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Inside the World of Competitive Laughing

• November 14, 2013 • 6:00 AM

Gary Johnston. (PHOTO: KEVIN PATRICK ROBBINS)

Sam Riches went to the Canadian competitive laughing championship. He met a 103-year-old man, a one-eyed person named Eyeborg, and a bunch of people trying to elevate the pursuit of joy into a sport.

On Sunday night in Toronto, Albert Nerenberg sits on a grey plastic folding chair inside The Great Hall, a historic building in the west end of the city. He’s three hours away from hosting the first-ever Canadian competitive laughing championship.

In front of him, there are three male “laughletes,” who will be performing later in the evening. Behind Nerenberg is a small black stage, and a low-hanging video screen that reads, “It’s Laughter Night in Canada.” Red velvet curtains are drawn across the stage, and a golden trophy sits on a mantle, on top of more crushed red velvet.

Nerenberg is dressed in a navy blue blazer over a black sweater, black dress pants, and shiny black shoes. The scuffed hardwood floors creak as he shifts forward in his chair, leaning in to address the three competitors.

“Remember, this is a game,” he tells them. “And the great advantage of play is that you win and lose. You’re in it to win, so be crazy—but if you lose, there’s always next year.”

He then explains that laughter paralysis is the pinnacle of a good laugh, warns the competitors to be careful not to fall off the stage, and reminds them that anything can happen.

“The woman who won the American Championship last year,” he says, “she didn’t tell anyone until afterwards, but she pissed her pants in the final round.”

NERENBERG IS A LAUGHOLOGIST. He’s also a filmmaker, an actor, and a journalist. His most recent film, a 2009 documentary called Laughology, posits that laughter is the original peace signal and led to the rise of human civilization. He invented Laughercize, a series of joy-inducing exercises based around the contagiousness of laughter. He hosted the first competitive laughter competition in Montreal in 2011. It led to additional competitions in Japan, France, Austria, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. Along with Dr. Madan Kataria, the founder of Laughter Yoga, Nerenberg is at the forefront of the laughter movement.

“People think it’s an insane idea,” he says of competitive laughter. “They think it’s impossible. Average people generally find it inconceivable. And people who work in therapeutic laughter sometimes think it’s too wild, but I’m quite serious about turning it into a sport. It’s challenging, and all the competitors describe significant physical benefits to competing.”

Near the stage, a woman is ripping off small sections of masking tape to be used as nametags. She’s been involved with the laughter competitions for the past three years and refers to herself, jokingly, as a groupie. “Really, it’s a peace movement,” she says. “It’s about spreading joy.”

Ricky-Donato

Ricky Donato.

One hour before the show begins, another competitor, Ricky Donato, enters the room and begins eyeballing the trophy from afar. A hypnotherapist from Montreal, Donato is dressed in white slacks, with a bright red shirt, a trimmed goatee, glasses, and a wave of dark brown hair. He met Nerenberg at a hypnosis course in Montreal a year and a half ago.

“I’ve always had a big laugh,” Donato says. “But I never knew it was a talent I could exploit. It struck me driving here, just how great the concept is. We’re going to laugh all night, without a joke. It’s one of the greatest concepts I’ve ever heard.”

Donato is not just here to laugh, though. He could do that anywhere. “Tonight is about the best laugher in the country,” he says. “And I’m here to prove that.” He then points across the room at the trophy, which is glowing golden under the stage lighting. “That’s the reason I’m here,” he says. “That’s what I came for.”

LAUGHTER GAMES, THOUGH SEEMINGLY unconventional, are not new. The Canadian Inuit have been practicing them for thousands of years. Their version is called Iglagunerk and consists of two individuals facing each other, grasping hands, and—at an agreed upon signal—beginning to laugh. The one who laughs the hardest and longest is declared the winner. Nerenberg says this, and an observation that mixed martial arts fighters often laugh during their pre-fight stare down, formed the genesis of competitive laughter. But there’s also some science behind it.

The Championship was scheduled in Toronto to coincide with the Canadian Laughter Yoga Conference, led by Kataria, which wrapped up earlier in the day.

Laughter Yoga is a combination of laughter and yogic breathing, and its reported benefits include warding off depression and improving life satisfaction. In turn, that happiness and positivity can engender further success.

The “broaden-and-build” theory, developed by Barbara Fredrickson, professor in the department of psychology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is one of the leading theories on the effects of positive emotions.

It suggests that positive emotions encourage exploratory thoughts and actions and that over time this can broaden behavioral skills, leading to more satisfied, open lives.

Laughter, of course, is a central element to all of this.

Studies have shown that laughter itself evokes further laughter. It’s fundamental in expressing joy, and evidence suggests that laughter can decrease symptoms of pain, lower morbidity, and improve our ability to deal with and recover from stress.

“You can’t watch this and not be affected,” one of the spectators, who is working toward a master’s degree in positive psychology, says. “I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t like laughter.”

“You don’t need to fake it; you just allow it to happen. You might be able to remember a time—if you’re lucky—a couple weeks ago, or months ago, or a few years ago, where you laughed until your sides hurt. We laugh like that all the time.”

AT AROUND 8 P.M., the speakers flanking the stage click on. The projector screen shows a UFC-style thematic intro video, complete with pulsing music and fast-motion footage. The day before the competition, the laughletes gathered at a downtown hotel for weigh-ins and photo-ops.

“We’re trying to demonstrate that laughter is a sport,” Nerenberg tells the crowd. “Why would we do that? Well, punching people in the face is a sport, poking people with sticks is a sport … so why not have a sport about the pursuit of human joy?”

“‘Laugher’ is not a proper English word because the idea of being an active laugher was inconceivable until this point. We want to put laugher in the dictionary.” The crowd, which fills the lower half of the room and is already feeling loose from a warm-up laugh led by Kataria, erupts after this. They continue to cheer, and the 10 contestants walk onto the stage to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” The ceremonial first laugh is led by a 103-year-old Toronto resident. He exits the stage with one line: “Let’s get ready to jubilate.”

“We’re trying to demonstrate that laughter is a sport,” Nerenberg tells the crowd. “Why would we do that? Well, punching people in the face is a sport, poking people with sticks is a sport … so why not have a sport about the pursuit of human joy?”

The first challenge is the Diabolical Laugh. Nerenberg demonstrates the technique for the audience with an apt and villainous impersonation that resembles a melding of Dr. Evil and Gary Oldman’s Dracula.

This laugh can best be categorized in three stages: the initial giggle, followed by an increase in pitch and animated body language, and then finally a near-maniacal crescendo, complete with floor strikes, yelping, and, in some cases, pelvic thrusting. The laughs range from several seconds to more than a minute, but if they seem prolonged or feigned a nearby referee steps in to end it.

In the opening round, Donato shines. He collapses to the stage and seems to be the first laugher to really engage and surprise the audience. His performance is followed by the wild card, an audience member who volunteered to round out the field after a competitor dropped out last minute. A middle-aged woman from St. Louis, she takes the stage and says, “I’ve never seen this before. I don’t know what’s going on.” Surprisingly, or perhaps not, she does well.

The next round brings the snort laugh—one of the most challenging laughs to replicate authentically, requiring one to force air through the nasal passageway. In this round, both a winner and loser are named. The laughletes are evaluated by a three-person panel comprised of a U.K. visitor, a legally blind man, and a man with one eye who goes by the name of Eyeborg. The winner of this round is a competitor from New Brunswick. “His breathing was very impressive,” says the blind judge. ”It’s obvious he was concentrating very hard.”

Throughout the evening the laughletes employ different styles, some rely more on body language, others on their inherent, guttural abilities. Some laugh along as their peers perform, while others stay stone-faced and stern.

Nerenberg addresses the crowd between challenges, explaining each laugh and what to expect.

One of the most well received challenges is the Alabama Knee-Slapper, a laugh that indicates boisterous hilarity and is emphasized with an open-hand slap to one’s knee. Earlier in the evening Nerenberg instructed some of the competitors to make sure they slap themselves hard. “The hit will shock you,” he said, “and make you laugh even harder.”

It’s in this round that Toronto native, Gary Johnston, makes his bid for the title. Johnston towers above the rest of the field, standing about 6’5″, with a glistening bald head. He’s dressed in white sneakers, blue jeans, and a blue denim button up. In a room filled with notable laughers, he projects the loudest, with a booming, uproarious laugh—the perfect skill set for the Alabama Knee-Slapper.

When his name is called, he lowers his huge hands in mammoth strikes against his leg and, at the peak of his laugh, reaches over and slaps Nerenberg on the knee—a move that draws a standing ovation from some members of the crowd.

Johnston pleases the crowd again later in the evening during the Sexiest Laugh category, a challenge that was first introduced at the Slovenian Championship.

The referee, a competitive laugher himself who was recently crowned Toronto’s sexiest laugher in a smaller regional event, demonstrates the challenge. It starts softly and grows more excited, a slow build up, before, as one would expect, reaching a climactic finish. Despite Johnston’s strong performance, it’s another Toronto resident, Katie Solomon, a diminutive brunette with long wavy hair, who wins the challenge and is deemed to have the sexiest laugh in Canada—an honor for which she will receive a gold medal later in the evening.

TOWARD THE END, THE field is narrowed to four, and it includes Donato. He faces his biggest obstacle in the Duel Challenge: the earliest incarnation of competitive laughter. It comes from the idea that when two people confront each other, they either laugh or are hostile. Often, the competitors point at each other and howl. In this challenge, Donato is outmatched and is eliminated by judge’s decision. He exits the stage as the nearby pianist plays “Let It Be” by The Beatles. He watches the remainder of the competition from the isolation of the balcony seats, his head in his hands.

The final round comes down to Solomon and Johnston. By this point, the competition is nearing its second hour, and each laughlete appears visibly exhausted. The last challenge, as suggested by Kataria, is the best natural laugh. It’s not long before Johnston’s deep, emphatic laugh takes over the room, drowning out Solomon. The ref steps in, and raises his hand in victory as the crowd cheers.

Afterward, Donato is sipping red wine from a plastic cup at the back bar. “It’s really tough to be up there all night,” he says. “It’s hard on your stomach, and it’s challenging physically.”

At the front of the room, Johnston clutches his trophy, posing for pictures with members of the audience, appearing to be in utter disbelief of his accomplishment and what has just transpired. Meanwhile, Nerenberg works his way through the crowd, a smile ever present.

“I think the people who came out on top deserved it, which is a good sign,” he says. “And the audience seemed to have a fantastic time … there was a huge amount of laughing, which is the goal.”As the patrons exit, many are smiling, and even more are laughing: some mimicking what they’ve just heard, others seem genuinely rapturous.

“The point,” Nerenberg says, “is that laughter competitions create laughter—and that’s good for the world.”

Sam Riches
Sam Riches is a writer living in Toronto. His work has appeared online at The New Yorker, WIRED, Salon.com, The Classical, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Riches.

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