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May 22, 2000



"*If at first you don't succeed, try try again. Then quit. There's no use being a damn fool about it."
- W.C. Fields


Press Article
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," cautions Stuber.

"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 laughter.

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 effect?

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 child?

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.

Lifesaving laughter

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 healing."

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’