Albert Nerenberg’s new documentary, Laughology, is screamingly funny – just don’t call it a comedy.  It’s a personal and scientific look at the nature of laughter, and Nerenberg goes to great lengths to dispel the many misconceptions that we carry about what it means to laugh. Though it’s an intrinsic part of each of our lives, laughter has never been so thoroughly explored in a film as it is here.  We discussed the film, which plays tonight, and Nerenberg was chuckled the entire time.

Q. Why is it important that this story be told?
A. It starts with me having a daughter.  My partner suddenly found out that her father had leukemia, six months into her pregnancy, and she became sick with stress. In the seventh month of her pregnancy he died, quite suddenly.  She was totally in shock, and when the baby was born she developed postpartum depression, because one of the causes of PPD is being traumatized during the course of your pregnancy.

We were just not happy people at that time, and this weird little miracle occurred: at two months the baby starts to laugh, and not just a little bit, it laughs a lot.  Laughs at us, laughs at the situation – just thinks everything is funny.  Unintentionally we had performed a scientific experiment.  We had created an atmosphere of gloom, and then this baby introduced laughter and joy into it because, as I would later discover, laughter is innate.  I didn’t know that.  We refer to babies as bundles of joy, but we actually don’t know why.  It’s because they demonstrate the innateness of laughter, and this exists across all cultures and civilizations. You’d think this would be well-known truth, but this information has been kind of cobbled together.

Q. What obstacles did you encounter during the planning and production of this film?
A. I think this is the first feature documentary in history about laughter, but when I told people that, they didn’t believe me. There’s a central confusion in Western culture that laughter and humour are the same thing.  We think that the telling of jokes and humour, and the reward for that, which is laughter, are one and the same.  However recently people started figuring out that laughter doesn’t have anything to do with humour.  It’s a social behaviour, a bonding behaviour, a loving behaviour, and can also be vicious and sadistic behaviour, but it doesn’t necessarily have to do with humour. So one of the obstacles was convincing people of that separation.

Q. Did your understanding of the subject change during the duration of the project?
A. Not just the film, me. I’m a completely different person now.  I laugh way more, and I laugh at more things – I’ve lowered my standards of what’s funny.  When you find out the medical and intellectual and emotional benefits of laughter, you’ll take every chance you can to laugh.  My opinion of laughter changed, because like most people I thought it was a trivial accessory to language, but as you go deeper you discover that laughter itself is a language.

Q. Tell me something you learned while making this film that shocked you.
A. One of the big scenes is when we find this guy who is supposed to have the most contagious laugh in the world.  That’s a pretty big billing to give yourself, so everyone was wondering: is this for real?  A scientific team that was studying laughter had heard about this man, Doug Collins, and they invited him to London to scan his brain and see if there was something different about him that could explain why he had this contagious laugh.  But while we were shooting in London, everything went wrong.  We were there during a heatwave and everyone was stressed out and exhausted.  We thought he was going to be miserable, that the whole thing would be a disaster because the man with the most contagious laugh was going to be a big cranky grump. But he thought it was all incredibly funny, and when we told him how stressed we were, he thought it was really hilarious. The guy was a huge relief, and we discovered that he really was the genuine article. 

Q. What doc do you wish you’d made?
A. The Cove. I love wild animal documentaries. 

Q. Which film at this festival is on your must-see list?
A. The Red Chapel, and also Velcrow Ripper’s film Fierce Light.

Q. Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock: how do you feel about their style of film-making?
A. It’s fashionable to criticize Michael Moore.  I’ve personally met the guy and he is a bit of a jerk. That said, those guys have improved the documentary for everyone.

Click here to watch a hilarious video of Doug Collins (the man with the contagious laugh) taking a tour of MTV and spreading the chuckles. 

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and Posted: May 08, 2009, 9:23 PM by Lia Grainger

There is also an excellent TED like presentation of Laughter by Albert at