Friday, July 13, 2007

My history with the healing power of laughter.

In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer-Albert Camus

In 1996 I moved to Chicago to fulfill a lifelong dream to perform as a comedian. With this in mind, I enrolled in classes at the world famous Second City, and within a few months had performed in a couple of shows around the city, it was the least funny time in my life. What I hadn't counted on was the "business" side of comedy that eventually reared its ugly head, and soon, in the midst of this environment, I found a great deal of the joy and enthusiasm I had for making people laugh had slowly disappeared. Still I soldiered on, and along the way met some very funny people, who, like myself, were also deeply flawed. It was during this period of my life when I truly began to understand the relationship between comedy and pain as I continued to observe my fellow performers, along with hearing anecdotes about former Second City stars like John Belushi and Chris Farley. This relationship between comedy and pain would eventually be the basis of my first book

Eventually I left this little world in Chicago, and took a job working as an entertainer in a nursing home where I was quickly assigned to the Alzheimer's unit. I was making 8 dollars an hour, driving a shitty car, and living in an apartment without hot water, it was the happiest time of my life.

Working with seniors and making them laugh in the last days of their lives was an incredibly powerful experience, and soon the joy that originated from the power of laughter was back in my life. Although the job was often very difficult, the little moments throughout the day where I was able to bring someone back from the brink of despair with some silly gesture made it all worthwhile. It was while working this job that I came to an amazing conclusion; laughter can save lives.

Now I understand this is an extraordinary claim, and my own personal evidence was to this point based primarily on a few observations, but I knew I has witnessed something very powerful. Suddenly people who hadn't spoken in years were laughing and singing and dancing, and people who otherwise laid in bed all day were now eagerly getting up in the morning.

Lest I take full credit for getting these people out of bed, I want to make clear that it was not my jokes that were creating these changes, but simply the act of laughing itself. Although these people's memories had in many ways failed them, the stimulation they received from the physical act of laughing created changes that were clearly visible. The communal act of getting people together and simply laughing is utterly contagious, and despite their cognitive deficits, it was my experience that they still had a deep rooted desire to share in the laughter. Soon we were spending afternoons sitting in a circle sharing stories, and inevitably someone would begin laughing, often when it was at an utterly inappropriate point in the conversation. Soon the stories would end, and the laughter would spread throughout the room like a virus. During my first few weeks nurses would often come running into the room, sure that something was horribly wrong. I had disrupted their peace and quiet and also challenged their idea that these patients were "too far gone" to experience joy. Soon they were also on board however, unable to resist the contagiousness of unbridled silliness.

Eventually I would write a book about my experiences working with Alzheimer's patients
and looking back this was the happiest time of my life. Although I had come to Chicago to work as a comedian, I had found something infinitely more valuable through using the power of laughter to serve other people. This experience set me on a path to discover just what it was about laughter that was so powerful, and this is a journey I will continue to follow for the rest of my life. In conducting this research I have heard some truly amazing stories, and have also continued to conduct my own experiences in some highly unusual places. These stories and my continuing research will be the basis of this blog, and I hope these stories will inspire others to share their own stories about the healing power of laughter.


Term Project said...

It sounds like you've really made an impact on peoples lives through laughter. I'm doing a school speach about the benefits and aspects of laughter as it relates to the brain. I've said before that the best way to make a living is to make people laugh and you're living the dream. That's awesome.

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