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No Joke: America's First Laughing Competition Guffaws Off Ground

Mar 10, 2011 – 7:39 AM
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David Moye

David Moye Contributor

It's no joke: The United States' first-ever laughing championship takes place Saturday in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and a few dozen gigglers, guffawers and chortlers will yuck it up in hopes of winning the coveted title of "California's Best Laugher."

We're serious: It's a laughing contest and the contestants will compete in events such as "Best Diabolical Laugh" and "Most Contagious Laugh" and face off in "Laughter Duels" to see who can make the other person crack up most.

And while just mentioning the contest is enough to make some skeptics start rolling on the floor in ridicule, it's part of a serious effort by Albert Nerenberg to raise awareness of the power of laughter.

Nerenberg is a self-proclaimed "laughologist" who started noticing the power of laughter while, inexplicably, watching Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts.

America's firstever laughing competition
Alex Chabot
Contestants at America's first laughing competition at will be judged on the infectiousness of their laugh and how much muscle control they lose in the process of chortling, guffawing and giggling.
"Before all these fights, there is a stare-down and, many times, the fighters begin to spontaneously laugh," Nerenberg told AOL News. "They triggered laughter through eye contact and their proximity to each other. This is not uncommon."

Nerenberg decided to take the laughter to its inevitable conclusion by having contests in which people compete for the best laugh, rather than punch each other's lights out.

Nerenberg, who is based in Montreal, organized laughing contests in Canada and Japan as part of a documentary, "Laughology," before he was invited to organize a U.S. Championship in San Luis Obisbo, which was recently declared "America's Happiest City" by "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

"There is a new laughter movement where [people] use principles of contagious laughter in a competitive manner," he said. "The contests are easy to organize and explain, but it requires a distinction between humor and laughter."

As Nerenberg puts it, laughter is universal, while humor is cognitive, a learned behavior.

"Laughter is contagious," he said. "You feel it and then you laugh. It's hard to fake a laugh, and people mistrust those who do fake laugh because it's usually coercive -- you're trying to get someone to do something -- or it's hostile.

"On the other hand, humor is younger than laughter. I think the oldest joke in the world is probably a fart joke."

Nerenberg has studied the science of snickering and believes that laughter is a primary civilizing force for humans.

"The 'ha' sound for laughter is close to panting, and every culture uses that sound to express laughter," he said. "Laughter allows us as humans to engage in play, and that gives us the evolutionary advantage over other animal species."

Laughter not only can bring people closer, Nerenberg thinks it can connect their minds and bodies.

"When two people laugh together, there is a limbic lock," he said. "Their brains actually merge and they're on the same frequency. They actually start to look alike even if they are completely different."

Although Nerenberg believes that laughter is truly populism at its finest because a crowd can judge a better laugh than the individual, the contest will have judges like Julie Schultz on hand to help break ties.

She's a former registered nurse who is now a certified "laughter leader" on the World Laughter Tour, a group that promotes the healing power of laughter.

Schultz insists she is not biased toward titters more than tee-hees and promises people who chortle won't have an advantage over snorters.

"I appreciate all forms of laughter," she said. "The key thing I ask myself is, how does the laughter make me feel?"

Schultz is a practitioner of "laughter yoga," a form of therapy where people giggle and guffaw for up to an hour straight.

As such, she is aware of the physical toll a good laugh session can have on the body.

"I do recommend contestants eat a light meal before the contest and make sure to hydrate because you will be using a lot of energy," she said.

One of the potential contestants, Marcia Alter, is an accomplished laugher and says the key to laughing long, loud and hard is to "empty out the right brain so you feel a connectedness with everything."

She has some other advice as well.

"Yes, you should go to the bathroom first," she said.

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