No Laughing Matter
Not too long ago, we three old guys playfully started to imagine a restaurant that only catered to old people – old people like us, but perhaps more elderly – perhaps more like what the future holds in store for us. Well, we got to laughing about all the absurd possibilities and every comment elicited more laughs and excitement to press on with even more outrageous suggestions. We were on a roll! We even named our restaurant the Waiting Room, stacking up a rapidly escalating list of clever ideas.
A week or so later, Hen suggested that we revisit the concept of the Waiting Room, since we had such a good time brainstorming the idea. But – we couldn’t! The jokes just wouldn’t come and somehow didn’t seem so funny, anymore. We were all disappointed. Has this ever happened to you?
The inability to call back the humor of the moment really stuck in my craw, so I decided to do a little research on why things like this happen. I know, I know — it is a probable mistake to delve too deeply into a humorous situation. E.B. White once said: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested, and the frog dies of it”. Nevertheless, I pushed forward.
E.B. White was right!
My first step was to read a book on Enjoyment of Laughter, written in the 1930’s. After all, humor is timeless – right? This book described all kinds of jokes and humorous situations and explained why they were funny. Not one instance in this book made me laugh. In fact, it was generally cringeworthy – the humor just did not translate to the present. In itself, that produced one conclusion: context is everything! That old rejoinder, ‘You had to be there’ is right on target.
Switching focus to current research, I learned the following:
- There are two kinds of laughter: Duchenne and non-Duchenne. Duchenne laughter is spontaneous and developed from forms of primate play. Non-Duchenne laughter is calculated behavior used to navigate social interactions. These forms of laughter actually invoke different neural pathways (Duchenne- brainstem; non-Duchenne- frontal lobe).
- Laughter is important in social bonding. Humor ‘tokens’ act as invitations to further bonding. Humor may spring from impropriety and follows an arc of making a semi-outrageous statement which tests norms, to acceptance (or non-acceptance) by the listener and then to affiliation between the participants.
- Humor = Tragedy + Emotional Distance. Maybe we three old guys were just whistling past the graveyard when we envisioned our Waiting Room restaurant?
- Humor which builds upon each succeeding punchline is called an escalating joke. When done in a group, it is called co-constructive humor. People are 30 times more likely to laugh in a group, than when alone. Laughter is invoked more easily when participants can see or hear each other… even on Zoom.
- Laughter releases endorphins (peptides) which target the opioid receptors in the brain. The more opioid receptors, the greater the amount of social laughter. The consequence is the ‘feel good’ areas of the brain are triggered. This is beneficial for health and has some benefits associated with exercise.
- People are starting laughter meet-up groups to take advantage of the positive effects of laughing. They meet and laugh. No kidding…
While all these data points were rattling around in my head, I was drawn back to the Thanksgiving table by the laughter of my family. They were involved in their own restaurant gag and laughing up a storm. It seems that the group was riffing on what they would do with a ‘horror-themed’ eatery. They named their restaurant ‘Stake-n-stein’ with ‘stein’ pronounced as ‘shteen’ in homage to Gene Wilder in the Young Frankenstein movie. Looking at them, I came to another conclusion: spontaneity beats reconstruction!
Rock on, I say! Free the endorphins and save the frogs!
Laugh F. W. Sanderson 'Tis by the heart the secret's told, 'Tis by the smile we're young or old, 'Tis as the life its joy shall hold, It is the laugh reveals the soul. ------
It isn’t often enough that I remember laughing so hard that my cheeks ache and tears come to my eyes. You know, the deep down, automatic, self-generating kind of laugh that builds to a point where you can’t control it no matter how hard you try. Wal, reminds us of one of those times when not only was I unable to stop laughing but I was on a free roll, feeding more ludicrous lines of humor that build on those from Wal and George – that co-constructive humor Wal mentioned in his piece. I love being in that moment when my body and mind react together pumping out whatever electro-chemical reactions that make one feel good, happy, alive, joyful, and so absorbed in the moment that I don’t want it to end.
Hence, during one of our following weekly Zoom sessions, I asked if we could attempt to recreate the experience by recalling the specifics. One reason was that in the moment of its creation, it felt so clever that I wondered if the idea, which I thought was a brilliant design concept, had a chance at reality. That is, if we organized it into a proposal, with a detailed layout of how each area of the restaurant would look and replicated the menu we brainstormed, it might actually have a chance of catching someone’s attention: someone who might want to put it into a working model. The other purpose of my request was to simply relive the experience of this highly creative and deep laughter. The idea of revisiting that positive and upbeat place was enormously seductive. But, as Wal already wrote, we couldn’t replicate it. The door had closed, and we could barely remember the descriptors we used that triggered such a lasting experience.
Perhaps something so intricate and complex as what each of us brought to the conversation on that particular day during that specific time connected to each of our unique experiences, needs, and emotional states of being, could never be recreated and we will have to live with the idea that it was synchronous for only that moment.
I love to laugh. Sometimes, I fall prey to fits of convulsive laughter from an unintended behavior, usually mine. Such was the case about six years ago when Teresa and I were staying at a hotel in New Hampshire with Ellen and Mark, my sister and brother-in-law. The elevator door opened while we were all engaged in conversation so when I stepped in and the others didn’t, I decided to make believe an unseen occupant hiding in the front corner was yanking me in. I turned, placed my own arm around my neck and jerked backward hoping to disappear behind the section of elevator that was off to the left of the opening. When I lurched backward into what should have been empty space, I inadvertently hit the corner of the wall with my head and knocked myself down on the floor, stunned! As I looked up into the now horrified and silent faces of my family, I couldn’t help but crack a smile. The way Mark looked at me when he asked if I was having a seizure coupled with my total embarrassment escalated my smile to full blown laughter. It was one of those moments when everything was just right for it to spread and continue for the entire ride in the elevator and into our rooms. When one of us would think about the incident later at dinner, we would all laugh so hard some of us would have to leave the table. The next morning at breakfast, Mark told me he didn’t sleep much because Ellen woke up at 2:00 am hysterical after remembering it. And so, it continues to this day. Whenever I think about it, like now, I easily fall into the kind of laughter that makes my cheeks hurt and causes tears to pour from my eyes. Just now I had to stop and collect myself before I could continue.
For me, it’s the memory of all of us laughing, of seeing their faces at the moment of my insanity, and notion that after all of this time, the experience so easily triggers this automatic, compulsive, deep laughter. While I hope not to take any more blows to the head, I do hope I find more opportunities to laugh with reckless abandon.
“If you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know the man, don’t bother analyzing his ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, or seeing how much he is moved by noble ideas; you’ll get better results if you just watch him laugh. If he laughs well, he’s a good man…All I claim to know is that laughter is the most reliable gauge of human nature.” — Feodor Dostoyevsky
Humor is a very personal thing. What I find humorous others may not. On that particular day, Henry, Wally and I just in the course of normal conversation about folks our age, hit a chord where all of us bought into the joke and ran with it. Wally and I had just been to lunch with another fraternity brother and were preparing for a reunion at the college. We were trying to come up with a contest and the winner of it would receive an old baseball-style cap as reward. We started with basic questions to ask that we could somehow score. One of the categories was how many “ists” do you see? Cardiologist, urologist, dermatologist, neurologist, endocrinologist……therapist, psychiatrist, ventriloquist, mixologist —well you get the point. And we were laughing out loud in this college hangout developing this list. The winner I think had something like 15 “ists” that he saw. We left lunch that day feeling really good cause we had shared this laughter and it did the body good. This is a different kind of laughter than when someone tells a joke. That is a short giggle to laugh, which ends relatively quickly and has little therapeutic value. The other thing I realized is that solitary laughter is short lived and kind of empty. I think the value of laughter lies in the sharing of the common experience that caused it. Once the sharing occurs, the laughter takes on a life of its own. I start to laugh and then when you respond with more laughter, it eggs me on more and louder transitioning from the giggle to the hearty laughter to downright guffawing which causes biological responses. A guffaw is usually accompanied by facial distortions, belly bends, hand motions to cover our mouths or hold our bellies. The verbal part of humor expression or laughter often leads us to choking or coughing as one tries to get a grip. But all of these body convulsions just add to the humor and allows it to continue far longer than necessary and long enough to draw attention from innocent passersby. The benefit of this sharing is a feeling of euphoria and good will toward all at least temporarily.
So, on that day Henry and Wally and I had this out of body experience we all needed. We began somehow talking about a restaurant for senior citizens where the menu was directed at ailments we have all experienced in our lives, or as Henry calls these discussions, organ recitals. We began by coming up with specific menu choices and the restaurant itself. Wally came up with the name “The Waiting Room.” As an aside, we have tried to remember the things that broke us up into hysterics that day, several times and they eluded us. But to give you an idea I did a sample menu of the restaurant:
The Waiting Room
-a senior dining experience- relaxing and curative cuisine, soft organ music in the background; blood pressure cuffs and oxygen at every table
The Whine List: Cham Pain and Prosicko always available intravenously
- Bed Panini
- Fish n Hips
- Heart-o-Tacos (idea stolen from WC)
- and for that special elderly gentleman, Cease Hair Salad
Desserts- to top off the evening meal with an after-dinner drink of Creme Dementia and a large bowl of Sore Bay
Well, it was much funnier when it was spontaneous, and the humor of one of us built on the humor of the other two. It is one of those things you just can’t duplicate and when you try to tell others how funny it all was it falls flat. But on that day, at that time and place it was the best, belly grabbing, snorting, throw your head back and let go laugh I have had in a very long time and boy did I need that! I’ll have the Sore Bay please.