Feb 25, 2008


We all laugh. This hour of Radiolab asks why.

If you look closely, you'll find that humor has very little to do with it. We ask what makes us laugh, and how it affects us. Along the way, we tickle some rats, listen in on a baby's first laugh, talk to a group of professional laughers, and travel to Tanzania to investigate an outbreak of contagious laughter.

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Speaker 1: Hi everybody. This is Craig from Washington D.C.. Radio Lab is supported by HSS, the number one hospital in the country for orthopedics, for nine straight years, according to US News & World Report. With locations in Nassau, Westchester, Bergen and Fairfield Counties, the best is now nearby. Learn more at hss.edu.

Speaker 2: This is Olivia Fritz from Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Radio Lab is supported by Math for America. Here's a brain teaser. Ever wonder where the best math teachers across New York City come together to lead, learn and share? MFA inspire great teachers to stay in the classroom. Learn about the power of the MFA community at mathforAmerica.org

Robert Krulwich: Jad?

Jad Abumrad: Yeah.

Robert Krulwich: Let me play you this.

Jad Abumrad: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Elaine May: Buddy.

Mike Nichols: Yes mom.

Robert Krulwich: You're listening to Mike Nichols-

Elaine May: I've been thinking.

Robert Krulwich: And Elaine May.

Elaine May: You're getting older now. You're nearly a man, and you should start thinking about your future a little bit, you know.

Robert Krulwich: You're listening to a rehearsal that happened to get caught on tap.

Jad Abumrad: Okay.

Elaine May: You're a happy boy.

Jad Abumrad: What are they laughing about?

Mike Nichols: For God's sake.

Jad Abumrad: What are they laughing about?

Mike Nichols: Mama I have been giving it some thought, I-

Robert Krulwich: Here's the thing, he has a joke in his head.

Mike Nichols: I know what I'd like to do with my life I-

Robert Krulwich: But he just can't get the punchline out, without ruining it with a laugh.

Mike Nichols: I'll have to train for some years.

Jad Abumrad: Wait, what was the joke? I didn't even hear the joke.

Robert Krulwich: Oh well you haven't heard it yet. He wants to be when he grows up-

Mike Nichols: I want to be a Registered Nurse.

Robert Krulwich: ... a Registered Nurse.

Jad Abumrad: The joke is I want to be a nurse?

Robert Krulwich: I want to be a nurse. That's the joke, but he can't say the word nurse without losing it. Nor can she say the word nurse without losing it. That is their punchline.

Jad Abumrad: Why is that funny?

Robert Krulwich: Well, remember it's 1959 and boys don't want to be Registered Nurses, not in 1959.

Jad Abumrad: Oh.

Robert Krulwich: That's, for Mike Nichols, the funniest thing he's thought of all week.

Jad Abumrad: Not funny.

Robert Krulwich: Wait.

Mike Nichols: Mother I want very much to be a Registered Nurse. Stop laughing.

Robert Krulwich: I love this. I love this rehearsal. I don't know why, but I could listen to this 150 times. I have listened to it 150 times.

Mike Nichols: All right mother. I want very much to be a Registered Nurse.

Robert Krulwich: So no go on that one. He can't do it. Now understand that this laughter just keeps bubbling up. Mike can't control it. Elaine can't control it. Oh, here we go.

Elaine May: ... your father and I to be able to say, "That's my son."

Robert Krulwich: Here's the thing Jad, these are two of the greatest humorists of the mid 20th century in the United States. They're professional improvisational comics. They live to laugh. They control laugh. They try to create laugh. They're all about laughter and yet-

Elaine May: I can't. I can't.

Robert Krulwich: ... laughter beats them.

Tyler Stillman: Here we are this species with the capacity for language, which allows us exquisitely nuanced expressions.

Robert Krulwich: This is Tyler Stillman. He studies laughter at Florida State University.

Tyler Stillman: Yet we produce these kinds of bizarre sounds. Laughter is this kind of clumsy inarticulate way of expressing ourself, but it's also kind of awesome.

Jad Abumrad: Looking forward, is the question then why is laughter so awesome?

Robert Krulwich: Ugh, I always ... I hate that word awesome.

Jad Abumrad: Okay.

Robert Krulwich: I will say, that it's a good question to ask why do we laugh, what is laughter for, and why those sounds?

Jad Abumrad: Yeah.

Robert Krulwich: Why those sounds.

Jad Abumrad: All right. Well let's go. Our topic today is laughter. I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad: This is Radio Lab. Okay dude. To get started, the thing we just talked about, the weirdness of laughter.

Robert Krulwich: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jad Abumrad: How it's both clumsy on one hand, but also kind of awesome.

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: I know you love that word, awesome.

Robert Krulwich: I hate that word. Why do you have to say that word all the time?

Jad Abumrad: Well in any case-

Robert Krulwich: You could say delightful. Delightful is a good word.

Jad Abumrad: All right, delightful. What I really want to say is that sort of paradox is something that some of the greatest minds in history have thought about, and written about.

Robert Krulwich: Like?

Jad Abumrad: Aristotle.

Barry Sanders: In a book called De Animalium, Aristotle wants to describe what separates human beings out from all the other creatures.

Jad Abumrad: That's historian Barry Sanders. He wrote a book about laughter called Sudden Glory. According to him, after pages and pages of complicated reasoning about what makes us special ... Is it language? Is it reason? Is it this? Is it that? Aristotle-

Barry Sanders: Concludes one thing.

Jad Abumrad: What?

Barry Sanders: What makes us absolutely different is our capacity to laugh.

Jad Abumrad: When you laugh-

Robert Krulwich: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jad Abumrad: Go ahead, do it.

Robert Krulwich: (laughs)

Jad Abumrad: That right there-

Robert Krulwich: Okay.

Jad Abumrad: That is a specifically human endeavor. No other creatures can do it. Not only that, the first time you do it-

Robert Krulwich: You mean like when you're a little peeper and you're just-

Jad Abumrad: Mm-hmm (affirmative) when you're a tiny baby, and you make your first laugh. That, to Aristotle, might be the most important moment of your life, because it's the moment that your life at least as a human being begins.

Barry Sanders: When the infant utters its first laugh, emits its first laugh, at that moment heated air from lower in the stomach moves through a membrane into the soul, ensouls the creature ... and at that point ... This is the fine destruction. At that point, the creature moves from being a human into a human being.

Robert Krulwich: Yes. Yes. He's absolutely ... I remember it so clearly. The symbols, the clashes, I thought oh I'm a human being.

Jad Abumrad: But do you remember when it happened?

Robert Krulwich: No.

Jad Abumrad: Yeah, well Aristotle was very specific about this. He thought it always happened, or should happen-

Barry Sanders: On the 40th day of your existence.

Amanda Aronczyk: Oh hi there. Good morning. Mina, today is your 40th day.

Jad Abumrad: We wanted to check this proposition, so we called up Radio producer Amanda Aronczyk who just had a brand new baby girl.

Amanda Aronczyk: Mina is celebrating her 40th day of existence today.

We're going to get you to laugh.

Jad Abumrad: Were you able to record with Mina this morning?

Amanda Aronczyk: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. We recorded for 50 minutes.

Jad Abumrad: Really?

Amanda Aronczyk: Just like went for it.

Jad Abumrad: And? Did she laugh?

Amanda Aronczyk: Well, I tried.

Hey there pretty.

Rob tried.

Robert Krulwich: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amanda Aronczyk: Her aunt tried.

Speaker 10: What a clever girl. A laugh I would almost say.

Amanda Aronczyk: We all tried, and tried, and kind of harass her and stick your tongue out at her, and try to tickle her.

Tickle your armpit.

Then at the end she's like, "Ah."

Jad Abumrad: It's because you were doing this.

Amanda Aronczyk: Lost it.

Jad Abumrad: Oh.

Amanda Aronczyk: We have yet to get a giggle out of her.

That was a smile. What would it take to make you laugh? Please. Oh.

She made some sounds we've never ever heard before.

What are all these sounds you're making.

Her level of interaction in the last two days has been more than anything we've seen.

Jad Abumrad: Really?

Amanda Aronczyk: If you stick your tongue out at her, she does it back.

Jad Abumrad: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amanda Aronczyk: If you open your mouth she kind of tries to do that too. It has been a milestone, aside from the actual day count, it really is ... She's becoming a little being.

Oh what, say hi Mina.

It's much more emotional. It's like you're looking at this thing that you're deeply in love with and it's finally looking back at you.

Jad Abumrad: All right well Amanda when it happens will you call us right back?

Amanda Aronczyk: Okay, I will for sure.

Jad Abumrad: Do you agree with Aristotle that the ability to laugh is what literally separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom?

Barry Sanders: God, how can I disagree with Aristotle. That would be blasphemous, but-

Jad Abumrad: Not as an Academic, I mean you as a person.

Barry Sanders: Yeah, as a person. I truly believe we're the only creature that laughs.

Jad Abumrad: What about you?

Robert Krulwich: I do think there's something about the way we laugh, the way we share the emotional feeling that leads to a laugh, that is kind of ... I don't know of any other creatures that do that.

Jad Abumrad: Wrong.

Robert Krulwich: You can't do that to me. Screw you.

Jad Abumrad: I don't know if it's wrong, because in truth ... In all honesty, this scientific debate is still ... The jury is still out on this question. Whether we are the only ones that laugh, but it's one of those things that if you poke around a bit-

Robert Krulwich: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jad Abumrad: Let's poke, shall we.

Robert Krulwich: Okay.

Speaker 11: Be beside you-

Jad Abumrad: The question becomes much more complicated.

Jaak Panksepp: Oh, okay so-

Jad Abumrad: Introduce yourself so I don't mangle your name to badly.

Jaak Panksepp: Oh, absolutely. My name is Jaak Panksepp.

Jad Abumrad: Jaak Panksepp.

Jaak Panksepp: Yes.

Jad Abumrad: Jaak Panksepp is a neuroscientist.

Jaak Panksepp: At Washington State University.

Jad Abumrad: For the last 30 years, he has studied animal emotion. Particularly, and this is his specialty-

Jaak Panksepp: Happiness and play.

Jad Abumrad: Play.

Jaak Panksepp: Playfulness-

Jad Abumrad: In rats for example.

Robert Krulwich: Do rats play?

Jad Abumrad: Well yeah.

Jaak Panksepp: Oh yes. When they're still young and you put them together they start tussling immediately.

Jad Abumrad: When they play, they're silent.

Robert Krulwich: Not no squeaks or anything?

Jad Abumrad: Uh-uh (negative).

Robert Krulwich: Really?

Jad Abumrad: All the while they are headbutting each other. They are flipping each other over. They play really hard. No sounds.

Robert Krulwich: Hmm.

Jad Abumrad: That's our starting point, okay. One day Jaak and a grad student are standing in front of a rat cage watching two rats wrestle silently and the Grad student, a guy by the name of Brian, turns to Jaak and says, "Is it really possible they're not making any noises? I mean look at them. Maybe they're making sounds but we just can't hear them."

Robert Krulwich: Oh.

Jad Abumrad: He suggested to Jaak, "Why don't we order one of these little black boxes."

Jaak Panksepp: They call them bat detectors.

Jad Abumrad: Usually people used to listen to bats. What if we put one on the rat cage? Maybe it will take whatever sounds might, or might not, be there lower them down to a range that humans can hear.

Jaak Panksepp: I said, "Okay we'll buy the equipment." The equipment arrived, and the first day we had a couple of animals playing, and we tuned it through the various frequencies. Lo and behold it's like a playground at 50 kilohertz.

Jad Abumrad: What did it sound like?

Jaak Panksepp: It's like (noises)

Jad Abumrad: All of a sudden you just heard this sound erupt from the little box?

Jaak Panksepp: Absolutely.

Jad Abumrad: Wow. Now they had this sound that no one had ever heard before, and there's two things you need to know. First, the rats would make the sound sporadically. Each little rat would make it just like cheep, cheep. Second, Jaak had no idea what the sound was. What did it mean?

Robert Krulwich: What does it mean? What are they saying?

Jad Abumrad: What are they saying to each other. He knew it had something to do with play, but was it just like, "Hi" "Hi." Was it something more aggressive like, "You want a piece of me? Let's wrestle."

Robert Krulwich: That's what I think.

Jad Abumrad: Or maybe they're excited and they're saying, "Give me sex. You want to have sex?"

Jaak Panksepp: Arousal. They get aroused and make a couple chirps.

Jad Abumrad: Maybe it was just a grunt of some sort.

Jaak Panksepp: There's a lot of possibilities.

Jad Abumrad: Ten years, ten years they studied this sound trying to figure out what it means-

Robert Krulwich: And every theory failed somehow?

Jad Abumrad: Well, nothing was conclusive.

Robert Krulwich: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jad Abumrad: Then, one morning Jaak walks in to the lab, which he showed us.

Jaak Panksepp: We are going to the animal facility on the fifth floor.

Jad Abumrad: With a crazy idea.

Jaak Panksepp: One morning I came in and I says, "Jeff"-

Jad Abumrad: His Grad student at the time.

Jaak Panksepp: ... "Jeff lets go tickle some rats."

Jad Abumrad: What on earth gave you that idea?

Jaak Panksepp: I don't know. This is the mystery of having a new idea.

Jad Abumrad: Oh okay. He and his Grad student quickly walk over to the rat cage.

Jaak Panksepp: We pick up a rat. We carry it to a box. We put it in the box.

Okay, the animal is going in.

I begin to tickle it.

Jad Abumrad: By tickle, it's just like you would tickle a baby.

Robert Krulwich: Meaning what?

Jad Abumrad: Like goochy goochy goo, with the fingers.

Jaak Panksepp: You're moving your fingers rapidly all over the animals body.

There's a male rat.

Jad Abumrad: He demonstrated.

Jaak Panksepp: Tickle.

Jad Abumrad: The sound that came out was the same cheep, cheep as before, but now it was louder, more continuous.

Jaak Panksepp: Now you can see how consistent it is.

Jad Abumrad: Plus, it had this very familiar rhythm, and familiar dynamic quality. The way it went da, da, da, da, da. For the first time, it occurred to Jaak-

Jaak Panksepp: My God, what if that's laughter. What if that sound is laughter?

Jad Abumrad: Visually, I must say it's pretty convincing. When you see him do it, and we put a video on our website RadioLab.org. When you see him tickle the rat, and the rat kick it's little rat legs and chirp like mad, it does look like the animal is cracking up. Like a little kid.

What were you thinking at this moment?

Jaak Panksepp: We were thinking, this is a fluke.

Jad Abumrad: It's a fluke?

Jaak Panksepp: It's a fluke.

Jad Abumrad: Oh, so you didn't trust what you were hearing?

Jaak Panksepp: Well, we trust what we're hearing, but I said, "Let me get another animal."

Okay, here's another rat, ready for a tickle session. Tickle.

Jad Abumrad: Whoa.

Jaak Panksepp: Bingo. Exactly the same.

Jad Abumrad: The same cheep, cheep?

Jaak Panksepp: Exactly. I still kind of said, "Come on. This is too good to be true. Let me get another animal."

Okay here's the tickle.

Exactly the same. Jackpot.

Jad Abumrad: Here's the kicker, the moment Jaak stops tickling the rats, moves his hand away, the rat starts chasing his hand. Moves his hand left, the rat goes left. Moves his hand right, the rat goes right.

Jaak Panksepp: Exactly, the animal is just glued to your hand.

Jad Abumrad: Because it wants to be tickled again?

Jaak Panksepp: It wants more, exactly.

Jad Abumrad: That's so cool.

Jaak Panksepp: Whoa. Whoa. I'm just running circles with my hand, and the animal is running circles right after my fingers. Want some more huh? Okay.

If you stopped tickling and just leave your hand there in the cage like a dead piece of meat-

Jad Abumrad: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jaak Panksepp: The animal knows you're alive, and gradually begins to pounce on your hand and it begins to nip at your fingers.

Jad Abumrad: It's like, "Come on, come on."

Jaak Panksepp: Exactly.

Jad Abumrad: Let me ask you this though, in terms of calling the squeaking a squeak, or a chirp, or a cheep, cheep, or whatever you want to call it-

Jaak Panksepp: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jad Abumrad: That would be one thing, but to call it laughter is saying something very specific.

Jaak Panksepp: Yeah, a lot of people don't like that word. Well even my friends have advised me to drop that word.

Jad Abumrad: They don't think that a rat can feel joy? Is that why?

Jaak Panksepp: Yeah, giving human qualities to animals has been a no no since we are closer to the angels than the other creatures of the world.

Robert Krulwich: Ah, to laugh is to be an angel.

Jad Abumrad: He was kidding by the way.

Robert Krulwich: Oh really? Oh I kind of believed him.

Jad Abumrad: Oh, you think that he was being-

Robert Krulwich: I thought he meant the laughter in the subtle way that he imagined.

Jad Abumrad: No, no, no, no. He thinks human laughter is not special. He thinks Aristotle is wrong basically.

Robert Krulwich: Check it out Aristotle do an experiment.

Jad Abumrad: Like it goes back a long way, back to rats, back to pigeons, who knows. That all these creatures laugh, like us, and they laugh more or less for the same reason as us.

Robert Krulwich: Hmm, I don't know. You tell a pigeon a good chicken crossing the road joke and you're going to get nothing.

Jad Abumrad: You don't think that a pigeon has a rich emotional life-

Robert Krulwich: No, not like-

Jad Abumrad: ... and joy.

Robert Krulwich: ... we do. No, I have talked with pigeons. Let me tell you something.

Jad Abumrad: All right, I'll give it that we probably laugh for irony.

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: We probably do that, and pigeons don't.

Robert Krulwich: And delight.

Jad Abumrad: Delight.

Robert Krulwich: Do you think a pigeon laughs for delight?

Jad Abumrad: I don't know, but sure a pigeon experiences delight.

Robert Krulwich: What do you know, you're not a pigeon.

Jad Abumrad: Forget the pigeon. Okay, take a bird that sings. I bet birds sing because they're happy, and singing is probably in a way like laughing.

Robert Krulwich: Oh, if you're going to get all generally on me, yeah, sure. Worms like to wiggle-

Jad Abumrad: ... and wiggling is kind of like laughing.

Robert Krulwich: Yeah, okay. Why don't ... by the way, what's happened to baby Amanda?

Jad Abumrad: You mean did she laugh yet?

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: No. Unfortunately not.

Robert Krulwich: Oh geez then Aristotle's really in deep do-do here.

Jad Abumrad: I mean these days, I don't know about ancient Greece, but these days people who study this stuff say it's usually around 90 days.

Robert Krulwich: Oh really.

Jad Abumrad: Is what it-

Robert Krulwich: Huh. Well we've got a little time.

Jad Abumrad: ... the general consensus. Yeah we've got a little time.

Robert Krulwich: Okay.

Jad Abumrad: I told her to call us back.

Robert Krulwich: Okay.

Jad Abumrad: When she does laugh.

Speaker 13: Message 1.

Amanda Aronczyk: Hey there Jad. It's Amanda Aronczyk calling, and I am calling to say that Mina just laughed. She just laughed. She actually full on did a like ha, ha, ha like that. It was incredibly exciting. It was not day 40, it was by my calculations day 97. I don't know about Aristotle and those babies but this baby here laughed for real definitely, 100%, on day 97. It's very exciting, and we're very excited and now she's crying, because it was so much effort to laugh I think. Okay bye.

Speaker 13: End of message.

Robert Krulwich: Now for the next question. Forgetting for a moment how we laugh, let's ask why we laugh.

Jad Abumrad: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I'll tell you why we laugh.

Robert Krulwich: Why do we laugh.

Jad Abumrad: We laugh because somethings funny.

Robert Krulwich: No, not at all.

Robert Provine: The most important thing to remember about laughter is that it's social.

Robert Krulwich: It's not about humor. That's Robert Provine, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, who got very interested in this question so he went out on the street with some of his Grad students, pen in hand, and they listened for what people actually in real life say just before they laugh. In 85% of the cases ... Are you writing this down?

Jad Abumrad: Yes.

Robert Krulwich: 85% of the cases nothing funny preceded the laugh.

Robert Provine: Yeah, so first of all people weren't really telling jokes to other people. They were saying things like, "Hey where you been." "I've got to go now," "I have a class."

Robert Krulwich: I have a class?

Robert Provine: Yeah. This is the kind of things that people say before they laugh. Now, don't take my word for this, go to a cocktail party and you're going to be a lot of laughter there, but people are not telling jokes to each other at a furious rate.

Robert Krulwich: So laughter isn't about joking, it's about something else.

Robert Provine: It's about social relationships. You've got to have those people there. When you're alone laughter basically disappears.

Robert Krulwich: When you're at home alone, Jad, do you ever find yourself laughing?

Jad Abumrad: When I'm by myself?

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: Well you see sometimes.

Robert Krulwich: When?

Jad Abumrad: When I'm watching the TV or something.

Robert Krulwich: No, no.

Robert Provine: Those are kind of vicarious social stimulant.

Robert Krulwich: No, no I mean like when you are solitary.

Robert Provine: If you take away media-

Robert Krulwich: No radio, no TV, no nothing in your ears.

Jad Abumrad: No.

Robert Provine: The laughter basically disappears. You have an unconsciously controlled, neurologically programed social behavior.

Robert Krulwich: It will only work if there's a sharer.

Jad Abumrad: Even if the sharer is just in your head?

Robert Krulwich: Yep.

Jad Abumrad: Neurologically programmed by who?

Robert Krulwich: By evolution in this case.

Robert Provine: Okay, now-

Robert Krulwich: Towards the end of the interview he walked me over to a TV VCR thing he had.

Robert Provine: State of the art stuff.

Robert Krulwich: Yeah this is pretty fancy.

He showed me a video of a woman tickling a chimpanzee.

What is this?

Robert Provine: I have an example here of laughter from our primate ancestors, baby chimps.

Robert Krulwich: Okay, we have now a chimpanzee on the screen and you're listening to a chimpanzee playing with a woman. That's the woman laughing. She is now cuddling and smothering the chimp with hugs, and he's being tickled. That's chimpanzee laughter. That panting sound that you hear is chimpanzee laughter.

Robert Provine: A low level of chimpanzee panting laugh too it would be like ... When they really get into it, it becomes more guttural like ...

Robert Krulwich: That sound, that ... sound, Provine thinks it has nothing to do with jokes. This is not a reaction to any ... Although, tickling is kind of delightful. What it really is doing, he says that particular sound is a signal, one chimp to the other. Those two chimps to any other animals that happen to come by, other chimps, we're just playing. Chimps have evolved, it's taken them a long time, but they figured out a way to signal we're not fighting. I am not going to kill you. This is just play. It's the signal of we're just playing.

Robert Provine: When you really get into it, it becomes more guttural like ...

Robert Krulwich: We're safe. According to Provine we inherited that chimp signal from our chimp relatives.

Robert Provine: Yeah, so basically panting became ha, ha.

Robert Krulwich: In a human, we've just added one little wonderful extra, the H.

Jad Abumrad: Hmm. All right, more in a moment.

Speaker 13: Message 1.

Amanda Aronczyk: Radio Lab is funded in part by the Alfred P. Sloan foundation, the corporation for public broadcasting, and the National Science Foundation. Somebody here is trying to grab my sheet of paper.

Okay, Radio Lab is produced by WNYC, New York public radio, and distributed by NPR, National Public Radio.

Mina you're so good.

Speaker 15: WNYC studios is supported by the Metropolitan Opera. Presenting their new Podcast, Aria Code. This month, the Mets neon lit, Las Vegas production of Vardi's Rigoletto returns, followed by the same composer's fall staff with Ambrosia Miestry as the larger than life Shakespearian hero. Also on stage, Mozart's Don Giovanni, and Kathline Turner in La Fille du Regiment. And soon, Vogners complete ring cycle. For video clips, interviews and tickets go to MetOpera.org.

WNYC studios is supported by the New York City department of small business services. Want to grow your business? Make New York City your next customer. If you're a minority, or a woman, and you own a business get certified with a minority and women business enterprise program. Not only will this open doors to new opportunities and customers, but can also provide new streams of revenue and long term contracts. To certify visit NYC.gov/getcertified. That's NYC.gov/getcertified.

Alec Baldwin: I'm Alec Baldwin. Join me for a live taping of Here's the Thing with my special guest Itsop Pearlman. I'll be talking with the legendary violinist about his life, and his music. We'll hear life performances from some of the talented students in the Pearlman Music Program. Monday, February 18th at NYU's Skirball Center. Tickets at WNYC.org/events.

Jad Abumrad: This is Radio Lab. I'm Jad.

Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert.

Jad Abumrad: Today on our show, laughter.

Robert Krulwich: I want to say one more thing about this. We've talked about how laughter is evolutionarily sort of wired in. We've talked about that it's a social thing.

Jad Abumrad: A safety, all clear, kind of situation.

Robert Krulwich: Yeah, but it's another level of safety that's kind of fascinating. Let me tell you a really classic, and not well known, story. It involves the television show The Nanny. You remember in the '90s Fran Drescher had this very big hit TV comedy series.

Jad Abumrad: Yeah ... no.

Robert Krulwich: Well, you will probably remember the voice of the nanny.

Fran Dresher: Hello?

Robert Krulwich: That's Fran.

Fran Dresher: Ma, you finally made up. Well what's the emergency? Ma, Mike Douglas isn't on channel four because they canceled him 22 years ago.

Robert Krulwich: The story actually is not so much about Fran Drescher as it is about ... You hear those people laughing right underneath all of it.

Jad Abumrad: Yeah, constantly.

Robert Krulwich: Yes, well this is about Fran's laughter. It's the story of the Nanny laughers. It begins with a woman named Lisette Saint-Claire.

Lisette S.: Just FYI my name is pronounced Lisette.

Robert Krulwich: She's the casting director at Central Casting in Los Angeles.

Lisette S.: Central Casting is the oldest extras casting company. It's been around for years, and years and years. Back in the day where people used to line up outside the studios, and the productions would come out and pick you, you, you.

Robert Krulwich: She actually got her start as an extra.

Lisette S.: My first gig, I think it was called The Big House. I had to jump out of a coffin, but I was a hooker. I was a hooker out of a coffin.

Robert Krulwich: Anyway, after years as working as an extra, Lisette decided to jump to the other side of the business, and be the person in charge of casting the extras.

Lisette S.: You're on the phone and the production company calls and says, "I need three strippers, two nurses and four doctors." So that's what we do. We find them.

Robert Krulwich: Now, here's some more background that you will need. In 1985, which is years before The Nanny, Fran Drescher had been raped during a break in at her apartment. Later she wrote about this experience, and she spoke about it publicly.

Fran Dresher: That night was the night that changed everything.

Robert Krulwich: This is Fran reading from her book Cancer Shmancer.

Fran Dresher: Two men with guns broke into our home, and raped both me, and my girlfriend Judy who had the misfortune of having joined us for dinner. We were never the same again.

Robert Krulwich: The people who did this to her were caught and locked up. Then things got worse. As her fame grew, she started getting stalked. This was right around the time that filming began on The Nanny.

Speaker 19: Dr. Warner you're wanted in Radiology please.

Robert Krulwich: The thing about the filming The Nanny, when it's filmed live as they say. In front of a live studio audience, pretty much anybody can come into the theater. Fran worried that someone who might mean harm would come in, and sit there during the show. She and the shows producers decided to do the only thing they could do, get rid of the audience. Just kick them all out. Now this was right in the middle of the season. They had a taping to do the very next day.

Fran Dresher: No matter how hard things became in our personal life, the show must go on.

Robert Krulwich: They called up Lisette.

Lisette S.: They decided instead of having an audience come in, just have people from Central Casting that they know-

Robert Krulwich: She said, "All right. I'll fill your audience with extras."

Lisette S.: I was looking for about 30 or 40 people.

Robert Krulwich: She had thousands of people to choose from, and there are all kinds of categories available to her.

Lisette S.: You could do a search in the database, height-

Robert Krulwich: There was age.

Lisette S.: ... ethnicity-

Robert Krulwich: Skin color.

Lisette S.: Weight, dress size-

Robert Krulwich: Eye color-

Lisette S.: ... hair color. You could put that all in and it will bring up what you need.

Robert Krulwich: She needed a safe audience.

Lisette S.: Just normal lively people.

Robert Krulwich: That she could screen, and while she was at it she thought well why don't I get people who are good laughers. I mean why not.

Lisette S.: Yeah.

Robert Krulwich: With 24 hours to go she put out a rather strange request.

Lisette S.: I put it out on the sequencer, it's like a work line, a hotline that people listen to and if they fit, or if they think they fit, then they'll call in. I said, "Hi this is Lisette. I'm looking for some people that have good laughs to work on The Nanny tomorrow."

Robert Krulwich: When they'd call she'd begin with one question,

Adonny Mitchell: Hi, my name is Adonny Mitchell.

Lisette S.: Okay, let me hear you laugh.

Adonny Mitchell: Yeah okay.

Pam West: Hi my name is Pam West.

Lisette S.: Let me hear you laugh.

Kim January: Hi my name is Kim January.

Lisette S.: Like you just saw the funniest thing. Let me hear you laugh.

Dennis Filer: My name is Dennis Filer

Speaker 24: I was at the laundromat. She answered the phone right away, she goes, "Let's hear it." Everybody in the laundromat looked at me and I said, "It's an audition. It's an audition."

Speaker 25: She said laugh right now. I said ...

Lisette S.: These were people that were calling that were all ethnicities, all ages, 20 something to like 70 something. I had married couples. It's not a show like Bay Watch where everybody has to look bikini ready and all that.

Robert Krulwich: Which means they weren't going to win a beauty contest, but they could get to the studio and sit down, and laugh.

Speaker 26: There were certain things that we were laughing at, and they would come to us and say, okay we don't want you to laugh at that. We knew when to laugh, and when not to laugh, and then it got to the part where we just knew exactly what to do.

Speaker 27: Can you think of anything more wonderful than sitting in a comfortable chair all day long and being amused.

Speaker 28: People look puzzled, what do you mean a laugher?

Robert Krulwich: How much did you pay them?

Lisette S.: Back then it was like 75 bucks.

Speaker 29: You'd get paid? Yeah, we'd get paid for laughing. What a thing to do.

Robert Krulwich: Lisette got a bunch of the laughers in a room together, just to show us how it works.

Lisette S.: Okay, so this is kind of like a murmur chuckle. It's not like a gut wrenching, just a little bit of murmur chuckle. Okay, something funny just happened but it's not like a whole big long laugh, it's just something really quick and funny.

This one, something's happening and it's a little bit of chuckle, but then something came out of it just making it peeing your pants.

Speaker 30: We all have our great individual laughs but we were told not to-

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Speaker 30: ... stand out. We had to know each other, play off each other, and if somebody was paused in their laughter maybe we'd cover it. I mean we were a well timed, orchestrated machine.

Speaker 31: Yeah.

Speaker 30: yeah.

Speaker 31: We were.

Robert Krulwich: So well orchestrated that their services became very desirable.

Speaker 32: You know, a chain reaction.

Robert Krulwich: Central Casting began getting calls from other sitcoms.

Speaker 32: On Drew Carry Show.

Robert Krulwich: From talk shows.

Speaker 32: They sprinkled us in the audience.

Robert Krulwich: Something odd began to happen on the sets. The actors began noticing the laughers.

Speaker 33: They would thank us, want to know if we're all right. Did we have enough food. Was the food good.

Robert Krulwich: For a lot of these people who were used to working as extras and being pretty much ignored all the time, this was wonderful.

Speaker 33: They treated us as though we were principal family. I mean, they recognized us at Christmas parties, and it's just like we were a part of them.

Speaker 34: They would come and sit with us and talk to us. They appreciated us.

Speaker 33: That's the part I loved.

Speaker 34: You know, we got their back. Yeah, and we did have their back.

Speaker 35: There was a time we stayed after, and it was a scene where the nanny was climbing a telephone pole outside, and she wanted us to come out there and do our thing so that the timing was right, and felt right. I think we went on 14 hours that night. It was wonderful.

Speaker 34: It is, and you almost want to cry because everybody is so wonderful as a family here, us laughers.

Robert Krulwich: Then reality stuck.

Speaker 37: The battle for a quarter of a million dollars.

Speaker 38: I'm feeling a pure disgust with Trisha.

Speaker 39: I'm going to have to nominate George, and Erica.

Robert Krulwich: Starting around 2000, reality TV, you know these shows, that merit no laughs required. They pushed sitcoms aside. Professional laughing work slowed down to a trickle.

Speaker 40: We're laughing three times a week on different shows. There is like this momentum, and this adrenaline. Suddenly it all comes to an end and it's like ... Honest to God it's like going through withdrawal.

Speaker 41: I found that when I'm not laughing I'm a lot more depressed. I found that it was great therapy for me on a weekly basis.

Speaker 42: I miss it.

Speaker 41: Oh God, so I need that. I miss it.

Robert Krulwich: It's sad.

Kim January: Anybody out there needs any laughers there's a whole room full of us.

Robert Krulwich: Look, we could use you. We could use you. Look, Jad?

Jad Abumrad: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert Krulwich: Just go with me here. What is brown and sticky?

Jad Abumrad: What?

Robert Krulwich: A stick.

Jad Abumrad: Whoa.

Robert Krulwich: Thank you. And Jad?

Jad Abumrad: Yes?

Robert Krulwich: I had Cheerios for breakfast this morning. This is mowing in high grass. Jad?

Jad Abumrad: Yes?

Robert Krulwich: I'm wearing brown shoes. This is fun. You're all hired.

This story was produced by Rob Christianson, and reported by Mary Beth Kushner. Support provided by the Dana Alliance for brain initiatives at dana.org. The excerpts from Fran Drescher's book Cancer Schmancer was courtesy of Shift Audio. Our laughers interviewed were-

Speaker 43: Diva Perry.

Speaker 44: Bonnie Chuse.

Speaker 45: Gracie Spiranza.

Adonny Mitchell: ADonny Mitchell.

Pam West: Pam West.

Speaker 47: Brynn Perdue.

Speaker 48: Louise Saxton.

Speaker 49: Gene Vanosdole.

Speaker 50: Sandy Olmans.

Speaker 51: Ramon Livingston.

Speaker 52: Adele Danalouse.

Speaker 53: Tom Petra.

Dennis Filer: Dennis Filer.

Robert Krulwich: And-

Kim January: Kim January.

Jad Abumrad: Okay, so here's the question Robert.

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: In that story somewhere there was a guy who had an amazing laugh. Well, they all have amazing laughs, but there was one particular guy who just had like an outrageous laugh.

Robert Krulwich: This one?

Jad Abumrad: Yeah, that guy. What is it about that kind of laugh that just gets you. What is it about the sound?

Robert Krulwich: The laugh itself.

Jad Abumrad: Yeah. Well I took that question to somebody who studies acoustics, of laughing.


J Bachorowski: Hi.

Robert Krulwich: Really. There's somebody that does that?

Jad Abumrad: Yeah.

J Bachorowski: I am Dr. Joanne Bachorowski. I'm an associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University.

Jad Abumrad: She's from my hometown of Nashville Tennessee.

J Bachorowski: I study the sounds that we make.

Jad Abumrad: She has collected over 30 thousand laughs.

Can we hear some?

J Bachorowski: Yes.

Jad Abumrad: This is probably the biggest collection in the world. She has analyzed every one on the computer, and played me a few.

J Bachorowski: Okay-

Jad Abumrad: Just little tiny scraps.

J Bachorowski: I'll just go ahead and play this for you.

Jad Abumrad: Yeah.

Like this one. Wait, sorry, sorry. Play it one more time. It sounds hysterical, like an alien.

Every bit of that laugh, she thinks, has a secret evolutionary purpose. She breaks it down for me starting with that first part of the laugh, the little breathy thing. Which, in her business, she calls a glottal whistle.

J Bachorowski: She's still got this glottal whistle thing going on here.

Jad Abumrad: A glottal whistle, what's that again?

J Bachorowski: It's the wheeze.

Jad Abumrad: Oh.

J Bachorowski: Yeah. This is just creating turbulence in her glottis.

Jad Abumrad: Hmm.

J Bachorowski: It's like there's a storm going on down there.

Jad Abumrad: A lot of people do the wheeze when they laugh.

Robert Krulwich: Yeah, they do.

Jad Abumrad: I do it.

Robert Krulwich: They do.

Jad Abumrad: Why? It always happens at the beginning of a laugh. Always at the beginning, which makes her think.

J Bachorowski: That sub glottal whistle seems to really say hey pay attention to me, and then you get this wonderful sound that follows.

Jad Abumrad: The wheeze she thinks is like a laughers gun shot to get you to listen up. Now the sounds that follow they jump around a lot in pitch. Which, again, she thinks has a purpose considering when we talk we keep it right here in the middle. I'm Linda Worthheimer na, na, na. When we laugh we go up and down. We leap crazy octaves and land on really, really high notes like this ...

J Bachorowski: This sound here, it's like a mouse squeak.

Jad Abumrad: This not in pitch is actually higher than the highest note in that famously unsingable aria Queen of the Night.

Robert Krulwich: Really?

J Bachorowski: This laugh has got so much going on in it.

Jad Abumrad: Acoustically extreme, that's what she calls it.

J Bachorowski: Acoustical extreme laughter.

Jad Abumrad: Which means that it's hard for our brains to process. She's seen this on brain scans. We get a little jolt, a little bzz, when we hear a laugh that jumps pitches like that.

J Bachorowski: 55 hertz up to 276 hertz in a heartbeat.

Jad Abumrad: Maybe the pitch jumps, maybe the wheeze, these sounds they're not random she would argue. They have specifically evolved to tweak us.

J Bachorowski: Tweak us emotionally. Humans have the ability to produce a sound that makes other people feel good, and so if we can do that then they're more likely to feel positively towards us, and behave positively towards us. Ultimately we want to shape their behavior towards us.

Robert Krulwich: Well what you're saying then is a laugh is a way of the laugher getting into the head of, or under the skin of, the other person.

Jad Abumrad: Maybe, just maybe. Studies in fact have found that people laugh louder and more extremely around their boss. Over and over Joanne has found that women tend to exaggerate their laughs when they're around men. Men that they don't know.

J Bachorowski: With a stranger male she is laughing a lot, and she is producing acoustical extreme laughter.

Jad Abumrad: You can interpret that in a lot of different ways. She interprets it as a safety thing.

J Bachorowski: The idea being that male is inherently threatening so you want to manipulate his emotional state so that he's positively disposed toward her.

Jad Abumrad: There's another way to sort of interpret that, which is that you're essentially confirming the stereotype of the giggling girl.

J Bachorowski: Yeah, the giggling girls have power.

Jad Abumrad: Don't I know it.

On that note, let's end the segment with author Barry Sanders, who in his book Sudden Glory writes a lot about this relationship between laughter and power, and laughter as a way to stay safe.

Barry Sanders: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: Were there moments, early moments that you can remember where you felt that acutely?

Barry Sanders: Oh absolutely. You can't see them with me but I can see them in my minds eye.

Jad Abumrad: Well paint the picture for me.

Barry Sanders: Well, you know, there's my father absolutely utterly drunk, and he's turning off the lights and turning on the lights in the house with such power that he's breaking the switches and sparks are flying in the house. Sparks are going around in the house, and my mother is crying. I said, "Wait, it's Fantasia. Everything's going to turn into color."

Jad Abumrad: Fantasia, I don't get it though, because of the sparks?

Barry Sanders: Yeah, because don't you remember in the middle of the movie it just turns into technicolor. There're sparks flying, and there's magic wand going, and Mickey's starting to touch things and they become vibrant and alive.

Jad Abumrad: Oh.

Barry Sanders: That's what the house looked like to me. The house looked like magic mountain. It was the fourth of July. I tried to convert it that way with him. It actually worked. He took a few steps back, looked at the situation, and he cracked up. I mean I've always thought that anger ... In Latin the route for things like anger and anxiety and angina is a word called anxeri which means to be without air. You know, you start to choke up and you tell someone "Hey take a deep breath." Laughter is about breath after all. This is what Aristotle tells us. That's what would happen. He stopped for a second. His shoulders would go down. He would relax. He would move from out of his throat into his belly, and laugh at the situation.

Jad Abumrad: Radio Lab will return in a moment.

Candice: This is Candice currently calling from her bicycle. Radio Lab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation, and by Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org. Thank you.

Jad Abumrad: This is Radio Lab. I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad: This hour we are looking at laugh-

Robert Krulwich: Wait.

Jad Abumrad: What was that?

Robert Provine: That's ... Okay, here we have the laugh box.

Robert Krulwich: That's a strange little device that Robert Provine from University of Maryland played. Remember him from the previous section?

Jad Abumrad: Yeah.

Robert Krulwich: He played it to me, and he has a notion about this.

Robert Provine: Yeah so basically you just need laughter to cause laughter.

Robert Krulwich: The notion here is you don't need a joke to start the laugh, all you need is a laugh.

Robert Provine: You can throw the joke away, laughter causes laughter.

Robert Krulwich: No you can't get a laugh going from nothing. You have to have something.

Robert Provine: Actually you can.

Robert Krulwich: He said, "I'll prove it to you." He showed me a video tape.

Robert Provine: This was in the mall.

Excuse me, we're doing a study on laughter. Is laughter a good thing?

Speaker 56: Absolutely.

Robert Provine: You laugh a lot?

Speaker 56: I laugh every day. I make my wife laugh all the time. She's laughing already.

Robert Provine: What do you do that makes him laugh?

Speaker 57: Trip.

Speaker 56: Spills a lot of things.

Robert Provine: One other thing, we have a piece of apparatus here. You push the button for this.

Why were you laughing?

Speaker 57: I don't know.

Robert Provine: Did anyone tell a joke?

Speaker 57: No.

Robert Provine: Did anyone do anything funny?

Speaker 57: No.

Jad Abumrad: Sorry.

Speaker 57: I don't know.

Robert Krulwich: It was true. Provine is absolutely correct about this. What we're doing here is something that's very contagious.

Jad Abumrad: All right well while we're on the subject of contagious laughter I've got a story to tell you. It's a good one too.

Robert Krulwich: All right.

Jad Abumrad: Now imagine ... You with me?

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: Okay, imagine 1962-

Robert Krulwich: Where would I go. I was just sitting here-

Jad Abumrad: Oh just your attention I mean.

Robert Krulwich: Oh yes.

Jad Abumrad: 1962, rural village of Kashasha Tanzania. Girls boarding school.

Robert Krulwich: All right.

Jad Abumrad: Girl is sitting in class.

Robert Krulwich: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jad Abumrad: She begins to laugh. The girl next to her, maybe to her left, hears her laugh and she begins to laugh. Across the classroom a third girl joins in. The teacher gets upset, but it's too late. Soon four girls, then eight, the entire class has begun to laugh and then cry, and then laugh and then cry.

Robert Krulwich: At what?

Jad Abumrad: Just because. I don't know.

Robert Krulwich: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jad Abumrad: Anyhow, a girl outside at that moment walking down the hall imagine she hears the laughter from the classroom. She starts to laugh and as she walks and laughs her laughter goes into other classrooms and soon the whole school is doing this laughing, crying, laughing, crying. Teachers cannot control these girls, and they try to. The girls get violent.

Robert Krulwich: They get violent?

Jad Abumrad: Yep. The principal then has no choice, he's got to close the school. They open the school a week later, and it happens again, so they close the school a second time. Meanwhile, the girls who started all this they go back to their villages many, many miles away and this thing, whatever it is, spreads up and down the coast of Lake Victoria.

Robert Krulwich: You mean people in the villages start to laugh?

Jad Abumrad: Yep. In one village 217 people start to laugh, and cry. A second boarding school has to shut down, and no one knows why. A team of doctors, some British doctors in the area, they hop in a land rover, and they rush out to investigate this strange phenomenon. This is what they write.

Speaker 59: The Central African Journal of Medicine. Volume nine, number 5, May 1963. The disease commenced on the 13th of January 1962. The mission run girls middle school was-

Speaker 60: The onset was sudden with attacks of laughing and crying lasting for a few minutes to a few hours.

Speaker 59: After a maximum of 16 days, followed by respite, and then a recurrence.

Jad Abumrad: In the report there is an account of a 52 year old man who saw some people afflicted with this sickness-

Speaker 59: And soon after returning to his hut he felt something telling him to laugh, and cry, and shout. This he continued to do for most of the night. No fatal cases have been reported.

Robert Krulwich: This is very ... What? Is this true?

Jad Abumrad: Yeah. I mean ... Well, okay, we wondered.

Robert Krulwich: Right.

Jad Abumrad: So we sent our producer Ellen Horne, 40 some odd years after the fact to see what she could find.

Ellen Horne: I'm flying to Bukoba. To be honest I was a little bit worried that-

I can see the sun setting over Lake Victoria.

... that the medical journal article just wasn't true.

Jad Abumrad: Yeah that's ... What I expected was just a total hoax.

Ellen Horne: Yeah, or that it was some kind of stunt.

We might be getting close.

I just sort of doubted the general credibility of the whole thing.

Okay, we've arrived in Bukoba.

Okay, so I get to Bukoba.

This is totally the most beautiful place.

Bukoba is a tiny port town.

It's green and lush.

This very remote part of northern Tanzania.

Good morning.

My first step was just to spend a couple of days walking around and asking everybody that I ran in to, who spoke English about this contagious laughter.

There's an epidemic of laughter.

I guess I imagined ... This happened in the '60s so I'm looking for people who are like in their 70s and 80s. Turns out that I didn't need old people. Young people totally knew what I was talking about.

It started in the school-

Speaker 62: Oh yeah, I know what you mean.

Ellen Horne: Because it still happens today.

Raymond Umpwena: The first time I saw it it was in 1991.

Ellen Horne: 1991.

Raymond Umpwena: Yeah.

Ellen Horne: I went to this tour office, and the first person I met there was this guy named Raymond.

Raymond Umpwena: I'm Raymond.

Ellen Horne: What's your last name?

Raymond Umpwena: [Umpwena].

Ellen Horne: He said he thought he could find me somebody who had had it.

Raymond Umpwena: Maybe if you give me three hours I can find out.

Ellen Horne: Okay, let me give you my phone number.

About an hour later I get a text from him that says meet me in a half hour. I hope in his car, we drive off.

How did you find this person?

Raymond Umpwena: I know everybody in town, and everybody knows me.

Ellen Horne: He's not kidding. Raymond is a former Tanzanian National Soccer team star. He's like a local celebrity. Kids follow him down the street. Raymond drives me up this dirt road about ten minutes. We get to this blue cement building. We sit outside on the porch in these white plastic chairs, and we wait.


After about 20 minutes this woman comes out. Really beautiful, has a mole on her nose, long eyelashes.

Will you ask her if she'll introduce herself for me?

She's nervously squeezing this plastic water bottle that's in her hand.

Conchester: Conchester Anton.

Ellen Horne: Conchester is her name.

Conchester: [Foreign language00:46:36].

Ellen Horne: She tells me that in her high school there were three girls who were affected. For all of them it happened during exams.

An exam, a test?

Raymond Umpwena: Yeah.

Ellen Horne: Well do you remember what the test was?

Raymond Umpwena: [Foreign language]

Conchester: [foreign language]

Raymond Umpwena: Mathematics.

Ellen Horne: It was the morning of the math test. She remembers walking into the exam room. She sat down. She looked at her paper, and suddenly something came over her.

Raymond Umpwena: She started laughing.

Ellen Horne: Then she took off all her clothes.

Raymond Umpwena: She started undressing.

Ellen Horne: Undressing?

Raymond Umpwena: Yeah, and they got her and took her to hospital.

Ellen Horne: She says she doesn't remember much else from that. She's told that she fought when they tried to restrain her. She spent three days in the hospital. They would give her Valium, make her pass out. Then she'd wake up, feel a little bit better for a while and it would come on again. She'd uncontrollably be laughing, then they would give her more Valium, she'd pass out.

Why do you think this happens? The laughing sickness.

She says it happens for girls who-

Raymond Umpwena: For girls who are not free.

Ellen Horne: I asked her if she felt free. I'm not even sure what they're talking about, but I asked her if she felt free, and she said. Well when you live with your parents, and you're that age, no one's really free. She said she had a boyfriend, and her parents wouldn't let her see him. In the hospital when she had the laughing sickness, he was allowed to come visit.

Raymond Umpwena: Yes.

Jad Abumrad: This girl-

Ellen Horne: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: ... has a crazy attack of laughing, and then her boyfriend shows up, and she's just fine?

Ellen Horne: Well, more like she's allowed to see her boyfriend.

Jad Abumrad: So it's about the-

Ellen Horne: While she's-

Jad Abumrad: Hmm.

Ellen Horne: The real common association with this sickness is that it's a teenage girl disease.

Raymond Umpwena: Only to girls.

Speaker 65: It is for girl.

Ellen Horne: It only happens to girls?

Raymond Umpwena: Yeah, yeah. A girl 16 to 20 years old. Crying and sometimes laughing.

Ellen Horne: I talked to a school nurse, a psychiatric nurse from the local hospital, a doctor, and they all said vaguely the same thing. The reason it happened was that it had something to do with the transitions of adolescence.

Jad Abumrad: Just out of curiosity, you're a girl?

Ellen Horne: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jad Abumrad: Is there something about this that makes sense to you?

Ellen Horne: Yes. Out of curios ... Yeah, sure. You're just beginning to negotiate your relationship to sex, and boys, and there's these new pressures, and these new responsibilities that are really challenging.

Jad Abumrad: It's funny, boys don't have that problem. We just want to have sex.

Ellen Horne: It's a crisis for girls.

Jad Abumrad: Yeah.

Ellen Horne: It does kind of make sense.

Jad Abumrad: Okay.

Ellen Horne: It doesn't really explain anything about 1962 to me.

Jad Abumrad: Why not?

Ellen Horne: Because in 1962 it wasn't just teenage girls.

Jad Abumrad: Oh.

Ellen Horne: It was boys. It was men. It was villages full of people of all ages. What explains that?

Fortunately for me, I had found a woman who was there.

Hello. How are you?

Gertrude is in her 50s she's got short loose curls, and a big smile. In 1962 when the laughter epidemic struck her village she got it too.

Gertrude: I was six years old.

Ellen Horne: Yeah.

Gertrude: Really young.

Ellen Horne: Do you remember?

Gertrude: I remember yes.

Ellen Horne: Yeah, she remembers seeing hundreds of people coming down with this strange affliction and it took many forms. Some were laughing-

Gertrude: Everlasting laughter, then laugh and cry at the same time.

Ellen Horne: At the same time?

Gertrude: What happened to me, was I was not able to talk. Crying only, and then my eyes were closed as if there is a gum on my eyes. My mom she carried me on her back.

Ellen Horne: They walked, they walked over the hills. Her mom carrying her on her back for hours. A long the way they ran into other people, boys, girls, men-

Gertrude: Even older ones.

Ellen Horne: Dozens of people all headed the same way, laughing, crying.

Gertrude: Grabbing at the other skin.

Jad Abumrad: Where were they going?

Ellen Horne: To the witch doctor.

Gertrude: This witch doctor-

Ellen Horne: They didn't know what else to do. Hundreds of people she says converged on this woman's tiny hut.

Gertrude: They were going inside ten by ten in the house. They were full. They had to stay outside, there were many.

Ellen Horne: There was so many people going to the witch doctor-

Gertrude: Yeah the many people. It was terrible.

Ellen Horne: What do you think the problem was?

Gertrude: Okay. I was asking my elder once what was the problem. They said that it was something spiritual, a spiritual event.

Ellen Horne: Yeah.

Gertrude: Because one year before this problem there were certain insects-

Ellen Horne: She said that about a year before the laughter epidemic caterpillars had shown up.

Gertrude: They were breading in they spread all over the ground.

Ellen Horne: There was this huge infestation. One of the explanations was that the people who got sick had walked across the caterpillars.

Gertrude: They stepped on this caterpillars.

Ellen Horne: ... and had killed them.

Gertrude: As a result-

Ellen Horne: The spirit of the caterpillars were possessing them.

Gertrude: They started to get this feeling.

Ellen Horne: Now she sort of dismissed that as not scientific.

Gertrude: Maybe these caterpillars had a certain bacteria's which affected the brain.

Ellen Horne: Okay, this explanation that there was some sort of bacteria, or virus, I had already checked it out. I had gone to the government hospital to talk to the medical officer. They'd never found any physical cause for this.

Speaker 67: There's not any medical importance which was found.

Ellen Horne: I'd even talked to a lab technician.

Speaker 68: I'm a technician-

Ellen Horne: Who had checked blood samples in 1962.

Speaker 68: Everything was negative.

Ellen Horne: They tested the water supply, the food supply.

Speaker 68: Negative, negative.

Ellen Horne: So that the caterpillars seemed like a dead end. I tried a different tack. I asked Gertrude what was going on then at that time in your village.

Gertrude: When others-

Ellen Horne: She thought about it for a while, and then she said. Well of course there was-

Gertrude: Independence.

Ellen Horne: Independence. For 40 years Tanzania had been a British colony. In 1961 Tanzania had declared independence.

Jad Abumrad: This was right before?

Ellen Horne: Just weeks before that first girl started laughing.

Gertrude, I don't know much about independence. What can you tell me about independence?

Gertrude: What I experienced back then was people going around, singing, beating drums, dancing. It was the independence. Apart from that I can't tell more what's independence, because I was very, very young.

Ellen Horne: Gertrude said that she knew somebody who would remember more, someone I should talk to.

Gertrude: This Mr. Sospeta.

Ellen Horne: A 71 year old man, Mr. Sospeta.

Gertrude: Who was assisting the witch doctor.

Ellen Horne: He was the witch doctors assistant?

Gertrude: Maybe this man can help more.

Ellen Horne: Yeah.

Gertrude: Than I.

Ellen Horne: Do you want some coffee or some breakfast here first?

On my very last day in Bukoba Raymond and I sat down with this man, the witch doctors assistant at a restaurant near my hotel. Tiny guy. Gray hair, and big oversized suit, and he filled in some of the missing pieces.

Will you tell him I want to know what he remembers.

I asked him about the independence celebration that Gertrude described. The ones just before the laughter epidemic. He painted a very different picture.

Raymond Umpwena: I remember. I would mark a check, any marker these things.

Ellen Horne: He was 26 at the time, but after the parties died down he said change swept through his village. Immediately following independence Tanzania became a socialist state, and the new government went out to create a new world order. Land changed hands, they abolished the local clans.

Raymond Umpwena: The president, President Nareli, after the independence-

Ellen Horne: And the local religions.

Raymond Umpwena: They banned the spirit.

Ellen Horne: This was the brand new age. This was the new era. You were supposed to have a modern belief system. The entire village was being asked to abandon the way that they had worshiped for thousands of years. Within weeks the churches moved in. Suddenly they had business. Catholic church opened up on one side of the street, and a Lutheran on the other.

Raymond Umpwena: Christians were telling people, convincing villagers to join different religions.

Ellen Horne: They even handed out money. It was kind of a bidding war for souls. All of it was too new, too fast. He even remembers this one particular night that everyone in his village gathered outside, and stared at the sky.

Raymond Umpwena: They had been told that was the end of life on earth. At midnight everyone was out the whole night waiting to see whether they are going to die.

Ellen Horne: He told me, we saw the heavens and the moon slamming into each other.

Raymond Umpwena: What they saw, it was an eclipse of the moon. That's what they said.

Ellen Horne: An eclipse of the moon. Looking back on it, maybe that was the end of the world, of that old world. Heres this guy, this witch doctors assistant, who introduced himself to me actually as an elected official.

Robert Krulwich: Oh that's interesting.

Ellen Horne: He made this jump in his life. That was a particular period of time when everybody was making this big jump, all of a sudden.

Jad Abumrad: So you think that this laughing epidemic had something to do with like an avalanche of newness.

Ellen Horne: Yeah. Of all the explanations I came across, this is the one that makes the most sense to me.

Robert Krulwich: It's plausible to me too. You've got a loss of religion, an arrival of a new religion, a loss of a political culture, a new leader. That's a very large pile up of change, all of a sudden.

Jad Abumrad: Yeah.

Robert Krulwich: And of course everyone is a little bit scared, so there's a quiet, and then someone starts to laugh.

Ellen Horne: Who knows why that first girl went crazy, and why she started making crazy laughing noises, but it was like people saw that and they were like oh God I feel like that too.

Robert Krulwich: It sounds like laughter but you could think of it as-

Jad Abumrad: As like a collective scream, or something.

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Ellen Horne: Like the entire society was a 16 year old girl in 1962.

Jad Abumrad: Radio Lab Producer Ellen Horne. Well that's it for us, at least for now. For more information on the Tanzanian laugh epidemic, or anything else you heard in this hour visit radiolab.org. I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad: We'll see you later.

Speaker 69: Radio Lab is produced by Jad Abumrad, LuLu Miller, Rob Christinson, Ellen Horne, Elizabeth Giddings. Production support, by Sally Herships, Sarah Pelligrene, Ariel Latsky, Heather Radkey, Michael O'Ryan McManis and Soren Wheeler.

Thanks to Gail Cleaver, Beth Barrack, Bingo Nightly, Emily Webber and Sharon Counts. Finally, special thanks to Casey Cromwell. Radio Lab is produced by WNYC New York public radio, and distributed by NPR, National Public Radio.