Emma’s standup routine shows laughter can be the best medicine

Being handed a diagnosis of lethal cancer together with the promise that it will radically shorten your life rarely provokes — in the person hearing the deadly prognosis — the desire to be funny.

Emma’s standup routine shows laughter can be the best medicine

Not only do most people not want to be funny in that situation, but they sure as hell don’t want to be publicly funny.

Emma Mhic Mhathúna is the exception. On Friday night, she stood up in the Laughter Lounge in Dublin in her first venture into stand-up comedy, which saw her deliver 15 minutes of comic commentary, including an account of a mishap she experienced when working with an RTÉ film crew.

They wanted me to do a piece walking down the road, leaning against the farm gate as if I’m trying to contemplate what’s going to happen to me,” she told the audience.

But the gate wasn’t locked, and they recorded me falling down on top of cow shite

That’s one of the classic comedy set-ups: get the audience ready for seriousness, if not — in this case — tragic introspection on the part of our heroine, then undercut the solemnity with something startlingly incongruous, like being dumped in stinking cow pats.

By moving out of her own lane in a continuation of the red dress-wearing refusal to be a victim, Emma Mhic Mhathúna, by making them laugh at and with her, relieves the anxiety and tension induced in her audience by their knowledge that she is dying needlessly.

Someone once defined comedy as a way to control the reason people are laughing at you. Mhic Mhathúna may be adding another definition — that comedy is a way to control the reason people are crying for you.

It’s only in this century that making people laugh has been seen as either societally significant or as therapeutic

In ancient history, lads like Aristotle and Pliny regarded joke-making as beneath contempt. Back then, stand-up was not applauded. Indeed, for most of history, the people who were valued, if they were valued at all, were the ones who were either born noble, were tough, resourceful and hard working, or fighters. For millennia, survivors and providers were the ones who’d have got a standing ovation, if the population hadn’t been too busy to put their hands to anything but work.

Then along came the industrial revolution, when, for the first time, we began to admire the guys with the brains to think up new products and the processes by which to make them. A century ago, we thought the sun shone out of lads like Edison and Ford, who had invented or discovered things we didn’t know we needed until they arrived, courtesy of the mass production Ford helped to develop.

In the early 20th century, heroes tended to be drawn from the brain zone. It was all about science and know-how. As recently as 50 years ago, on many student walls, up beside the black and white poster of Che Guevara, was one of Einstein. Twenty five years ago, we regarded Gates and Jobs as the ones to admire, although for some reason neither of them ever tended to figure in posters.

“Today, in a clear sign of evolution totally sliding off the rails, our god is not strength or efficiency or even innovation, but funny,” according to Ken Jennings, who has examined the paramountcy of comedy in a new book Planet Funny.

Amid the evidence he adduces to support his belief that ours is a uniquely comedy-saturated age is a 2012 Nielsen survey which found 88% of millennials say their sense of humour is how they define themselves. “63% of them,” he adds, “would rather be stuck in an elevator with a favourite comedian than with their sports or music heroes.”

That last statistic recalls an occasion, just a few years ago, when a minister for health, James Reilly, a Labour Party minister of state for health, Kathleen Lynch, and a bunch of important civil and public servants had that precise event happen to them. Lynch was the only woman in a large group which crowded together into a lift that was supposed to take them to the floor on which a major health conference was happening. Except it didn’t. Instead, it stopped dead between floors and all its lights went off. Shock. Horror. Silence. Then into the total darkness came Kathleen Lynch’s unmistakeable voice.

"Keep your hands to yourselves," she crisply instructed, thus removing the tension and creating brief laughter. The minister of state was the nearest thing to a comedian available on the day and while those in the lift may not have been grateful for the laugh she delivered, they probably should have been, because laughter, in a crisis, allows everybody present to throttle back on the tension and the terror and concentrate more coolly on addressing the nub of the issue.

That’s been proven in major aviation disasters, like the famous crash at Sioux City Iowa, where the capacity of the pilot to jolt laughter out of his colleagues as they faced into a catastrophe undoubtedly helped them calmly analyse the situation and come up with the best possible approach.

The importance of laughter in healthcare is also well-established, albeit largely ignored, perhaps because the man who did most research on its efficacy was not, himself, a medic. Norman Cousins was an American who started out as a journalist and ended up as a professor. Along the way, he won major humanitarian awards, although not, it has to be said, for his attitude to women in the workplace, which, even for his time, was — shall we say — nuanced. On the one hand, he suggested that keeping women at home would prevent economic depressions. On the other, he was instrumental in organising treatment for the Hiroshima Maidens, the women who suffered ghastly facial scarring as a result of the atom bomb, which scarring rendered them social pariahs in Japan.

Cousins, in his middle years, developed two major health problems.

One was a connective tissue disease. The other was ankylosing spondylitis. The combination caused him acute and constant pain and the prognosis delivered by the consultant treating him was poor. His chances of cure were tiny. His best option seemed to be to drug himself into near-coma with painkillers. Cousins wasn’t having any of that. To distract himself from his misery, he played recordings of funny TV programmes.

“I made the joyous discovery that 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anaesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep,” he wrote, in

Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, his 1979 book. “When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.”

Several studies were done confirming Cousins’ insight, but comedy has never really made it into healthcare as a treatment option.

Emma Mhic Mhathúna’s is unlikely to change that. But perhaps our more immediate sympathy should go to the unfortunate comedian who had to follow her on Friday night. Not easy, that.

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