A Laughter Guru on the Science of Ha-Ha-Ha

Robert Provine studies laughter (and tickling) at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Robert Provine studies laughter (and tickling) at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. (By Jay Paul For The Washington Post)
By Leah Ariniello
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 13, 2008

On the surface, Robert Provine appears to be your stereotypical scientist. With his beard, round glasses, khakis and sneakers, the 64-year-old's got the look down pat. His lab at the University of Maryland Baltimore County has an odor reminiscent of high school frog dissections, and he's quick to mention quirky things, such as how rats make great pets for kids because they're clean and smart.

His coolness factor, however, goes up a few notches when you find out that his science career focuses on something we all want more of: laughter.

For 15 years, in between teaching courses on such subjects as sensation and perception, the Columbia resident has carried out a slew of studies on laughter, including an acoustic analysis of yuks at the National Zoo's sound lab, an examination of his students' chuckles and an evaluation of thousands of episodes of conversational laughter detected during eavesdropping missions at malls, cocktail parties and on sidewalks. In 2000, he published a 258-page book deciphering the topic, "Laughter: A Scientific Investigation" (Viking Penguin).

We recently met up with Provine to talk about his work.

At dinner parties, how do guests react when they discover what you do for a living?

Everyone always seems interested. Then they ask if I am observing them.

Are you?

If I wasn't, I wouldn't be a good scientist. I think the only way to be successful, whether you are doing science or running a restaurant, is that you have to be totally engaged in what you're doing. You can't turn it on and off.

Do you consider yourself a big jokester?

I am quite capable of horrifying my family on occasion with maybe a goofy quality.

Do you feel like people expect you to be funny because you study laughter?

Not really. Not any more than a urologist is expected to exhibit his craft at a dinner party or something.

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