This joke is going to kill you, unfortunately
By Nury Vittachi
WARNING: DO NOT LAUGH at this column. Readers who do so are acting entirely at their own risk and we assume no responsibility for injuries caused by the reading thereof.
An alert reader informs me that contrary to what was stated in yesterday’s column, laughter is not necessarily good for your health, but can be lethal. “In 1975, a 50-year-old man called Alex Mitchell laughed himself to death watching a TV comedy called The Goodies,” she wrote. “His wife Nessie wrote to the actors thanking them for making her husband’s last moments so happy.”
I was intrigued. Thinking about this in a taxi on the way to see a comedian friend, I was reminded of The Funniest Joke in the World, a 1969 Monty Python sketch.
This went as follows: During World War 2, a British comedy writer laughed himself to death after composing a joke so funny that anyone who heard it died laughing. So the British army decided to use it against the Nazis. It was so powerful that each word had to be translated by a different translator. (One translator who accidentally glimpsed a second word was hospitalized for weeks.) At the height of fighting in 1944, monolingual British soldiers leapt on to the battlefield and read the German translation of the joke, causing their enemies to drop dead on the spot.
I am convinced this was based on fact. Idioms about humour all have violent connotations. “He laughed till his stomach hurt”. “She split her sides”. And the horrific: “They laughed their heads off”.
From the back of the taxi, I phoned a doctor friend in Central. Can a person die laughing?
“Oh yes,” she replied. “Laughing raises the heart rate and causes the body to go into a convulsive state which can trigger a heart attack. Ideally, you should pitch your jokes to raise your readers’ heart rates to no more than 85 per cent of maximum.”
“Can a man actually laugh his head off?” I asked.
“Not at your column,” she said.
“Thanks.” I dialed the number of a friendly lawyer. “Should humorists take out limited liability coverage in case a reader actually does split his sides?”
I could hear him scratching his wallet as he pondered. “It would be cheaper to add a disclaimer to your column,” he advised.
I finally reached the Lan Kwai Fong café where I was lunching with the comedian. He told me this was an issue only in the west. “Westerners laugh more easily and take out lawsuits more easily,” he said. “Asians, and especially Asian men, don’t like to show their feelings.”
This solved a mystery that has puzzled me for months. Last year, I did a comic routine in front of an all-male audience of East Asians. They sat in stony silence. No one laughed. But afterwards, they raced up to me, slapped my back, told me they’d never heard anything funnier and made me promise to make a return visit.
They must have been concentrating on keeping their heart rates at 85 per cent of maximum.
Next: The joy of watching embarrassed celebrities squirm