By Brian Hickey

Do you want to hear a joke?

“Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps: ‘My friend is dead! What can I do?’ The operator says: ‘Calm down, I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.’ There is a silence, and then the operator hears a gunshot. Back on the phone, the guy says: ‘OK, now what?’”

You may not be laughing, but according to the LaughLab, a British humor laboratory, what you read is the world’s funniest joke. The results were announced after an Internet study that looked at almost 40,000 jokes and two million ratings. The joke was funny to men and women, as well as people of all ages.

But what does it mean if you’re not laughing? What is it about a certain joke that makes some people laugh, and others cringe?

These are the questions that scientists like Dr. Benjamin Leung are trying answer with science.

“Yes, it’s very difficult to study something like humor,” Leung said over the phone from Hong Kong. “Not only does sense of humor vary from country to country and person to person, but it can vary in the same person. A joke that makes you laugh one day could make you cry the next depending on your mood.”

Dr. Leung, in his studies, is attempting to find connections between humor and health, as well as psychological ailments. For his studies, he started with an already established scientific scale used for gauging someone’s sense of humor. This scale, called the Multidimensional Sense of Humor Scale (aka Omaha scale), uses a series of questions such as “Do you like to tell jokes?” or “True or False: People who tell jokes all the time at parties are irritating.” The scale does not rate whether or not a person is funny, but rather his or her appreciation for humor in general.

Leung asked 410 people to take the Omaha scale quiz, and rate 50 jokes – 25 cartoons and 25 written jokes. The top five jokes and top five cartoons rated as funny by people who scored high on the Omaha scale made it to the next round.

He then took those 10 selections and showed them to a much larger group of people, and asked them a series of questions about their personal health. “Well-being and self-esteem are significantly related to appreciation of humor and sense of humor,” Leung said.

The psychological benefits of humor may not be all that surprising, but what may surprise you are the health benefits of humor, according to Roberta Gold.

“Make sure you laugh out loud; it’s better for your body. Laughing is good for your heart; it’s good for your immune system and blood flow. I don’t think there is one part of your body that doesn’t benefit from laughing,” said Gold, a former board member of the Association of Applied and Therapeutic Humor (AATH), a group that says laughing can actually improve one’s health.

The group’s website, www.AATH.org, cites many studies that seek to find evidence of the power of humor. In one such study, Dr. Lee Burke explains that laughing, much like exercise, produces endorphins, chemicals in your brain that are responsible for good moods. Interestingly enough, your body even responds to the anticipation of laughing.

According to Gold, the AATH is “out to spread the word of the benefits of positive humor in peoples’ lives.” Gold is a motivational speaker, but she says the AATH is composed of doctors, nurses, and even comedians. She also stresses that humor is not just for the ill, but for anyone. She said, “You don’t have to be sick to use humor; you can do it every day, and it’s like a little pick-me-up. It’s so easy to see the negative. It’s everywhere. Everything is wrong; your hair is wrong; your vacation is wrong; your house is wrong. I tell people [to] look at what’s right, at what makes them happy and laugh. Because there is so much that is right.”

Scientific evidence, needed to help legitimize this field, is fairly prevalent. In an interview, Patty Wooten, founding member of the AATH and operator of www.JestHealth.com, cited numerous recent studies that show just how much laughing can improve your health.

For example, she said, Sven Svebak of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology just finished a study involving 54,000 Norwegians. Svebak asked them a series of questionnaires, one of which was similar to the Omaha scale. The study gauged participants’ ability to laugh at everyday situations like a “broken shoelace or a bounced check.” Participants most able to find humor in scenarios like those, Svebak says, were 25 percent more likely to be alive seven years later.

Svebak then whittled that group down to only those suffering from cancer: about 2,000 people. In this case, the top group was 70 percent more likely to be alive, meaning participants who laughed on a daily basis were literally saving their lives by doing so.

Wooten also mentioned a study presented by Michael Miller to the American Heart Association. This study found that patients suffering from heart problems were 40 percent less likely to laugh on a regular basis. “From what we know about stress, this makes absolute sense. Laughing reduces stress, which is a huge factor in heart health,” Wooten said.

Wooten bolstered this argument with a story about the Ciwi people. In this tribe, when a spouse dies, the chief assigns a fellow villager to make sure that the surviving family laughs at least once a day. “It’s documented that when a person dies, their spouse’s health takes a dramatic decrease. The Ciwi tribe knows it, and now we know it: Humor can keep you alive.”

The benefits of humor, while not exactly surprising, are encouraging. But this new field is not a bona fide science yet. According to Dr. Ed Dunkelblau, another member of the AATH, when it comes to medical benefits, “officially, the jury is still out.”

But he pointed out that the evidence is steadily rolling in. There are few, if any, detractors to studying the merits of humor.

“It’s one of those things,” Dunkelblau said. “It’s not controversial. It makes sense intuitively; it makes Darwinian sense. Nobody is going to come out and say ‘No, don’t laugh. Cut that out.’”

Not even HMOs will be able to say no if and when humor becomes an accepted medical practice. “If it came out tomorrow that – officially – being exposed to humor reduced the symptoms of cancer, HMOs would rejoice,” Dunkelblau said. “Any documented strategy that reduces their cash outlays would make them happy.”

Gold summed up the goals of the AATH and all those who believe in the power of laughter by saying: “You can’t cure yourself with laughter. If you have cancer, please get chemo. But there is no doubt that humor and laughing helps the process. When you’re actually laughing, it’s impossible to feel pain or feel depressed. The longer you laugh, the longer you feel the effects.”

While laughter might not always be the best medicine, it certainly must be the easiest to take. Scientists are now trying to find out what makes a particular joke funny. Dr. Leung found that most things that make people laugh are surprises. He used an example from his studies:

A man and a woman meet in a bar. Things go well and they decide to go back to the woman’s place. After a few drinks, things get physical. The man takes off his shirt, and washes his hands, then takes of his pants and washes his hands. The woman, watching this behavior, says to the man, “You must be a dentist.” “How you can tell?” he asks. She tells him it’s because he keeps washing his hands. They go the bedroom and get busy. Afterwards, the woman turns to the man and says, “You must be a really good dentist.” Again he asks how she can tell. She says, “I didn’t feel a thing!”

The joke employs a surprise ending, a double meaning, as well as the subject of sex. Those three elements are consistently used in all types of humor. In fact, based on the Omaha scale as well as Dr. Leung’s studies, this joke should be one of the most hilarious jokes in the world, even though it may not strike many people as funny. A joke’s ability to make someone laugh is dependent on how it’s told.

Dr. Leung insists jokes are the funniest when they’re told out loud. He also found that people generally don’t like one-liners.

“People like longer jokes,” Leung said, “because it’s not how quick you get the joke – it’s in the intensity. It’s in the way you tell it. It builds and builds, and has no prejudice against the slow- minded.”

Here at UC Santa Cruz, people like to laugh. There are improv groups like Humor Force Five, sketch comedy groups like Sunshine Fortress, and there used to be a stand-up comedy class. Doug Holsclaw taught Stand Up Comedy 1 two times each year, until budget cuts forced him out of a job. With his help, each quarter there was a new crop of comedians making people laugh.

In an email to City on a Hill Press, Holsclaw pointed to the benefits of the class.

“I think it is funny, and illuminating, to hear about the experiences of people outside your gender, race, sexuality, geography and financial class.” The point of the class, in his opinion, was “to begin to discover how each person uses humor in life and on stage to communicate.”

He asks that graduates of his class, if they have time, “E-mail the [theater] department and tell them what you got out of comedy. I want my job back.”

Humor also benefits those who perform comedy, such as Nicole Calasich, a member of Sunshine Fortress and a graduate of Holsclaw’s class. For her, humor “really relieves me of stress and at once gives me a chance to address the issues that are bothering me, but simultaneously putting them on the backburner through absurdity,” Calasich said.

Student comedian Grant Lyon, yet another graduate of Holsclaw’s class, agrees that UCSC is a great place to do comedy.

“The college audience is a great audience,” Lyon said. “They love to laugh, and there’s not a ton of hecklers, and I can tell whatever kind of jokes I want. Normally when an audience is quiet it sucks, but here it’s great because, when the audience is quiet, it means they’re actually listening to what you’re saying.”

Lyon is on the road doing comedy in the Bay Area nearly every night. He puts on shows at the Barn at UCSC, and helps young comedians focus and improve their acts.

Why does he work so hard? “Laughing is great; it relieves tension,” he said. “It makes everybody feel great. There is nothing greater in life than laughing.”