The Laughter Business

(Posted previously on Wired)

CHICAGO — The 2012 Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor Conference is probably the only convention where it seems appropriate for a sock puppet to deliver the opening remarks.

And not just any sock puppet — a sock puppet stand-in for Patty Wootan, the organization’s outgoing president, who couldn’t make it to last month’s event here. Her successor, Chip Lutz, took the stage the first morning of the conference with a sock on his hand, mouthing along to Wootan’s prerecorded introductory speech.

Unfortunately for Lutz, Wootan’s remarks were impressively lengthy and rambling, eventually leading the puppeteer to lean over the podium, grimacing in pain as he struggled to keep his hand up. The several hundred attendees ate it up, roaring in laughter.

That laughter is what the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor Conference is all about. Now in its 25th year, the four-day event is a slick, sometimes moving and often goofy testament to the age-old saying, “Laughter is the best medicine.” This year, social workers and nurses, educators and therapists, improv performers and motivational speakers from all over the world gathered together in Chicago from Apr. 19 through 22 to learn how trauma and tragedy could be infused with humor.

“Comedy saved my life,” said Saranne Rothberg, who started therapeutic-humor nonprofit ComedyCures after using humor to help her cope with and recover from stage-four breast cancer. “My love of comedy and laughing kept me positive, so I could fight every battle I had to fight physically and emotionally.”

The positive-humor movement began in 1979 with the publication of Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, journalist Norman Cousins’ account of laughing away a possibly fatal degenerative disease of the joints with a steady diet of Candid Camera and Marx Brothers films. Since then, a booming industry has sprung up around healthy humor, a movement that’s gotten an added boost from the deluge of “Happiness” books flooding the market.

At the AATH conference store, table after table was covered with books bearing titles like Laughter: The Drug of Choice, This Is Your Brain on Joy and What’s So Funny About … Diabetes? Nearby, other stalls offered light-up detachable ears, water-balloon launchers and bumper stickers that read, “Clowning for Jesus.”

The conference registration packets came equipped with bright-red clown noses. At the evening cocktail reception, a typical ice-breaker was, “Are you a Certified Laughter Leader?” In front of the hotel, a threesome sporting chicken hats and checkered jackets piled out of a shuttle bus and attempted to head into the conference, only to be sidetracked by the revolving front door, spinning around and around with befuddled looks on their faces.

But this isn’t all for fun and games. Therapeutic humor is an increasingly mainstream and commercial endeavor. Cancer Treatment Centers of America sponsored this year’s conference, and at the hotel bar, nurses gossiped excitedly about how insurance companies are starting to cover laughter clubs. Alongside conference sessions titled “How to Establish an Intergenerational Laughter Club” and “Holy Hysterics: Laughter and Joy in your Community of Faith,” there were also seminars with names like “How to Turn Laughter Into Revenue.”

Many of the attendees have already figured out how to do that. At the conference’s ritzy awards dinner, a signed portrait of comedian Red Skelton — which in truth resembled one of those bad clown paintings you might find in a thrift store — was auctioned off for more than $1,600.

But a major question remains: Is humor really the best medicine? Does the science really support all these laughter yogis, giggling nurses and Funny Bone, M.D.s? So far, the research is ambiguous on the matter. The best studies have only been able to conclude that laughter might help people better tolerate pain for short periods of time.

Scientific support might be coming, however. That was the takeaway from a keynote session helmed by Willibald Ruch, a professor at the University of Zurich who’s one of the titans of humor psychology. Ruch is responsible for naming several new humor-related disorders: gelotophobia, the fear of being laughed at; gelotophilia, the joy of being laughed at; and later, katagelasticism, the joy of laughing at others (“We got bored, and so we created a third term,” says Ruch).

Lately, Ruch and his researchers have turned their scientific gaze on humor therapy, and so far, the results have been encouraging. In one study, they tracked multiple groups of people, some who attended laughter clubs and learned humor-therapy skills. Over an extended period of time, those exposed to humor therapy reported markedly increased satisfaction with life compared to those who didn’t.

Steve Wilson, “Cheerman of the Bored” of the World Laughter Tour program and a wise, Yoda-like figure within AATH, welcomes this “quantum leap forward” in humor-therapy science. Now, as he put it at his conference seminar — during which he wore a red clown hat above reading glasses and blew bubbles from a plastic wand — it’s time to shore up the “dissension in the ranks” among practitioners.

Laughter yogis have to stop bickering with laughter therapists.

Laughter yogis have to stop bickering with laughter therapists; folks have to stop arguing over whether it’s humor or laughter or comedy or clowns that is the secret to medicinal merrymaking. After all, he says, all these approaches lead to the same place: Helping people learn how to generate humor and laughter when times are good, so when things go bad, they will have the tools at their disposal to lift themselves to a happier, healthier place.

………………………………Steve Wilson

Wilson knows this from personal experience. Not too long ago, he needed those tools more than ever.

About a year and a half ago, he was rushed to the hospital from one of his humor workshops with terrible back pain. Part of his intestine had exploded, nearly killing him, and in the medical chaos that followed, he was ravaged by pneumonia, kidney failure, a blood clot in his lung and surgical wounds that wouldn’t heal. Wilson was so miserable that he didn’t laugh at the rubber chicken someone had hung from his IV pole. When a hospital clown came by to cheer him up, Wilson sent her away.

“It was like being in a black box,” says Wilson. “How do I get out?”

Several weeks later, he found an exit. Lying on a stretcher after a particularly grueling CAT scan, a nurse leaned over him and asked, “Are you comfortable?”

At that moment, a joke came to Wilson, one he’d heard years earlier. “I make a living,” he cracked, giggling.

“Sir, this is serious!” snapped the nurse.

“No,” he replied, “This is vaudeville!”

And with that, says Wilson, he knew he going to be OK. As he put it to his rapt audience, “George Harrison said, ‘The deeper you go, the higher you fly.’ I am back, and I am flying high.”