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Laughter bubbles from the surface of play and it grows from surprises.

When my daughters were very young, understanding how much they loved pleasing an audience, I taught them a few simple jokes. The piping voices would recite: “A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says, ‘Why the long face?” Or another one I made up, also guaranteed for a laugh from grownups, especially around St. Patrick’s Day, a knock-knock joke: “Knock, Knock. Who’s there? Margaret Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher who? Margaret, that ‘yer nose, or are you eating a banana!?

Laughter bubbles from the surface of play and it grows from surprises like these that both draw from and spoof all that we know from our experience and education, and from all that we infer from our social situations. Unlike their adult audiences, our little comedians had never met a bartender and had no way to guess my feelings about contemporary British politics. But they knew that the joke, once delivered, would guarantee a laugh. And they found that making people laugh was almost as much fun as laughing.

Adults laughed at the jokes, too, usually after a beat. Timing is almost everything in delivering a joke. The popular and quirky comedian Steven Wright takes particular advantage of the gap between dawning understanding and glee as he surprises audiences with offbeat observations. Literally offbeat. His jokes disrupt the rhythms of our expectations. “I have a very large shell collection,” he will say. “I keep it on the beaches around the world.” And after a pause to let the laughter recede: “Perhaps you’ve seen it?”

It’s that momentary interval between the hearing and the laughing that interests neurobiologists; they observe that laughing at jokes requires substantial “cortical sophistication.” We need to think jokes like these through.

But we also laugh involuntarily. Sitting in the comedy club, college auditorium, or commandeered hockey arena, we share the laugh with other laughers. We laugh all the easier and harder when we’re together. We trust ourselves to laugh when others are laughing. When we laugh, the world laughs with us.

Consider another reason to be cracked up that requires company but that doesn’t entail thinking, or, in fact, any language at all. Think back to the last time you were tickled, physically tickled to the point where you couldn’t help laughing.

It’s not such a cheeky request. In the mid-1990s Robert Provine, the neuroscientist who took laughter on as his subject, administered a 52-item questionnaire to 421 people between the ages of 8 and 86, and found that 84% had reported tickling someone in the preceding year. (Kids tickle at will; new grandparents who rediscover the lost art of tickling will have trouble finding a greater reward than a tickled toddler’s giggle). So again, when you were tickled, (or when you tickled someone, or when you watched somebody tickling somebody else) remember how you laughed without thinking. No thought process needed to interrupt your chuckles.

And here’s the part that takes us to a deeper level. In this primal play scene as tickler or tickled, you laughed without thinking and you also laughed without talking. Language didn’t mediate your response. Your laughter will have carried the sound of a personal inflection; you laugh in your own voice. Possibly even with a regional accent. But you don’t laugh in your native language. Those belly laughs, pre-language “ha-ha-has,” “he-he-hes,” and “ho-ho-hos,” your squeaks and titters and blasts, sound pretty much like laughter everywhere on the planet. The sound is a direct pipeline to our basic humanity and our mammalian evolutionary past. Over the very long stretch, laughter brought us together and held us together.

It happens that laughter can be detached not just from its culture this way; but that glee itself, astonishingly, can be separated from humor. If you’ve ever laughed at just the wrong moment, in school, or if you’ve picked up and forwarded the unacceptable giggle at a solemn ceremony, let’s say, you will know something both of laughter’s irrepressibility and its communicability.

In those instances, laughter is surely a release, but it’s also an open conspiracy. The documentary The Laughing Club of India (1999) explores the allied phenomena of contagious laughter (laughter that has no cause other than laughter) that one physician exploited for its tension-reducing benefits. Dr. Madan Kataria, a physician in Mumbai, had heard the cliché that “laughter is the best medicine.” And after reading Norman Cousins’ bestseller, The Anatomy of an Illness, (1979), a classic about the therapeutic effects of laughter, he decided to investigate. The group of people that Kataria gathered for the purpose of laughing along quickly ran out of their best jokes, and inevitably, merriment evaporated.

Image Courtesy The Strong National Museum of Play
Tickle Me Elmo
Source: Image Courtesy The Strong National Museum of Play

But the physician discovered that asking his subjects to laugh theatrically, as if they were following a yoga breathing technique, itself produced a contagion of laughter. (The practice has since acquired its own designation in Hindi, hasyayoga.) The idea of laughing as spiritual exercise proved so pleasing that it spread. Now, even in reserved Indian culture, Laughing Clubs number in the thousands. By 2003 as many as 1500 had sprung up worldwide, and by now these clubs number perhaps 5,000, with more than an estimated 200 now gathering in the United States at beaches and in parks and at senior centers.

One American practitioner from Pasadena, Sebastian Gendry, when interviewed recently for NPR summed it up: “you do not have to have a sense of humor to laugh. You don’t have to be happy to laugh. You don’t have to have any reason to laugh. Faking it leads to making it. Motions lead to emotions.” Laughter club leaders like Gendry will council, “take yourself lightly and trust the playful child within you.”

Children, who often lead adults to play, instinctively know about the connection between play and trust. American kids who play the game Ha!, don’t know about hasyayoga, but they do know how to replicate its effects. They arrange themselves with heads resting on each others’ stomachs. They start with one abstract, pre-linguistic syllable, ha! And so as they reinfect themselves as laughter moves around the circle, they quickly dissolve into uncontrollable contagious guffaws. They roll as bellies spasm and heads bounce. Play like this holds them together and laughter sets them free. As experts at play, children understand instinctively that we need more mirth on Earth.