Thursday 25 April 2019

Patricia Casey: Why laughter really is the best medicine. Laugh until your sides ache and tears run down your face

Ardal O'Hanlon
Ardal O'Hanlon

As you read this, I am in Edinburgh at the festivals. The International, Fringe and Tattoo festivals, have just begun and the book festival begins next week. The Fringe is probably the best known and people think of it as a comedy festival, but it also comprises drama and music in all its forms, as well as dance and spoken word, such as poetry and storytelling. All of these have their appeal, but its reputation has been built on comedy.

Over one million extra people visit Edinburgh during the festivals, mostly for the Fringe, with over 3000 shows to choose from. Many well-known comedians cut their teeth there, including Stephen Fry, Ardal O'Hanlon, Rowan Atkinson and Tim Vine. Some continue to appear even after they've achieved international fame

All genres of comedy - and there are dozens - are on offer and obviously the quality varies from abysmal to side-splitting, though personal taste plays an obvious part in that judgement. Stand-up is the most common and various styles are on offer ranging from black to blue to deadpan. Improvised comedy is hugely popular and while many may not be familiar with this, the best personifications of the style are Paul Merton and Greg Proops. Whose Line Is It Anyway ran on TV for many years. This is highly engaging because of the audience's involvement, suggesting themes to the actors who then construct a short performance around these. An example might be a comedy musical based on Shakespeare's Hamlet in a space station.

At the Fringe there is a daily improvised performance of Jane Austen's works and these are sold out every year. "Improv" is zany and appeals to the ridiculous. It is my preferred genre. Then there is anecdotal or storytelling comedy, sometimes based on embellished truth but the narratives can also be fictitious. Gyles Brandreth, a former MP, famous also for one-liners, is the funniest exemplifier of this style and he is back at the festival this year.

The appeal of comedy is inescapable. "Laughter is the best medicine" as the prosaic adage says. There is some truth to this since laughing has an effect on the limbic system in the brain. This is the part that produces emotion and the amygdala is one of the structures involved in moderating emotions such as love, affection/friendship and mood. Loud, uncontrollable laughter is controlled by the hypothalamus.

Another structure, the nucleus acumbens is involved in pleasurable feelings associated with some addictive drugs and also with laughter. The funnier the person perceives the content to be, the more blood that flows to the nucleus acumbens. So this is the area of the brain concerned with humour appreciation. Comedy has been shown to improve blood flow and increase good cholesterol. It also reduces blood pressure. Laughter demonstrates clearly the link between mind and body, the psychological and the physical.

At a personal level, laughter is a relaxant that can reduce stress and diffuse anger. It can generate bonds between people and make the joker likeable. In larger groups laughing together can create a sense of belonging.

On TV, the sitcoms use laughter tracks and this is because laughter is contagious (to quote another banal, but wise phrase "laugh and the world laughs with you"). Humour is a tool used by people in stressful jobs or who have difficult personal situations to deal with.

Comedy is often frowned upon as lowbrow when compared to opera, serious theatre or visual arts. But several third-level institutions have faculties devoted to the study of humour and comedy. Brunel University in London has a centre for comedy studies research and Columbia College, Chicago also has a comedy studies faculty. Salford University in Manchester has a comedy writing and performance course as have many other colleges in the UK and the USA.

With the Edinburgh Fringe accommodation all booked out, I can recommend a few clips of some of the funniest comedians I have had the joy of seeing.

Search YouTube for Gyles Brandreth on a TV panel explaining the Brexit referendum, Tracey Ullman running a "Woke" support Group or Rhod Gilbert discussing his anger management diary.

Enjoy and laugh until your sides ache and tears run down your face!

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