Rx Laughter: The health benefits of comedy
By A.J.S. Rayl
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
A Doctor In Your House.com
Can comedy actually help you heal?
The descendants of legendary comedians Charlie Chaplin, Lou Costello,
W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, and Harpo Marx grew up believing it
does. Now, they’ve joined forces with an entertainment industry
executive and a team of physician-researchers who are seeking to
prove scientifically that laughter often truly is the best medicine.
Their five-year investigation - dubbed Rx Laughter - will measure
the impact of humor and laughter on pain and immune function in
children. The study’s principal investigators - cancer researchers
Dr. Margaret Stuber, professor at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric
Institute, and Dr. Lonnie Zeltzer, director of the Pediatric Pain
Program at UCLA’s Mattell Children’s Hospital - are
the first to analyze the subject by examining results from both
healthy and sick children.
"We're not suggesting laughter will be a curative on its own,"
"But we are hypothesizing that something additional happens,
something more than a reduction in stress," adds Zeltzer.
This work will expand that of laughter therapy pioneer Norman Cousins
and the research he endowed at UCLA, as well as the basic science
studies of Dr. Lee Berk of Loma Linda University School of Medicine,
reported here in February (A Doctor in Your House.com, Feb. 24).
The non-profit venture has been funded in part by a $75,000 grant
from Comedy Central, part of the cable network’s Comedy Rx
program created to heighten awareness of the positive effects of
Sitcoms to science
While Rx Laughter is a scientific study, it was actually the brainstorm
of former ABC and CBS programming executive Sherry Dunay Hilber.
After spending 10 years overseeing such hit sitcoms as Home Improvement,
Roseanne, Coach, Who’s The Boss?, and Cybill, Hilber found
herself at a point where she wanted to steer her talents into a
meaningful, lasting project. "I wanted more than looking at
the ratings to see how we did last night on a show."
Two years ago, she began acquiring rights to the classic comedies.
"They have held up, and there’s gotta be a reason for
that," says Hilber. "Also, scientifically, it’s
likely that many children haven’t seen these clips, so in
most cases we’ll get pure responses."
Almost as soon as Hilber 'pitched' her concept to Drs. Stuber and
Zeltzer, the team was formed. Within weeks the Rx Laughter Advisory
Board enlisted Josephine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie Chaplin; Chris
Costello, daughter of Lou Costello of Abbott & Costello; Ron
Fields, grandson of W.C. Fields; and Bill Marx, son of Harpo Marx.
Echoing the sentiments of the others, Josephine Chaplin said: "My
father spent his life making people laugh, and anything that is
positive like this and that has to do with children and sick children
in hospitals, you just do whatever you can."
Health and humor
Rx Laughter is currently in the first phase of selecting the material
and defining the study parameters. The second phase will test healthy
children to establish a "baseline comedy" gauge. The third
phase will test the impact of laughter and humor on children with
cancer, HIV, and other disorders.
Comedy is a subjective art, yet the study will attempt to deliver
some objective results. For example:
Does it matter how much somebody laughs versus how funny they think
something is? Is the operative factor the physical act of laughter?
Or does the mental acknowledgement of something funny have the same
Does a simple chuckle exert a different kind of physiological impact
than a full-on belly laugh?
What are the differences, if any, across gender lines? Ethnicity
lines? Age groups?
Will a sick child respond physiologically the same as a healthy
In their quest for answers, the UCLA team will measure the direct
physiological responses of the autonomic nervous system, the part
of the central nervous system that regulates involuntary action.
Initially, they will take low-invasive measurements of heart rate,
blood pressure, and stress hormones.
They plan to extend the tests down the line, adding blood surveys
to investigate comedic impact on the immune system via additional
hormones, neurotransmitters, and natural killer cells. They’ll
also look into whether certain comedies work best for certain disorders
or diseases and which individuals respond to which types of humor.
Preliminary results will be available in two years, with definitive
data due at the five-year mark.
Wit and wellness
Meanwhile, initial tests are already producing plenty of yuks,
and everyone seems to be betting that positive biologic responses
will be found.
"It was so wonderful to hear what was a quiet room, just the
humming of machines, turn into a roomful of laughter as a result
of these clips we brought that were done 50 years ago," said
Costello, following a recent tour of the children’s facilities
at UCLA. "This is so needed."
Her father, Lou Costello, had a special connection with kids, and
frequently made visits to hospitals. "When he was laid up for
a year with rheumatic fever, he made a point of writing to every
child he heard of who was also bedridden," Costello recalls.
"Children were one of his passions. I could almost feel him
walking through the halls with me when I was at UCLA."
Even W.C. Fields, who cantankerously claimed publicly to ‘hate
kids and dogs,’ would have approved, said grandson Ron. "Truth
be told, he’s helping now the way he always wanted to help.
He would love Rx Laughter like nobody’s business."
While the science gets under way, a 30-minute comedy health education
video, shot in six five-minute segments, is in the works. Written
by Fields, it will star an animated, young W.C., very hip and modern,
but with all the irreverence and wit, and inflection of the original.
The first video - which executive producer Hilber hopes will become
a series - will deal with the problems children confront when they
have cancer. Down the road, Hilber envisions an in-house comedy
channel to debut at the new UCLA hospital and spread to hospitals
across the country.
The descendants, meanwhile, remain convinced that comedy is a healthy
thing. While none of them became professional comedians - "How
do you follow acts like that?" asked Costello - they all inherited
"a very natural ability to laugh," as Chaplin put it,
from their famously funny forebears.
"You grow up with what you know," muses Bill Marx. "In
my case, I grew up with some wackos who taught me that when you
have a sense of humor, you automatically have an option in your
view of life. Dad always told me, ‘A sense of humor is the
only weapon you’re born with.’"
Directing that weapon at deadly disease is the ultimate aim. "It’s
clear to me that people who are able to distance themselves and
not get absorbed in all the tension of the moment feel better,"
says Stuber. "We know one’s sense of humor changes brain
chemistry. The goal now is find out how exactly that can impact
So don’t be too surprised if in about five years you’re
doctor hands you a prescription, then says: ‘Take one dose
of Chaplin, follow-up with an Abbott & Costello, W.C. Fields,
and a Buster Keaton, and top all of it off with Marx Brothers. Then,
call me in the morning’