The Healing Power of Laughter: Oh Larry and Mo Where Art Thou?

One of my favorite people has been in town, and it couldn't have come at a better time. His name is David Nicandri. He's one of the best Lewis and Clark scholars in the country. His book, River of Promise Lewis & Clark on the Columbia (published by our own Dakota Institute Press) has won rave reviews. One eminent historian has called it the best book on Lewis and Clark in a generation.

All that is great, but it is not why I cherish David Nicandri so much. There's an even better reason He has one of the greatest laughs of anyone I have ever known. When he finds something funny—and he does so several times per conversation—he throws his head back and releases an unguarded, unmistakable open-mouthed laugh. His laugh is always lusty and it is often wonderfully noisy. His laughter is no mere hee hee, or a muted uh, huh, huh, ha, huh. He's all in, as they say. If you were from Jupiter and hadn't figured out the human necessity for laughter, you might think he had just been stabbed with a spear. He laughs because he cannot help it. And then I laugh because I cannot help it. In a world of insincerity and disingenuous people (they are legion), I love the visceral authenticity of laughter.

Dr. Samuel Johnson, the literary dictator of 18th century London, and the author of the first great dictionary of the English language (1755) defined laughter as convulsive merriment. That's absolutely perfect. I'm not much of a laugher myself, but when I am in front of an audience and I manage to make people laugh—laugh until they double over, and turn and smile at each other—I am for that moment the happiest man alive.

Just why people laugh is something of a mystery. We know that apes laugh, by way of a form of gruff panting, and other animals, including non-primates, produce odd vocalizations during play. First laughter in human infants tends to occur between 3.5 and 4 months after birth, long before our children learn to speak. Most experts believe that laughter has more to do with social bonding than with humor per se. People seldom laugh alone. When I do, I'm always a little embarrassed. We know that laughter is highly contagious.

That's one reason I am so fond of David Nicandri. His laughter over the past few days has had two enormously healing effects on me. First, we tend to find the same things funny, often rather abstract things that only occur in the minds of people who have spent too much time reading about the same episodes in history. His laughter affirms my understanding of the quirks, tensions, and absurdities of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Second, his laughter is so wonderful that I find myself joining in (spontaneously) because I want to get on that bandwagon of joy and affirmation. In other words, his unforced, unconscious laughter triggers mine, because he is my dear friend, because I believe in his life and work, because (below the radar of consciousness) he gives me permission to laugh out loud, hard. And when we laugh out loud, hard, we cheer up. Perhaps we even heal.

My mentor Ev Albers used to laugh more than any serious person I have ever known. His laugh was a kind of heroic chuckle, but what made it so infectious is that it would last so long that eventually tears would be streaming down his cheeks, and he'd have to take his glasses off twice or thrice to dry them off. And he had the very unusual habit of not just inviting you to laugh with him but essentially forcing you to join in. He'd literally bring his massive face within a couple of inches of yours—invading your personal space, looking you straight in the eye from extremely close range—and in the end you'd be unable to resist joining in, if only for self-protection. Ev would close his laugh episode by saying, Oh my! in a sad emphatic sighing way, as if to say, Life is so unbearably painful in so many ways, that the only response to it that is not destructive, is to laugh.

We've all heard the following dialogue. I'm surprised you could laugh at such an awful thing that happened to you. And the response Well, it's either laugh or cry. I know plenty of people who have laughed until they cried or cried until finally they actually began to laugh. These convulsions are related somehow, and it is not always easy to tell the difference. They are both involuntary. They both bring about a release of pent up energy and emotion. They both have the capacity to bring catharsis and relief. How many times have you heard someone say, Afterwards I went home and had a good cry

Both Albers and Nicandri are men who know how to laugh at themselves. In fact, particularly to laugh at themselves. This may be the single most important source of sanity we have. And it makes them immensely likeable.

Back when I was married, I sometimes laughed in moments of crisis or alarm—the death of a relative in an improbable feedlot accident, a child's tumble down a flight of stairs, a sudden divorce filing after 48 years of seemingly happy marriage. She thought my laughter was inappropriate, even obscene, at such a moment. Perhaps it was. But it was something more, I think—an involuntary convulsion in watching the universe pull the rug out from under our complacent sense that we are immortal and that life is what it seems on any given Tuesday.

When they say laughter is the best medicine, the experts really mean it. The late Norman Cousins actually wrote a book about the power of laughter in the healing process. When he faced a seemingly terminal illness, he literally taught himself to laugh many times per day. I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep, he later wrote. He watched episodes of The Three Stooges. When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.

No matter how unhappy I am, if I watch The Three Stooges or any of the Leslie Nielson Naked Gun movies, I cheer up. In his darkest or weariest hours, I would walk in on Ev Albers and find him wiping his eyes along that laughter-crying axis as he watched Mo poke Curly's eyes with a pitchfork.

One of Freud's most brilliant books is called Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905). It's a really insightful study of what makes us laugh, and why. His view, essentially, was that humor occurs when the conscious mind permits the expression of something that society usually suppresses or forbids—aggression, sexual candor, or disruptive candor of any sort. Thus the old Henny Youngman joke, Take my wife-please, plays on the ambiguity of citing one's wife as an example (as in take the budget surplus, for example) and expressing a barely suppressed desire to get rid of her (take her off my hands). It's not a particularly funny joke, but its structure gets at the essence of what a joke does.

Mark Twain famously said, Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand. We are going to need a lot more laughter if we are going to punch through the paralysis of our time.