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Laughter and Play

                      How to Catch an Elephant

Equipment needed:

  • Binoculars       
  • Coke bottle   
  • Tweezers


  • Walk around Africa until you find an elephant.
  • Get as close as you can without endangering yourself.
  • Look at the elephant through the wrong end of the binoculars.
  • Pick up the elephant with the tweezers and drop him in the bottle.
                                 (Thanks to Amy Schwartz)

Laughter is Good for Us

          The research is not too solid at this point, but there is some evidence that laughter does a lot of really good things for us – mentally and physically. Among other things, it:

  • boosts our immune system
  • lowers blood pressure
  • protects us against heart disease
  • decreases pain
  • reduces overall stress
  • lessens anxiety and depression
  • strengthens relationships
  • enhances teamwork

          But do we really need to know the research in order to be encouraged to laugh?  When comedian Chris Rock was asked to explain why some people are funny, he said, “You want to know what’s not funny?  Thinking about it.”

          We laugh because it’s fun, it feels good, and it helps us take ourselves a little less seriously.
          With apologies to Chris, we’re going to spend just a moment thinking about what’s funny and why we laugh.

A Shift in Perspective – From the Rim to the Core

          Very often, the thing that makes us laugh involves a sudden shift in perspective.  Things looked like they were going to be one way, but turn out to be very different.   Take this bar joke:

A grasshopper walks into a bar.  
The bartender says, “Hey, we have a drink named after you.”
The grasshopper says, “Really, why would anyone name a drink ‘Bob’?”

          It starts out with a grasshopper walking into a bar, and talking to a bartender.  Since we know it’s a joke, we aren’t really surprised to hear about a grasshopper talking to a bartender.  But if we know there’s a drink called a “grasshopper,” finding out his name is “Bob” takes us by surprise.

          When we’re really feeling gloomy, when we’re caught up thinking about bad things that have happened, or worrying about bad things that might happen, one of the most powerful effects of humor is to shake us free of our gloomy preoccupations.

          To put it in terms of the wheel of awareness, when we’re gloomy (or worried, or angry, or in a lot of pain of any kind) our attention is almost always stuck in some way or other on the rim of the wheel. And that takes us away from the “hub” – away from our core.  Laughter has the power to get us unstuck – if only for a moment – and bring us back to the simplicity, ease, and joyfulness of the core.

Doing Things for the Sheer Joy of It

          With more apologies to Chris Rock, we’re going to be serious for just a bit longer.  

          Playfulness – that is, doing things for the joy of it without a goal – is so important to our well-being, that its absence can be harmful to both our physical and mental health.  

          Researchers have found that children who play a lot – especially outdoor, physically active kind of play, not just sitting for hours playing video games – generally have fewer symptoms of ADHD, are usually closer to their ideal body weight, and do better in school.  Studies done on young monkeys and other social mammals have found that, when deprived of opportunities to play, they grow up to be emotionally fragile adults who have difficulty handling stress, and even have problems learning how to mate properly!

Laughter Yoga

          Many of us these days have little time for play, whether we’re children or adults.  As adults, we may feel that it’s been so long, we no longer even know how to play.  But fortunately, you can start learning, or remembering how to play at any age.

          Madan Kataria, a medical doctor in India, felt so strongly about the important benefits of play that he started what’s come to be known as a “laughter club.”  He began by asking participants to bring their favorite jokes. That worked for a while, but by the third or fourth session, they ran out of jokes.  So Dr. Kataria came up with a new strategy – they would just simply choose to laugh.  

          The first formal laughter club session began with five people in a public park.  In recent years, this has grown into a movement with more than 8,000 Laughter Clubs in over 60 countries around the world.  People getting together just to laugh.  For no reason at all.

          Try it.  Just start pretending to laugh.  You can do it by yourself, but after you get over the initial shyness, you’ll find that it’s much easier with other people. It will probably feel fake at first, but if you persist, you’ll be amazed to find you’re laughing for real.

          Whether through laughter clubs or spontaneous play, imagine what the world would be like if more grown-ups could play like children.  Or for that matter, if more children could play like children!

Aristotle’s “Superiority” Theory of Humor

          If you don’t buy the whole shift-in-perspective-from-the-rim-to-the-hub theory of what makes something funny, you might prefer Aristotle’s theory.  He thought that what caused us to laugh was something that made us feel superior to someone else.

          The following pronouncements were made by a variety of experts:

  • “The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad.” (Advice from a president of the Michigan Savings Bank to Henry Ford's lawyer, Horace Rackham) 

  • "Forget it, Louis, no Civil War picture ever made a nickel."
  (Irving Thalberg's warning to Louis B. Mayer regarding “Gone With the Wind”)

  • “[Television] won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” (Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, 1946)

  • “Computers in the future may . . . perhaps only weigh 1.5 tons.” (Popular Mechanics, 1949)

  • “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.” (Kenneth Olsen, President and Founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977)

  • “God himself could not sink this ship.” (A deckhand on the Titanic, 1912)

And We Really Couldn’t Think of Any Justification for Including These Except That We Like Puns That Make Us Groan

Here are some of the “names” of staff persons for the National Public Radio show, “Car Talk”:

Assistant to Our Make-Up Artist:            Assistant Director of Strategic Planning: Assistant Disciplinarian:                        Assistant to the PR Specialist:
Art Critic:                                   
Appeals Specialist:                
Ornithology Intern:                    
Sculling Coach:                             
Air Traffic Controller:                      
Chief Accountant:                            
Chief Legal Counsel:

Caffeine Addiction Counselor:       
Clock Watcher:                
Co-Chairmen of the Apathy Study Group: Defense Attorney:                
Defense Attorney:               
Defense Attorney:                
Director of Alpine Choir:            
Director of Congressional Funding:        
Director of Country Music:            
Document Security Expert from Jamaica: 

Gladys Radio
Kent C. Detrees
Joaquin D’Planque
Lotta B. Essen
Phyllis Steen
Bud Uronner
Luke A. Boyd
Rose Dior
Ulanda U. Lucky
Candace B. Rittenoff       
Hugh L. Dewey of Dewey, 
       Cheatham and Howe
Bruno Moore
Colette O’Day
Ben Thayer, Don Thatt
Justin Volk, V
Heronimus B. Blind
Gil T. Azell
O. Leo Lahey
Fred Knott
Stan Beyerman
Euripedes Upmann


          And in a somewhat different vein, here is a collection of some actual answers to test questions about United States and World History given by 8th to 12th graders, collected and arranged by Richard Lederer, author and teacher known for his books on word play and the English language :

The inhabitants of Egypt were called mummies.  They lived in the Sarah Dessert and traveled by Camelot.  The climate of the Sarah is such that the inhabitants have to live elsewhere, so certain areas of the dessert are cultivated by irritation. 

There were no wars in Greece, as the mountains were so high that they couldn't climb over to see what their neighbors were doing.  Eventually, the Ramons conquered the Geeks.  History call people Romans because they never stayed in one place for very long. 

Then came the Middle Ages. King Alfred conquered the Dames, King Arthur lived in the Age of Shivery, King Harlod mustarded his troops before the Battle of Hastings, Joan of Arc was cannonized by George Bernard Shaw . . .

The Renaissance was an age in which more individuals felt the value of their human being.  Martin Luther was nailed to the church door at Wittenberg for selling papal indulgences.  It was an age of great inventions and discoveries.  Gutenberg invented the Bible. Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper.

One of the causes of the Revolutionary Wars was the English put tacks in their tea.  Finally, the colonists won the War and no longer had to pay for taxis.  Delegates from the original thirteen states formed the Contented Congress.

Abraham Lincoln became America's greatest Precedent.  Lincoln's mother died in infancy, and he was born in a log cabin which he built with his own hands.  [He] wrote the Gettysburg address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope.

Meanwhile in Europe, the enlightenment was a reasonable time. Gravity was invented by Issac Walton.  It is chiefly noticeable in the Autumn, when the apples are falling off the trees.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the crowned heads of Europe were trembling in their shoes. Napoleon became ill with bladder problems and was very tense and unrestrained.  He wanted an heir to inheret his power, but since Josephine was a baroness, she couldn't bear him any children.

The sun never set on the British Empire because the British Empire is in the East and the sun sets in the West.  Queen Victoria was the longest queen. She sat on a thorn for 63 years.  Her death was the final event which ended her reign.

Samuel Morse invented a code for telepathy.  Louis Pastuer discovered a cure for rabbis.  And Karl Marx became one of the Marx Brothers. The First World War, caused by the assignation of the Arch-Duck by a surf, ushered in a new error in the anals of human history.

          And, over time, we'll be adding more ways to help you loosen the knots that chain you to the rim of the wheel.