It is April 1, 1978, and the editorial staff of the Satruday Review gathers to guard themselves from the annual humiliation of an April Fool's Day prank played on them by Norman Cousins, for 38 years their managing editor. The tension is high.
"If you get an unusual phone call today, think. If you get a strange package, think. And don't accept any of them," one staff-fer warns the assembled.
Then Counsins, who is absent at the warning session, sizes up the situation: "By 12:30 they are convinced the danger has passed," Cousins reasons, "that the big joke is that there was not going to be any."
By 12:45 the advance issues of the magazine arrive for the editorial meeting. They are printed upside down, and the printer has penned an apology to the publisher explaining that 300,000 copies had been printed upside down. (SR's circulation is over 500,000.) The staff is in a tizzy until they notice that Cousins doesn't say a word. Then, a sigh of relief. Only 50 copies are printed upside down. (Cousins ahd arranged for the printer's apology.)
A few minutes later an angry barrage of foul-mounted militant Syrian females storms the same meeting to protest a "Syrian Menace" headline that had appeared in the previous issue. Cousins had hiref the lot. An April Fool's bonus.
Besides the elaborate April Fool's jokes, he sees that "the publisher gets an occasional rubber hot from the office vendor. If we can't have two or three laughs during the day we count that day as lost." For Norman Cousins, his laugher is his Geritol.
While Cousins may not compete with vintage Woody Allen, we has a healthy laught of his own.
Laughter, he says, literally saved him from a crippling disease in 1964, and now he's about to take his side-splitting show on the road.
Cousins has resigned the top editorial position and will soon become a lecturer for the UCLA medical school's department of psychiatry and biobehavioural sciences. It is a career change that will allow him to pursue his "hunches" about the healing powers of positive emotions he discovered through personal experience.
Wayland by a debilitating case of degenerative connective tissues of the spine, Cousins was told that the had one chance in 500 of completely recovering. Unwilling to accept the gloomy prognosis, he dipped into his layman's knowledge of medicine.
"It was fairly well accepted that negative emotions such as hate, fear and rage produced a chemical reaction in the body, tearing it down. I thought it had to be axiomatic that the positive emotions of love, laughter and the will to live could work to promote the healing process."
Cousins at the time was lying flat on his back at Mount Zion Hospital, interrupted in his sleep for checks and medicine, with his food frequently overcooked - not a very amusing position to be in. He had his aspirin andPhenylbutazone. He gave up drugs althoug "every bone in my body felt as if it had been run over by a truck."
So Cousins designed a systematic regimen to cheer himself up.
The Cousins method was to ease the pain by having nurses read to him round the clock from the humor collections of E.B. White and Max East-man. But the most successful panacea by far were the reels of "Candid Camera" shows Allen Funt sent over.
"I made the joyous discovery that 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me a least two hours of pain-free sleep," he wrote in the Dec. 23, 1976, issue of the New Zealand Journal of Medicine. The effects would wear off, as they would with any drug, he would awake in pain and have the nurse run the reels through once again. There was too much guffawing going on for the other patients, they protested and Cousins moved to the Mayflower Hotel.
Within a few months the laughter, accompanied by huge does of Vitamin C as his only medication, tamed the degenarative disease into submission and he returned to work on a full-time basis.
The episode was not discussed in print until the publication of Adam Smith's "Powers of the Mind" in 1976. Cousins then wrote several articles himself just to set the record straight and was overwhelmed by the response. Many doctors as well as patients have written him encouraging his findings that he develop programs using books and tapes to be used in other hospitals.
"I belive that such programs will eventually be institutionalized in hospitals for the benefits of patients and I plan to take the requests seriously." Though he admits that "it's difficult to laugh n a fever - t does take a certain amount of ability to concentrate - but in many cases and where appropriate it can be an important part of the healing program. Good spirits are a vital part of life. Denying joy is one of the greatest deprivations on this planet."
In the name of good spirits, Cousins has for the past 30 year spread a combination of joy and confusion among his readers, both as a practical joker and parodist. Bogus ads, penned by Cousins, appear regularly in the personals column of the Saturday Review's classified section. Spoofs such as "Ph. D. desires biographical material - phots, letters, films-clips - on Malcolm T. Batt, train-caller at NYC Pennsy Station, 1912-1954. All items returned. Sr. Box M.B." are hunted out by readers "as if they were Easter eggs," and answered in a similarly cute fasion. His humor writing has expanded beyond Saturday Review with an annual club-in-cheek piece for Gold Digest written under the nom de plum K. Jason Sitewell (an anagram for "it's a joke, kid") the most recent being "How I Taught Golda Meir to Play Golf."
Campus life won't be all run and games. He will be lecturing on such as "the perception of the physician in literature and philosophy" and is "very interested in the physiology of creativity," as well as the pursuit of his lifelong interest in the science of medicine and healing.
"I don't want people to think that I am a know-nothing barging in from the outside. I going there more as a student than anything else." he feels that since he's not a mistionary he is in "a good position to see if any of my hunches about humor have scientific validity.". . . And see if he can develop a treatment for illness where the patient truly will say, "Doctor, I only laugh when it hurts."
A.F. Rasmussen, associate dean of UCLA's School of Medicine, said Cousins will be joined by other laymen in a developing area of the medical school that will combine programs of medicine, law and human values.
Rasmussen added that Cousin's healing theories are perceptive if not revolutionary. "I don't think it's anything new, but it is often neglected."
To lure Cousins, UCLA had to meet his demands. "The president of UCLA asked me what it would take to get me to come out to California. I said three things. First of all, a parking permit. He said, "That's easily taken care of, now what are the other two?' And I say, 'I forget.'"