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[whitespace] Laughing Mouth

Two guys walk into a bar...

We don't know much about laughter, but we know that it can't be forced. Right? And we know humor has grown more sophisticated. Right? Think again.

By Traci Vogel

MY SENSE OF humor is at an ebb. Why? Because I am running late. There was traffic; I had to check some things back at the office; the Mapquest directions were unclear; there was traffic, midafternoon on a Tuesday--traffic I accounted for but not generously enough.

And the parking garage at the west end of Oracle's gigantic Redwood City campus appears to be empty. Not empty of cars--there are plenty of those, crammed into every available parking spot, including the skinny one on the fifth floor hedged in by fat cement pillars between which I have jammed my own cheapo compact--but empty of people. More exactly, people to whom I can address the questions I have regarding the hastily transcribed sheet of directions crumpled in my left fist.

While I may have a tendency to take it personally, the fact that it's (nearly) 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon probably explains the absence of human life. Every single Oracle-related Homo sapien who could guide me through this otherwise alien landscape is, no doubt, hard at work in front of some screen that glows with the future of database. Every one of them is aiding this technology giant in its corporate quest to live up to its Orwellian name.

Everyone, that is, except the 11 people I have agreed to meet--whom I should be meeting at this very moment--at Oracle's weekly Laugh Class.

I admit I'm pretty nervous about this Laugh Class. I don't really know much about it. Maybe this is why I'm late, on some ominously sneaky subconscious level. After all, who attends a class on laughing? What sort of people, I mean, other than prurient journalists? What kind of employees of California's politically embroiled tech giant need to be schooled in giggling?

Who are these people?

And more importantly, how the hell am I going to find them?

Scientifically Proven

Laughter is one of those physiological mysteries that, like the orgasm or a cat's purr, tends to hold power and charm because of its ability to elude scientific explanation. Nobody can suss out the mechanics of laughter, because nobody can figure out the exact wiring of the funny bone.

Some things are funny to some people, other things are funny to other, different people, and some things are generally funny to just about everyone, depending on the political climate and how good breakfast was.

Take this joke, for example:

    Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are going camping. They pitch their tent under the stars and go to sleep. Some time in the middle of the night, Holmes wakes Watson up.

    "Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you deduce."

    Watson says: "I see millions of stars, and even if a few of those have planets, it's quite likely there are some planets like Earth; and if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life."

    Holmes replies: "Watson, you idiot, somebody stole our tent!"

According to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), this is the scientifically proven funniest joke in the world. True, the British are famous for the frequently arcane bent of their humor, but BAAS's study incorporated English-speaking test subjects from around the world.

In fact, the whole experiment was conducted on the Internet, where a giant and democratic joke-producing program spat out gags at varying levels of hilarity until, with the grinding fractiousness of code written to a specific task, the funniness was whittled down to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, camping.

BAAS's announcement, which came this past March, was anticlimactic for many people, not just for Sherlock Holmes fans. The magazine Scientific American gave the following halfhearted review: "It's not really an awful joke, if you tell it right."

This not-really-awful joke is now doing its scientific duty as a diagnostic tool for human subjects, who are told the joke while wired up to a brain-scanning device that documents their visceral responses. The results will be announced in September.

Scientists hope, through these studies, to determine why we laugh at certain stimuli and not at others.

Executives at Fox deny any involvement.

Schooled

Spewed forth, dizzied and directionless, from a nauseously winding staircase designed to eject Oracle parking patrons, I stumble into a highly manicured but featureless courtyard. The courtyard is empty, of course.

Following one full minute of confused shuffling between twin mirrored office buildings, I finally run into a briefcase-toting woman who offhandedly informs me that the gymnasium (where the Laugh Class is held) is three sideways steps to my left. She hurries off, like the White Rabbit, before I can form my best outraged voice and ask her what Oracle's problem is with readable signage.

Anyway, there is a sign inside the gym, down the hallway where the front-desk guy with muscles like ham hocks leads me. It's a dry-erase board mounted on an easel, and the words "Laugh Class" are written on it in really shaky letters, as if someone in the helpless clutches of mirth had to scrawl it out in breathless hilarity--a good sign (ha).

The hallway and the room I hesitantly enter smack of seminars, or, even worse, vacation Bible school. The walls are a bloodless gray-white, and the carpeting is baby-blue Berber, the kind with really tiny loops. One whole wall is lined in tall opaque windows that glow like X-rays. On the adjacent wall, a series of dry-erase boards has been meticulously cleaned, and they reflect the gleam of the windows with insistent institutional well meaning. I feel a finals-week malaise coming over me.

In the center of the blue Berber, several twin-size cream-colored bed sheets have been carefully laid out. There are three very friendly-looking people sitting cross-legged and shoeless on the sheets.

They all greet me and announce their names, which I promptly forget--except that of the leader, a very attractive and serene-looking woman with long black hair, who seems to consciously lead with her chin. Her name is Johanna Chu.

The other people have not arrived yet; I needn't have worried so much about being late, which makes me kind of grumpy. Johanna is not the person who invited me to the class. That person's name is David.

"Where's David?" I ask.

Chu tells me he couldn't be here today; there's been a death in his family. I say, "Oh." It doesn't seem like a very promising start for a Laugh Class. But then again, neither does having to take off your shoes.

Mirth and Meditation

Oracle started hosting the Laugh Class a few months ago, at the request of some of its employees. As was reported ad nauseam at the height of Silicon Valley tech culture, the company offers a generous number of these kind of things for its servants--er, employees--as well as providing several spectacular gourmet un-cafeterias and on-site dry cleaning.

Many of these perks are run or taught by outside organizations, and the Laugh Class is no exception. The Laugh Class is run by something called the Art of Living Foundation. The weekly sessions are open to anyone. Separate classes are offered as occasional middle-management pep sessions.

Two things make me suspicious of the Art of Living Foundation--first, its initials spell "ALF," and second, something calling itself a foundation might actually believe that there is an "art" to living and that it can be taught.

I have always been of the muddle-through school of, or approach (never an art) to, living, a method that seems both more interesting than any supposedly universal set of rules and also potentially more fruitful, since any nonefficient person knows that mistakes are where the real action is at in life. Mistakes are where innovation grows like a medicinally beneficial mold, where creativity finds like-minded if slurry-dictioned partnerships--and where, to be more grandiose, evolution happens on the DNA strand, if I've been reading my Scientific American right.

So when a letter from ALF arrived via Metro's fax machine inviting a reporter person to the Laugh Class, this reporter person was nervous and skeptical. I called the number on the letter and was connected to David Turner, who helps organize the classes along with Johanna Chu.

Turner, whom I never did get to meet face-to-face, does not have the phone manner of a jokester. In fact, he has one of those phone voices that are so well modulated and hypnotically toned that you want to ask him questions just to hear him talk.

Part of his exceptional mellowness is explained, I discover, by the fact that David Turner wants to get beyond joke-induced laughter, to a kind of laughter that is, for lack of a better word, meditative.

"My personal experience is that laughter is an outward expression," Turner says, reflectively. "Most of our life revolves around outward expressions--talking or playing sports or watching TV or painting or whatever. Laughter is also an outward expression. It doesn't involve thinking. If one disengages the mind, the mental, the thinking, and goes a little inward with the laughing, then after the laughing they can go even deeper into a meditation."

I'm not quite sure what he means by this, so I try to get him to pinpoint exactly how the Laugh Class is related to meditation, and he says, "Well, there's this activity of laughing: endorphins get pumped through the system, one's using their belly. More endorphins equals more oxygen equals more outward expression. Because of that outward expression, then it's easy for the system to drop into itself into a kind of meditation and be more relaxed."

Um, how does that work, exactly? Turner says, "After the laughing then there's the quiet time."

And the quiet time is the meditation? Sort of, Turner says: "I think it's just such a release, a relief, to be so much in the moment. Normally, the mind goes from the past to the future, and it creates stress and strain, and to be free of that--to be right there with the laughing--is such a relief."

I give up on trying to understand the meditation thing, and ask Turner a more self-serving question: Are participants sometimes, say, shy or reluctant, and has he seen reluctant participants leave the class happy or transformed?

Yes, he replies, "I've seen people come who are so inhibited they're almost sitting there with their legs crossed and their arms crossed. They don't want to participate. Sometimes, I can get them to unwind a little. Sometimes, it doesn't work. I've had people walk out because they have barriers they can't get through."

I write down "Barriers, walk out" and underline it. Then I ask about the setup of the class. The laugh exercise, Turner says, happens in three parts, leading to meditation (See sidebar, "Ready, Set, Laugh"). I ask him to explain the group dynamic. Is this whole thing based on the concept that laughter is infectious?

"Well, yes, the more people there are, the easier it is to get it going, so to speak, and it'll behave almost more like a wave. There will be more laughter, and then people will settle down a little, and then there will be more laughter," he says.

Finally, I have to ask Turner what the Art of Living Foundation is, exactly. "Is it a religion?" I ask. "It's not a, like, cul--"

"No, no," he says. "It's not religious. The Art of Living is a nonprofit, tax-exempt educational organization that has also been appointed an NGO--a Non-Government Organization--by the U.N. The Art of Living is in about 360 countries worldwide."

Last October, Turner explains, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of ALF, asked a local woman named Carla Reichman to start a laughing club. Reichman trained Turner and Joanna Chu, and so far about 50 laughter sessions have occurred since then in the Bay Area. A good number of these are the regular ones at Oracle.

Say, Ha

When everyone has arrived, there are 11 people in the room, seated in an oblong circle. A few people here know one another from previous sessions, but most don't, so we all wait in awkward silence punctuated by the occasional awkward question (I ask, "Can I have my notebook out so I can take notes?" but, of course, I don't take any), scooting and wobbling to find comfortable positions, until finally, at 15 after, Johanna Chu says, "Welcome to the Laugh Class. My name is Johanna, and for our first exercise I'd like you to just sit comfortably and do exactly what I do."

Then, with the slow motion that defines certain scenes in horror movies, she opens her mouth and says, with exactly as much inflection as is written here on the page, "Ha ha ha. Ho ho ho. Hee hee hee."

Everyone else opens their mouths and says, "Ha ha ha. Ho ho ho. Hee hee hee."

Then Chu says, with slightly more inflection, "HA ha ha. HO ho ho. HEE hee hee," and everyone else says, "HA ha ha, HO ho ho, HEE hee hee."

I'm disappointed. This seems bad. This isn't laughing, is it? This is just mouthing the sounds of laughter. This is puppet laughter. This is like as if laughter were demonstrated on an alien planet. This is not "art," this is ... exercise.

I can tell Chu knows what I'm thinking, because as I clear my throat and expressionlessly but loudly repeat, "HOO HOO HOO," she kind of waves her hand at me in what is meant to be an encouraging way and makes forceful eye contact (I quickly learn that eye contact is vitally important to this exercise). I feel incredibly silly.

And then something weird starts happening. In the middle of about the sixth dutiful "har har har," I feel a convulsion in my throat.

And then I catch the eye of a woman across the room, and she grins. And I can feel that unmistakable squinch of the stomach, the choking on air that means laughter, and people all throughout the room are giggling. Suddenly, this is not so bad. In fact, it's kind of fun.

"OK," Chu says. "For your next exercise, I'd like everyone to pair up."

Immediately, I am no longer laughing. Pairing up? This sounds bad.

[line]

Ready, Set, Laugh: The philosophy of humor according to the Art of Living Foundation.

[line]

Me Funny, You Funny-Looking

The reassuring thing about laughter is that it is quite easy to believe that people are laughing hysterically at the exact same things nowadays they were laughing at hysterically when they lived in caves and ate raw meat. Funny faces, spit-takes, fingers V'd behind the head to make horns, people tripping--all this was no doubt the very fare of hilarity to the early hominids that it is to us.

In a way, humor defies evolution. Jokes these days aren't any more complicated or evolved than they were, say, 400 years ago--in fact modern jokes are simply retellings of ancient ones, with new names and occupations inserted, along with new props like cell phones and breast implants.

Take these jokes (please!) from the Philogelos, "The Laughter Lover" (circa the fourth or fifth century C.E.), the earliest surviving collection of comic genius, translated from the Greek:

    When an intellectual was told by someone, "Your beard is now coming in," he went to the rear entrance and waited for it. Another intellectual asked what he was doing. Once he heard the whole story, he said, "I'm not surprised that people say we lack common sense. How do you know that it's not coming in by the other gate?"

Or this classic:

    An intellectual had been at a wedding reception. As he was leaving, he said, "I pray that you two keep getting married so well."

Or this little zinger, from The Greek Anthology:

    Antiochus once set eyes on Lysimachus' cushion, and Lysimachus never set eyes on it again.

The ancient Greeks even had a version of the hoary "Polack" joke, only with an unfortunate subset called the Abderites:

    An Abderite saw a eunuch talking with a woman and asked him if she was his wife. When he replied that eunuchs can't have wives, the Abderite asked, "So is she your daughter?"

Chris Rock, eat your heart out.

The Birth of Funny

A sense of humor seems to be inborn. In infancy, throwing peas on the floor is hilarious. By second or third grade, every kid is jealous of the class clown. This is the person--usually a guy (Why? And why is there ever only one, at the most two, per class? Why not a whole class of class clowns?)--who gets to break in everyone's funny bone.

This is the person who intrinsically gets politics, early on, but even more importantly gets that politics can be completely undermined by what is technically called making fun of. This person knows, somehow, with his (or her) random childish intuition, that power involves everyday oppositions, and that pointing out those everyday oppositions is incredibly funny, and that laughter leads, always, to being loved by your peers.

There is no better testing place for humor than elementary school. Elementary school is a hothouse of innuendo. Innuendo grows there like orchids, with cartoonishly formed organs of procreation, and the class clown is an industrious cultivator.

When I was a kid, our class clown's name was Chris (which seems to be a pretty common name for class clowns, so moms watch out), and he was bused to our school from his hippie commune on a nearby island; he was, therefore, perpetually an hour late.

That first hour of school was consequently contextless. We all sat around making our own pathetic soft pitches at disruption such as belches or knuckle-cracks or attempts to throw our voices until Chris arrived, messy-haired from his ferrying and galvanized for hilarity. Then, the day could begin. Then, the day made sense.

Context. Subtext. Boundaries. These are the elements a class clown thrives on. There's something about the topography of a mass psychology, a shared history, a timeline. It meant that everyone would know the term "pulling a Leong" refers to the day Jenny Krager kissed Davey Leong and he nearly vomited in her mouth. That everyone understood the corner by Lincoln Street and Maple Avenue was where you could see into the school janitor's backyard, where piles of old textbooks moldered away, proving a child's sense of the dated nature of knowledge.

It's no surprise that most adult comedians were class clowns, but the transformation from a tight, defined audience to a universal one is what squashes most of them. The few that survive find themselves with a free hallway pass. The few who survived would never make it one minute into a laugh class.

Yo, Fool

In our interview, David Turner pegged himself as a "Fool." Most people, he said, have difficulty with the Laugh Class in part because they're unwilling to be foolish. Not Turner.

This is the really generous part of laughter: Anyone can laugh at someone else, but making oneself the butt of the joke is a much higher calling. Really. This is what I learn in the partnering up.

The goal of partnering up is, Johanna Chu says, to keep one's partner laughing.

"No talking," she says, "Sounds are OK, but no words. But you can do anything else, be as silly as you like, just to keep that other person laughing."

I have a sinking feeling. I've never been a Chris; I've always been the person writing about the Chris. My partner is the woman whose eye I caught in the previous exercise and who consequently made me laugh--a very kind, relaxed woman in her late 20s, wearing lovely gold earrings.

The exercise begins. I look at my partner, and she immediately takes off her earrings and clips one on her nose. Then she crosses her eyes. The challenge is on. I pull my mouth into a smirk, stick out my tongue and cross my own eyes. The crossing-eyes thing is key.

My partner pulls her hooded sweatshirt around backward and flips her hair into a Muppet-like mop, crowing, "Peep, peep!"

She is good. She is very good.

I hold one of my feet as if it were a hand and pretend to shake it. Across the room, a very professional-looking man in a well-ironed shirt and tie is lying on his back with his thumb in his mouth, cooing like a baby. His partner stands above him, pretending to fly like Superman.

After the laughing, there's quiet time. At this point, I recommend you do not reflect on whether there is a hidden camera in the room.

Who Needs Drugs?

A while ago, Scott Burton, in Coping magazine, wrote about the demand for laugh therapy in corporate organizations. "Humor," he stated, "is finally being recognized as a vital asset in most every level of American society."

When I read this, I cringed. Let's all decide, please, not to consider humor an asset. Do we really need to think of it as a financial aspect of life? I'd rather think of it as an evolutionary freebie. Or as a freak of nature. Even, if need be, as a meditation.


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From the July 4-10, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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