Op-Ed: Patt Morrison asks: Laughter expert Lee Berk discusses the physiology of comedy

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart hosts “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” in New York on Nov. 30, 2011.

(Brad Barket / Associated Press)

The ancient Greeks and the Romans had gods of laughter. So does the Shinto religion. And then there’s that bible verse that “a merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”  At Loma Linda University, a Seventh Day Adventist institution whose motto is “To Make the Man Whole,” Lee Berk is a pioneering medical specialist researching how the brain and the body interact. A good, old-fashioned belly laugh can be good for the belly and other body parts too. But in this comical yet snarky political season, are all laughs created equal?


So we know that there are endorphins when we feel good, elements in our bodies that help us fight pain, and other elements that help when we’re stressed out. How does humor work, laughing work, physically in the body?

I was intrigued back in the late ‘70s, very late ‘70s, early ‘80s about the impact of what was called the runners’ high. But nobody in medicine were accepting or believing that that was physiology or biology – it was something mystical. And the technology allowed for us and we actually did the initial studies on subjects who were exercising by putting them on treadmills and taking their blood samples. And we actually could show that the endorphins would rise in those that were exercising.


With the laughter research, we were showing that laughter could reduce the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine or adrenalin.

The acronym HAML – humor-associated mirthful laughter -- suggests that there are other kinds of laughter than mirthful. I can think of sardonic laughter, I suppose, and laughter instead of crying laughter.

Yeah, there are different forms of laughter. There’s schizophrenics who have organic disease that can laugh uncontrollably, but it’s not the same brain chemistry or physiology as one who’s experiencing mirthful laughter.

We see people are observed, or observe people, being injured or hurt and we laugh at them. In that case one is really enjoying the pathology as opposed to the mirthful or joyfulness.


So you don’t get the medical benefit of that kind of laughter?
That is absolutely correct.
What about the kind of maybe desperate laughter we’re doing now by the millions watching this current presidential campaign?

There is a sense of laughter that is encased in coping: I’m laughing because I don’t want to cry, I’m laughing because I don’t know what else to do. A lot of Americans are perceiving a lot of what’s going on right now with elections as being beyond silliness, so a coping modality is to laugh or chuckle at it. I mean, you don’t see people going down the street crying about it – well, not yet.
There is so much comedy out there, everywhere: a number of TV shows, late-night shows, an entire channel called “comedy,” YouTube, Twitter is full of it – so why aren’t we in a better frame of mind?
Depends on what we’re selection. And the question is whether the stresses of our current existence in life and lifestyles are superseding our ability to cope with them.
Do you hear from doctors who will prescribe for their patients, and say, “Watch six episodes of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and call me in the morning?

Absolutely. It is synonymous with what used to occur with exercise. Before exercise, aerobic exercise was purported as being good for you, as opposed to being silly. The same is true relative to humor and laughter. There are benefits, there are defined hormone benefits, decreasing stress hormone benefits, decreasing high blood pressure , increasing components of the immune system that help fight off disease, that help certain immune cells.

And the dilemma is, can we prescribe it so it becomes part of the artillery of the therapeutic process? “Here, take these antibiotics, but I want you to laugh and watch a couple of sitcoms that you enjoy.”


There was an actor, supposedly Edmund Keane, who had this to say about comedy [that dying is easy, comedy is hard]. Everyone pretty much cries at the same thing but laughs at different things. How do you accommodate that in your research?
I cannot use the same humor for every subject. Humor is culture based, humor is subculture-based and humor is individualized within that subculture that they live. So that which one finds humorous, the other finds irritating. We have a list of different types of comedy for them to select from for that which they find humorous and funny.

Because I can’t force you or any subject to watch Abbott and Costello, a young person to be engrossed in Abbott and Costello where they have grown up in the era of Ellen DeGeneres and other current comedians. So there’s a different interpretation of what is comedy.

A lot of the comedy that’s portrayed on television today, and the terms that are used as this is humor or comedy, is one of degradation. If I use the phrase that “your mother looks like a pig,” then push the canned laughter button for the sitcom – the kids are watching this, then are being  conditioned that this is what comedy is supposed to be and I’m supposed to laugh at it.
This seems to be an instance where common wisdom was way ahead of medical wisdom. You had, in “Reader’s Digest,” a “Laughter is the Best Medicine” section. In “Mary Poppins,” you have a character who floats away into the room when he laughs because it makes him feel better. The great author and editor Norman Cousins wrote about using laughter to fight disease. When he was diagnosed with a heart ailment, he found that watching ten minutes of the Marx Brothers or “Candid Camera” gave him two hours of painless sleep.

The person that’s responsible for the current state of mind-body medicine is Norman Cousins. Norman Cousins came down to Loma Linda and sat across the table from me with his wife and said, I want to show that laughter can affect the immune system and your hormones. He says, How much money would it take? I said, I don’t know what to tell you. How about $80,000? The next words out of his mouth were, Who do I write the check to? That’s how we got started.
There’s been for decades a resistance in some quarters of standard medicine to anything that doesn’t seem measurable, to the idea of, for example, even acupuncture – things that are not part of the Western medical canon. Did you encounter that?
Yep. The medicine back in the 1970s and 1980s, the resistance was enormous was because medicine was in a black box. If you couldn’t measure it, it didn’t exist. Eastern medicine, however, always was into that, the yin, the yang, so in some sense they were ahead of Western medicine. So that was the era that complementary alternative medicine started. Now I can show you that indeed that the brain can influence the production of hormones.


Who would you like to sit down in a chair in your lab and test – someone like Jon Stewart, maybe? What would you look for?
I would look for the results so that I could interpret the results relative to Jon Stewart. I would want to look at his brain state when he’s laughing and when he’s under stress.
What makes you laugh?
Oh, golly, I’ve got grandkids that are a scream. I watch comedy skits. I love Tim Conway and Harvey Korman doing their skit when he is sitting in the dental chair. Every time I watch it, which is almost every other day, it is absolutely uplifting for me.

See, humor and laughter produces dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is pleasure and reward. It’s our own intrinsic, internal medicine.

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