"If laughter is such good medicine, why won't Medicare and Medicaid pay for it?" wrote humor columnist Art Buchwald in an editorial on laughter as medicine for the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"I am delighted that the AMA is starting to take laughter seriously," he wrote. "Perhaps we will see a whole new medical field with doctors specializing in laughterology. If they can't heal you, you can always go somewhere else for a second opinion."

But there's a problem in hospitals that makes it difficult for humor to catch on as effective therapy.

"How do you make someone laugh in a hospital after he's eaten the food?" Buchwald asks. "I maintain that everything that's wrong with people in the hospital comes down to the food. A person won't eat. So they take blood out of him and send it down to the lab. If they had the food examined, they'd know what's wrong."

Buchwald makes his living by making people laugh, and like many other people, his use of humor to deal with life's wounds began in childhood.

His mother died when he was an infant. Unable to care for four children, his father had to farm them out. As described by author Judith Viorst in "Necessary Losses," Buchwald lived in seven households during his first 16 years, including a stay at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn.

"I started using humor when I was a little kid," he says. "I was the class clown. Because I wanted attention and I found out I could make kids laugh."

In his mid-thirties, Buchwald became severely depressed. He was settled in Washington with his wife and three children; he was famous, successful, admired, liked -- and in pain. As he told Viorst: "In everybody's mind I had it made, except mine . . . I was really desperate. I needed help."

He got it, and kept writing funny things.

Later, when his wife, Ann, suffered a series of heart problems, with repeated hospitalizations, he never missed a deadline and his columns were as funny as ever. "That was my therapy," he said at the time.

"There's just no getting away from it -- when you laugh you feel better," he says today. "And when I can make people laugh and even laugh myself, I feel so much better."