Contagious Laughter

Have you ever been with a bunch of friends when one of them starts to laugh? And then she keeps laughing and laughing…and laughing. Until someone else begins to laugh at how ridiculous she is…and then suddenly everyone is starting to laugh uncontrollably?

Well that’s what happened in Tanzania in 1962, but it wasn’t just a group of friends. It was entire towns. And it didn’t stop for several months. I’m serious.

You might have heard about the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic (yes, epidemic) before, but you might not know that outbreaks of “mass hysteria” still happen there today. In fact, Radiolab did a story on contagious laughter that detailed another more recent outbreak, where one girl was actually hospitalized and repeatedly administered Valium until she finally stopped laughing when she woke up.

I first heard about contagious laughter when I was doing humor research on puns and I was like “No wayy – that’s impossible.” But, It’ real! Check it out.

I think it’s a fascinating concept and it kind of explains why stand up comedy works. If you ever ask a comic to tell you a joke one-on-one, he probably won’t do it. Why? Well, no one says, “Oh, you’re a dentist?! Pull out someone’s tooth right here at this dinner party!” Also, it’s just different performing to one person than it is performing to a crowd. Have you ever had a creepy girlfriend or boyfriend who sang love ballads to you one-on-one? It’s awkward! It’s like singing a love ballad, but with humor. Which sounds funny, but in person not so much.

Besides that, it’s just too risky. Telling a joke one-on-one, anything can happen. But I’ll tell you what usually happens: nothing. People just stand there and don’t say anything. Or worse, they say, “That was funny.” Rarely do they actually laugh, even if it’s your best joke that kills every time on stage.

Why? Well, there’s no other people around to laugh at the thing together! I think contagious laughter definitely comes into play when you’re doing a set for a crowd. And, the very best crowds are the ones who are laughing uncontrollably…one might say “bordering on mass hysteria.” Maybe I just need to play some venues in Tanzania and then I’ll be really funny.

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