Day 407: The Last Laugh

originally published February 10, 2013

In searching for a topic laced with a bit of dark humor today, I stumbled into the concept of laughter. Specifically, deadly laughter. The laughter that starts out as a titter, escalates to a chortle, then finally evolves into an overpriced silk-lined mahogany casket.

Sure, the notion of someone ‘dying of laughter’ sounds preposterous. How can something so benign, so mirthful as a laugh lead to one’s demise? Is laughter truly the vampire-squirrel of human involuntary responses? Cute and poster-worthy, but secretly concealing a means of outright destruction? And is there such thing as a vampire-squirrel, or did I just make that up? So many questions.

The notion of dying of laughter is somewhat misleading. Laughter cannot kill; it’s what the body goes through as a result of laughter that can cause some damage. Asphyxiation and cardiac arrest – those are the culprits to watch out for. Atonia, or the loss of strength within a muscle, can throw off your balance, cause you to plummet off a balcony or – if you’re lucky – stumble and fall in some Buster-Keaton-esque display of jocular buffoonery that causes those around you to follow suit. May as well drag some of those bastards down with you.

The most common laugh-related injury would probably involve some kind of physical trauma. I know I have literally fallen out of my seat numerous times whilst laughing: the first time I watched South Park, that damn PIVOT episode of Friends, and most recently, listening to Christopher Walken’s audiobook reading of Where The Wild Things Are. I should be thankful I didn’t thwack my head on the coffee table.

Far less frequent than a mere disregard for one’s furniture placement is the condition of laughter-induced syncope, also known as Seinfeld syncope because one case involved a patient whose fainting was specifically linked with the sitcom Seinfeld. Jerry should be flattered – if you’re going to have a medical condition that bears your name, laughter-induced fainting is a pretty good score for a comedian. This is a situational condition, and quite unusual. If you’re curious what it looks like, here’s a video of a guy being tickled into unconsciousness. It’s a tad surreal.

Cataplexy is another laugh-related quirk, involving a complete loss of muscle tone due to extreme laughter. The same response can also be triggered by crying, shrieking in terror, and so on. Embarrassment can cause it. And yes, because I had to check, orgasm can also launch this condition. Fortunately, only 5 people out of 10,000 are afflicted, though it does strike as much as 70% of narcoleptics.

The list of people who have actually died of laughter is rather short. It starts with Chrysippus, the Greek Stoic philosopher. Chrysippus was known for his work in ethics, logic, physics, and theory of knowledge. He is partly responsible for the success of the school of Stoicism, the branch of philosophy that teaches that destructive emotions are the result of errors of judgment, and that a true mensch would not succumb to such a frivolous and carelessness loss of one’s cool.

Then, in 206BC, he fed his donkey some wine and watched it eat figs. Mr. Stoicism found this so ass-tearingly ludicrous, he literally laughed himself to death.

King Martin of Aragon – a descendant of some guy named Wilfred the Hairy, which should have left Martin predisposed to having a sense of humor – lost his grip on life in 1410. He had just consumed an entire goose, when Borra, his favorite jester, walked in. Martin asked where Borra had been. The answer: he’d just been in the next vineyard where he saw a deer hanging by its tail from a tree, as if someone was punishing him for eating figs. Martin must have loved that mental image, because he proceeded to laugh so hard he died.

Fig-related humor is huge. That’s the lesson to take away from this.

Italian author and playwright Pietro Aretino, who was credited with inventing erotic literature, died in 1556 from suffocating due to laughing too hard. Unfortunately, the record doesn’t state what specifically launched Pietro into such a fit of hysterics, but I’m guessing it was a joke about a guy who walks into a bar with a donkey, a buttplug and a bag full of figs.

Thomas Urquhart, the Scottish writer who made a name for himself by translating Francois Rabelais’ work into English, allegedly died in a fit of laughter in 1660 when he’d heard that Charles II had ascended to the throne. This would be the first case of death by political humor.

In the modern era, a guy named Alex Mitchell from King’s Lynn, England, lost his life to a bout of television comedy. He was watching The Goodies, a surreal sketch-comedy show on BBC. Specifically, it was the March 24, 1975 episode called “Kung Fu Kapers”, in which a Scotsman with bagpipes was battling an “Eckythump” martial arts master who was armed with a black pudding. Mitchell guffawed for twenty-five consecutive minutes before slumping over on the couch, dead. I’d like to check that episode out, just out of pure curiosity.

His wife, rather than filing a lawsuit against the BBC (this was England, not America), wrote The Goodies and actually thanked them for making her husband’s final moments on the planet uncompromisingly joyous.

In 1989, Danish audiologist Ole Bentzen died while watching the Jamie Lee Curtis / Kevin Kline film A Fish Called Wanda. His heart was apparently beating somewhere between 250 and 500 beats per minute before cardiac arrest swooped in and carried Ole away. Funny movie, but deadly funny? Nope, no figs in that movie.

Then there’s Damnoen Saen-um, a 52-year-old ice cream salesman from Thailand who started laughing uncontrollably in his sleep. His wife couldn’t wake him up, and after two minutes he stopped breathing. I don’t want to sound crass, but maybe he was laughing ironically at the fact that he was a 52-year-old ice cream salesman. Just sayin’.

I do my best not to over-do the funny on this site. That’s right, those horrible, flat jokes are intentional. I don’t want to hurt anyone. If I’d heard that my humor had caused someone to laugh to the point of dying, I don’t know if I’d be flattered or horrified. On the one hand, it’s actually quite a compliment.

Someone should draft a preemptive letter to Christopher Walken, just in case. I’ve got to watch that video again.

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