he would say, quoting Monty Python. Big Apple sends their CCU – s into 15 cities now.
I beg Suzy to at least try to appreciate Steve’s leadership training. Although I must agree with her: “Ho-Ho, Ha-Ha-Ha” is a bit lame-o. Do these unfunny facilitators need us to laugh at them so they feel funny? Or do they know they aren’t and so make us pay for it? Never make light of the great market out there for misery. Factories manufacture unhappiness in every province.
I am too cynical. I need to try and turn this paranoia into pro-noia, a meditation technique I learned from a San Francisco anarchist bicyclist named Tet. Pro-noia is the belief that the world is out to help us. I tell Suzy, “Coughing is good!”
“If You Laugh And Believe It Is Good For You…You Are Right!” says one of the joyologist’s bumper stickers. Which makes sense. “Honk, Honk, if you Love to Laugh” is one of his stickers that doesn’t make much sense to Suzy.
“Laughter isn’t funny, it is a reaction to funny things, and is tied to subconscious feelings about defensiveness and social correctness, among other things.” –Avner the Eccentric
Each workshop member gets two solo minutes. Steve asks us to please “listen with soft eyes.” No judgment. Nice. And the people in here are the greatest, especially the nurses. All Praise All Nurses! Mary Dixon from Santa Rosa started her own hospital humor program and does clowning and pain management. Arlene Vine’s passion is working with elders. “What I give to them I get back tenfold. And with my Alzheimer’s patients, I make new friends every day!”
Her insight reminds the joyologist of one definition of Jewish humor: “Laughter with sadness in the eye.”
Janice Griffin, an RN from Monterey, tells me about a “Journal of Nursing Jocularity” that used to publish her jokes. Chekesha Showers is a 22-year veteran of the Los Angeles School District whose name means “bringer of laughter” in Swahili. There is an optometrist-clown from New Jersey and an educator named Arya Pathria who suggests we “make the person in the mirror laugh every morning.” (How impossibly difficult!) Joanne VanGorder, 70, has a TV show in Prescott, AZ called “Senior Focus.” She calls herself “a global warmer.”
Here’s one thing I learned: Did you know women laugh more than men? “Yep, we’re amazed and amused at their stupidity,” says one unnamed Canadian lady clown.
“And you make such great straight men,” a nurse-humorist concurs.
During my turn to speak, I’m a bit nervous, but gosh if these unfunny co-facilitators don’t soon force me into doing the old Hokey-Pokey dance. But not the way I remember it as a kid.
“You put your Ha-Ha in, you put your Ho-Ho out!” shouts Jacki Kwan. “You do the Hokey-Pokey and you turn yourself around, that’s what it’s all about!”
“When something is really bad, you laugh, and when something is really good, you laugh.” -Rwandan saying
“Human beings are the only creatures that can laugh,” Steve tells the class. “No contribution that enhances the mirth of the world is too small.”
I ask how tough will it be to be a laughter leader in a cruel cruel world? Steve remains grinstruck. “Remember,” he says, “there is no setback, no obstacles. There is only amazed and amused.”
Then why can’t I just let go, or let God get me giggling, after all my years of Guided Imagery, Thought Field Therapy, Biblical Kabbalah, Tennis without Partners?
“Leading laughter clubs is magic,” chimes in Jacki. Then she stops me with: “People in mirthful laughter exhibit the same effects as though in a meditative state.” She knows more than I thought. She is a practicing Ha!Ha!ologist© she says, and asks me to promise to copyright her title.
These days you pick your own potion/poison, as John Lennon sang, “Whatever gets you through the night.” Like my friend Suzy. She is using “Ho-Ho, Ha-Ha-Ha” after all. On stage. And you know what? She gets plenty of laughs teaching it to the audience. Because she’s damn funny.
Everyone’s heard of tough love. I guess I’m a tough laugh. For there is nothing innately funny in doing a weak Hokey-Pokey with 32 strangers and no alcohol. It’s like doing the hora with Mormons, but without any sense of danger. However, this embarrassing experience did make me recall a line I heard from Pete Breitmeyer, an actor from Dudley Riggs comedic theater in Minneapolis: “What if the Hokey-Pokey IS what it’s all about?”
“You don’t have to teach people to be funny. You only have to give them permission.” –Dr. Harvey Mindess
Dr. Mindess was at the American Association for Therapeutic Humor conference the same weekend I attended the WLT. The AATH helps people develop and improve their sense of humor as a way of creating wellness.
Robin Shlein, a comedy producer with credits dating back to the early years of “Saturday Night Live,” studied with Dr. Mindess. Now she leads “Humor Heals” workshops for the Wellness Community, a cancer support center in Santa Monica. “You have to give them permission to laugh at what might be taboo,” Shlein explains. “Things like death and dying. And permission to allow themselves to look for humor, irony and absurdity in the most painful circumstances.”
So this is perhaps a truer path to health than the “Ho-Ho, Ha-Ha-Ha” technique. It was Stan Laurel, no mere ha-ha-ha he, who said it best: “You have to learn what people will laugh at, and then proceed accordingly.”
When Suzy drags me out of the San Diego hotel conference room, my classmates gather to give us what our leader Steve Wilson calls, “The Farewell Laugh.” I’m immediately thinking how maudlin this is. I mean, how can you ever have the last laugh, unless you then die? But like the “Night of the Laughing Dead,” thirty people in WLT tee shirts come at me. I dash from the room, involuntarily emitting a sickening screech.
I’m awarded a certificate in which I am designated a “Certified Laughter Leader.” I am now authorized to organize USA Laughter Clubs and present therapeutic laughter programs; I may “acknowledge my affiliation to World Laughter Tour, Inc., and use the Laughter Club logo in print material.”
Later I ask Steve Wilson by phone how he really plans to achieve world peace. “By changing attitudes,” he says quickly. “Anger, hatred, fear and strife come out of people because that’s what inside of them. Squeeze an orange, you get orange juice. If we can get more humor, more tolerance, if we can get more of the spirit of laughter inside of people, that’s what’s gonna come out.”
He predicts a laughter club at the United Nations, laughter contests among leaders of different lands. “Although comedians occasionally bomb, it would be better if countries traded comedians instead of bombs,” he laughs.
Don’t I know it. Happy is the weapon I wear in the war of all against all. I stole that line from the playwright Mac Wellman, who took it from the philosopher John Locke. Here’s what Groucho Marx said: “Reverence and irreverence are really the same thing.” Which is something Norman Cousins understood, I think. The genuine laughter that John Hobbes called a “passion of sudden glory,” Cousins truly felt as “jogging for the innards.”
So is this WLT all about the laughs, the kicks, the money? Steve had urged us to buy the book Laughing for No Reason. Sixty per cent of sales go to India for their clubs. Isn’t it true that the best laughs often come for free? Dr. Kataria himself said, “Laughter is free. You can’t charge anybody anything.” (Although then he said he has started charging because, “It is eating into my time and my family is not eating.”)