Could laughter defeat ISIS? If you were on an operating table, in need of a triple-bypass, might you call in a clown? While a P.O.W., undergoing torture, would all your suffering disappear when someone recited a decent knock, knock joke?
A logical person would consider all of the above absurd. Comedy is no panacea. And yet numerous cultures have found an integral place for farce and buffoonery.
Chinese Emperors had Court Jesters, Native American tribes had Tricksters, and in Europe, during The Middle Ages, droll satires were routinely performed by Troubadours. Why? What compels mankind to turn, again and again, to comedy? And what makes laughter a uniquely potent gift?
One reason comedy has had such a historical impact is it provokes reflectiveness, at times even inspiring political change. It is perhaps for this reason that during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution stories abound of protesters in Tahrir Square flashing satirical banners and reciting comical songs. There was political humor in the USSR before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Similarly, in America, during the 2008 Presidential Election, SNL Sarah Palin parodies featuring Tina Fey almost certainly impacted the final results.
What is more laughter seems to have at least a degree of curative potency. In “The Healing Power Of Laughter,” by the HeartMD Institute, Alexander Lowen, the father of bioenergetic therapy, suggests “[laughter is] a way of healing the body through the spontaneous release of energy.” Lowen believes laughter accomplishes this by releasing tension, promoting respiration, and inducing endorphin release. Another study of cancer patients by Bennett M, Zeller J, et al. at Western Kentucky University suggests humor can be an effective complimentary medicine that often generates “increased immune function.”
While I would never wish to be pollyannaish, I can assert, with great conviction, that laughter has had an incredibly healing place in my life. For twenty-six years I’ve suffered with Crohn’s disease, a gastrointestinal auto-immune condition that causes frequent trips to the bathroom, abdominal pain, nausea, bloating, joint aches, fatigue, mouth sores, and, at times, requires hospitalization. I’ve been on medicine to control my condition for most of my life and have needed three major surgeries — one of which required getting my stomach pumped via NG Tube after an intestinal blockage before a resection could be performed.
The above struggle as well as other hardships I’ve faced in recent years — broken ribs after a skiing accident, campylobacteriosis on a Costa Rican expedition, getting hit by a car crossing the street — have hardened me, in a certain sense, and yet I doubt I would have survived any of it quite so intact without laughter.
Laughter gives one perspective. It enables you to see how small your problems are and reminds you what is really important. Comedy can turn a struggle into a gem. A hardship into joy. Comedy, further, prepares you to meet new obstacles with strength, clarity, and focus. I can say, with certainty then, that, in my own life, comedy has been a godsend.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to be a working standup comedian who is now a Talent and Show Coordinator for The Gotham Comedy Foundation. This charitable organization brings laughter to those in need. Its founder claims to have cured his cancer by watching old Marx Brothers movies — a story that resonates with me as it seems to align very closely with my own.
Whether performing standup for cancer patients at Sloan Kettering or the drug rehab residents at Serenity Café, I’ve found my involvement with the G.C.F. to be a terrific opportunity to share my sense of humor with others. I hope this incredible organization continues to grow and prosper, for promoting wellness through comedy is a noble, uplifting mission.
Lastly, I started this essay by lightly mocking the idea of laughter curing a severe heart condition or defeating ISIS. But maybe I shouldn’t have. Because the healing power of laughter is considerable. As Mark Twain once put it, “against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”
- Peter McGraw & Joel Warner, The Humor Code. Entry 6: Can comedy bring about political change?, Slate. 2014.
- Dr. Stephen Sinatra, The Healing Power of Laughter. Heart MD Institute. 2010.
- Bennett M, Zeller J, et al. The Effect of Mirthful Laughter on Stress and Natural Killer Cell Activity. Alternative Therapies. 2003; 9(2):38-43.