Health, Humour and Laughter
I’ve always loved comedy. Perhaps that’s why I loved Uncle Louis so much; he made me laugh. But I acquired my sense of fun from my father, a warm-hearted person who loved to make people laugh and feel better about themselves. I grew up in a household where the Marx brothers, Chaplin, the Rat Pack, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and many others were a big influence. I would love to have studied drama, but paradoxically this would have been highly unacceptable to my parents and even to myself. How would I have made a living? Know any famous South African actors? Any that make a living? Exactly! So I didn’t even consider the possibility. Drama was a recreation, not a profession – end of story.
When I came to London in 1982, I allowed myself to indulge in a lot of theatre and stand-up comedy. I was enthralled but thought of myself as a merely a punter. One day I recognised a stand-up comedian I had admired on stage in a London teashop. He was the laconic Arnold Brown and we soon became friends. We struck up a deal. He could visit me for free medical advice whenever he wanted. In exchange he would take the stress out of my day by making me laugh! We both thought we had a good deal and perhaps we did. We started to chat about the links between laughter and health. Laughter has been proved to reduce muscular tension, increase immunity, help the lungs get rid of old air and reduce stress. In addition it is a good form of exercise and gives you a natural high by raising your endorphins and encephalins, the ‘feel good’ chemicals of the body!
Together with the improvisational comedian, Neil Mullarkey, we eventually formed the Academy of Laughter &Health. After rehearsing for a year we put on a review at a London fringe theatre. ‘Are you feeling Funny?’ Explorations into health humour and chutzpah was performed for two nights at the New End Theatre in Hampstead. I performed under the stage name of Dr. FishHead and received a good review in the Evening Standard. I felt elated, far prouder than I had felt after passing any number of difficult exams at university.
Finally, I’d summoned up enough courage to follow my gut feeling and do what felt right for me. It’s important to live like this, whatever others think; but life is much easier when others approve!
My interest in laughter and health continued and I met the famous doctor/clown, Patch Adams, later immortalised by Robin Williams in the film, Patch Adams. The author Howard Jacobson attended a seminar on the subject run by Arnold and myself and wrote about us in his excellent book Seriously Funny on the ways that humour has always been healthy for any society.