Laugh and the World Laughs With You

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A concrete Tyrannosaurus Rex stands at the entrance to Ambazari Garden in Nagpur, its expression locked in a grimace. I imagined it was reacting to the same sound I was hearing, a huge, primordial roar coming through a thick hedge. Entering the park, I emerged onto a large lawn. In front of me was a crowd of 500 people standing there laughing so hard that many were on the verge of collapse  It was 6:30 on a Sunday morning, and I could see nothing funny. In the middle of the crowd, a big man was shouting into a microphone, but since I don’t speak Marathi, I had no idea what he was saying. The atmosphere was electric. The next moment I was being chased by a gang of middle-aged men who were trying to tickle me. I was either going to stand and fight, run, or burst into laughter. For the next half hour, I laughed for every reason there is to laugh. I pretended to be an airplane, a monkey. I made imaginary phone calls. I bonded with a man whose laugh sounded like a walrus—he barked, I laughed. Then suddenly, at around 7 a.m., it all stopped. We walked to another lawn, bordered by large bougainvilleas, to be welcomed with garlands of flowers, food, and drink. I caught a lift back to my hotel with some of the laughers, and en route we pulled over for gas under a sign with a huge yellow arrow pointing to the exact geographic center of India. It seemed appropriate to laugh, so we got out and laughed until we couldn’t stand up. Some of the garage staff came over and joined in.

 

This was my first encounter with a Laughter Club. I’d come to India on assignment to photograph Gopinath Muthukad, a magician touring India. In the show’s finale that same evening, a local VIP was invited onstage to examine a box in which the magician was to be sawed in half. I recognized the VIP as one of the gang of ticklers who’d just chased me across the lawn.

I followed the magician on his tour and ended up laughing my way across India. It was an unexpected, madcap odyssey, and while on it I inadvertently discovered a new kind of vacation—laughter tourism. Laughter, I was tickled to learn, offers a different and stimulating way to see and experience Indian culture, a new twist on the old cliché of the Eastern journey of self-discovery—and it’s far more restorative than lying on a beach. My particular journey has resulted in my first film, a documentary called Laughter Club.

Laughter Clubs were born in the early hours of March 13, 1995, when a young Indian doctor named Madan Kataria was writing an article on the health benefits of laughter. Kataria had read the American writer Norman Cousinss account of his recovery from the incurable degenerative disease ankylosing spondylitis. Cousins used a combination of laughter (from watching the Marx Brothers and Candid Camera reruns) and large doses of vitamin C. The thought struck Kataria, if laughter is so beneficial, why not do it deliberately? He acted immediately, going to a park near his home in Lokhandwala, Mumbai, and persuading four strangers to stand with him and laugh.

Soon a group of people were meeting there daily. At first they told jokes, but supplies quickly ran out, forcing them into increasingly blue humor, which upset the ladies present. Then Kataria had his second revelation: Why not abandon jokes altogether and laugh for no reason? A movement was born. In the years since then, Kataria’s simple idea has grown from four people to over 6,000 clubs worldwide, including over 100 in the United States, many in California. Oprahs makeup artist tried it, and she featured him on her show (“The stress lifted from my soul,” he said).

In Kataria’s book Laugh for No Reason, he describes how he developed simple techniques for generating laughter. Instead of jokes, the clubs use physicality and playfulness. As I’d found out in Nagpur, laughter can be induced in a large group by doing silly things such as running around pretending to be airplanes or just by tickling. The key element is eye contact—look into the eyes of someone who’s laughing and just try not to laugh. In these conditions, laughter becomes involuntary and highly contagious. At first I found it hard to make a fool of myself in public, but I got used to it surprisingly quickly.

But laughter can also be contagious to the point of being dangerous. The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic of 1962 is a well-documented instance. It started when a group of schoolgirls got the giggles. The laughter spread quickly, leading to the school’s closure, and eventually the whole district was infected with uncontrollable and at times incapacitating laughter. It lasted two and a half years. So far there hasn’t been a repeat of the Tanganyika experience in India.

Though humans have been laughing for over 6 million years, scientists didn’t research the subject seriously until about 25 years ago—which is odd considering we laugh on average 15 to 20 times a day. Robert R. Provine, author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, provides valuable insight based on extensive fieldwork, some of it surprising (speakers laugh 46 percent more than their audience; females laugh more than males), some of it less so (most laughter isn’t triggered by humor and jokes but is empathetic). Laughter is a social signal, and we seldom laugh alone—in most societies solitary laughter is a symptom of insanity—though I did see Kataria laugh by himself in the back of a car for over three minutes.

According to scientists, the body can’t detect the difference between real and fake laughter, gaining the same benefits from either. Among these benefits are the production of feel-good hormones, the reduction of stress-inducing hormones, and a boosting of the immune system. Laughter provides exercise, is a muscle relaxant, and acts as an anesthetic. It’s hard work. Physiologically, laughing for more than 45 seconds in one burst is really difficult.

Although some American clubs have certified instructors and collect fees, in India membership is free and anyone can join in—including foreign tourists. In the past 12 years, Laughter Clubs have become a way of life: Visit any park in India, and you’re likely to find a club. You don’t need a sense of humor to be in a Laughter Club, or even a sense of irony. For six weeks, I toured India seeking them out. I found them everywhere—in parks, schools, factories, offices, hospitals. In the army. I even found a laughing police force. In Rajasthan I met Superintendent Chetan Dev, an enlightened prison governor who allowed laughter in all 17 of his prisons. One social group that has found freedom in laughter are the women of India. In a mostly conservative society, women now comprise over 60 percent of Laughter Club membership, and there are many all-female Laughter Clubs.

In those six weeks I laughed more than I’d ever laughed before. I felt better for it; there was a noticeable increase in my energy levels, and I was sleeping better at night. At first I tried to take pictures, but it was almost impossible while laughing. When I did manage to get some shots, I saw ambivalence in the soundless images. In photographs of laughter, the subjects often look like they’re suffering from acute appendicitis. After I returned to London, a magazine photo editor pointed out the obvious: Laughter without sound and movement doesn’t quite do it. Film became the means to an end for me, the best medium for capturing the intense energy and spectacle of Laughter Clubs.

Initially I found it hard to locate the clubs—they sprout in quiet corners of parks when most of the world is still asleep, and by the time it wakes up they’re long gone. Trying to convey what you’re looking for in sign language to rickshaw and taxi drivers can be a challenge. Sometimes my frustration would manifest itself in Lost Tourist Laughter. But gradually I became adept at locating likely laughter spots. One giveaway is noise—even in the land of the incessant car horn, the sound of Laughter Clubs stands out, though following the sound in a local park at sunrise often leads to more than one club.

A typical Laughter Club meeting lasts 30 to 45 minutes and attracts anywhere from 30 to 100 people, split into two groups, men and women, with a leader standing at the front. The clubs start with a series of warm-up exercises, gentle stretching, yoga, and breathing; sometimes there’s a short break for a joke or an announcement. After the warm-up, it’s down to business. Each laugh has a title that dictates the action—for instance, for Monkey Laughter, everyone acts like monkeys. It’s hard not to laugh in the midst of 60 monkey impersonators. Each laugh starts and ends with rhythmic clapping and the chanting of “Ho-ho, ha-ha-ha, ho-ho, ha-ha-ha!” Over time several laughters have become very popular—Milkshake, Lottery, One Meter, Appreciation, Bird, Gibberish, and Crazy laughter, to name but a few. As often as not, I’d launch into completely the wrong laugh, which only added to everybody’s fun. Between the laughs are breathing exercises. Then, after about 20 minutes of laughter, the meeting ends with a nondenominational prayer and a big, final shout: “We are the happiest people in the world! Yes! We are the healthiest people in the world! Yes! We are Laughter Club members! Yes!”

The place where I’ve done the most laughing is on a hill above the city of Kolhapur, south of the Deccan plateau, about 110 miles north of Goa. This is where the Tramboli Laughter Yoga Club meets 365 days a year. Kolhapur is famous for Indian wrestling (kusti), for an extremely hot variety of chili pepper (mirchi), and for Kolhapur Mirchi Laughter, which is much practiced throughout India. There are more than 50 Laughter Clubs in the area—so many that the municipal council has considered naming Kolhapur “the Official World Capital of Laughter.”

One morning at the Tramboli club, a group of young soldiers came over to watch the proceedings. The club’s numbers had swelled that week because of school holidays. The anchorperson gave the command for Mirchi Laughter, and along with everyone else I started running in place in very fast little steps, fanning my mouth (which wasn’t hard to do after suffering the hot Kolhapuri cuisine). I looked up and, through my tears, saw that some of the soldiers were now laughing, too. Two sets of laughs later and all the spectators—soldiers, kids, everyone—were doing Bangra Laughter, hopping around on one foot, arms out-stretched. At that moment it seemed the entire planet had lost itself in laughter.

My movie is now in the can. I’m in Los Angeles for a new festival called Pangea Day, which its sponsors bill as “a global event bringing the world together through film.” I’ve made a four-minute cut of scenes from Laughter Club, to be screened along with scenes from 25 other movies and to be aired in 150 countries. Goldie Hawn takes the stage with Kataria and introduces my film. We watch with millions around the planet, including many laughers in India who get to see themselves. Then Kataria asks everyone to stand and laugh for the universe. On huge screens, we see people standing, in North America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and South America. And then we all laugh. For a moment, like that morning on the hill above Kolhapur, the whole world has become a Laughter Club.

To learn where to get the giggles in India, click here. "Laugh and the World Laughs With You" originally appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Culture+Travel. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Culture+Travel's July/August 2008 Table of Contents.