May 22, 2000
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, theyve 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 studys principal investigators
- cancer researchers Dr. Margaret Stuber, professor at UCLAs Neuropsychiatric
Institute, and Dr. Lonnie Zeltzer, director of the Pediatric Pain Program at UCLAs
Mattell Childrens 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 networks 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, Whos 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
Two years ago, she began acquiring rights to the classic comedies. "They have held
up, and theres gotta be a reason for that," says Hilber. "Also,
scientifically, its likely that many children havent seen these clips, so in
most cases well 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.
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
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. Theyll 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 childrens 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, hes helping now the way
he always wanted to help. He would love Rx Laughter like nobodys 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
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 youre born with."
Directing that weapon at deadly disease is the ultimate aim. "Its 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 ones sense of humor changes
brain chemistry. The goal now is find out how exactly that can impact healing."
So dont be too surprised if in about five years youre 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
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