UCLA studies therapeutic effects of laughter
By Robert Monroe, Staff Writer
WESTWOOD -- Their last names are the first names in comedy -- Marx, Costello, Fields -- and on Tuesday, the children and grandchildren of comic legends took part in a singular tribute.
A half dozen celebrity children, themselves now in middle age, and the writers who made "I Love Lucy" a comedy classic toured the Mattel Children's Hospital at UCLA where a study of the therapeutic effects of laughter on healthy and ill children will begin next month.
Researchers there will show Abbott and Costello and Marx Brothers movies as well as famous television comedies to children whose parents might not have been born at the zenith of such films. Chris Costello, daughter of Lou Costello, believes, though, that time will be no barrier to the Simpsons and South Park generation.
"It's timeless. It's universal," said Costello, a Burbank resident who still gets mail from young viewers of her father's slapstick comedies. After seeing colorized versions of his movies, some adolescents have concluded he is still alive, she said.
The five-year project, "Rx Laughter", created & developed by entertainment industry network and production executive Sherry Dunay Hilber, is aided by a $75,000 grant from Comedy Central, the cable television network. It will be the first to specifically study cardiac and immune system responses of children exposed to comedy. The study begins next month when healthy schoolchildren at Seeds University Elementary School, located on the UCLA campus, will help determine what still works comedically and what doesn't by watching classic film and TV shows.
About eight months later, researchers Lonnie Zeltzer and Margaret Stuber will show comedy videos to ill children. If researchers find a therapeutic value, cartoons, TV shows and films could be used in the care of ill children during frightening treatments like blood draws and chemotherapy to help ease stress, fear and promote faster healing.
"They're really creating models that can diffuse out of UCLA to other children's hospitals that can be used around the country," said Dr. Edward McCabe, physician-in-chief of Mattel Children's Hospital.
Costello and Bill Marx, son of Harpo Marx, and Melissa Talmadge Cox, granddaughter of Buster Keaton, are members of an advisory board to the project. The researchers showed them the sites at the UCLA Medical Center where their parents' videos will be shown.
The tentative slate of videos stresses comedies with physical humor to which children can relate. It doesn't yet include any of Comedy Central's current offerings. The network's line-up includes the news spoof "The Daily Show" and "Kids in the Hall" as well as "South Park." Chris Costello said some newer comedies are riskier when it comes to showing them to children.
"Modern-day comedy, you really have to be careful. A lot of it is good but a lot of it is off-color," Costello said.
Representatives of the network couldn't be reached for comment.
Robert Carroll Jr. said he has no doubt that "I Love Lucy" will have benefits. If his name might ring a bell to viewers of the 1950s' show, it's because he was one of its writers. He accompanied fellow "Lucy" writer Madelyn Pugh Davis on Tuesday's tour. Through generations of reruns, Carroll, a fan of the sitcoms "Becker" and "Frasier," said he still hears from fans.
"It's helped (people) get through the day. If you're laughing, you won't cry so much," the 81-year-old Laurel Canyon resident said.